3 Reasons You Can’t Just Ask Customers What They want


Do you like apples or bananas?
Coffee or tea? Pepperoni or cheese
Simple questions result in
simple answers which, when
researching and developing a
product is every product owner’s
dream. “Just tell me what you
want, and I’ll make it.” Quick. Easy.

But herein lies the problem;
product development isn’t normally
quick, easy or simple. Asking these
types of questions, as tempting as
they are to ask, bring about certain
dangers that can result in skewed
results, missing information, and,
potentially, failed products. Listed
below are the three primary
reasons why asking customers
direct questions can be a very
dangerous endeavor.
The Customer Doesn’t Always
Know What They Want

The first reason you can’t just ask
customers what they want is that
they aren’t always attuned to what
they really need. Steve Jobs
famously said, “People don’t know
what they want until you show it to
Typically, it is easier for people to
review and comment on something
that is placed in front of them
rather than asking to imagine
something that doesn’t yet exist.
This can mean anything from
developing a fully functioning
prototype to a clickable
presentation, or even simple, hand-
drawn “screens” to help customers
get a sense of the experience.
Additionally, it is also difficult for
customers to articulate what it is
they want or need, especially if it
relates to a topic that is not
something they often think about.
People have a tendency to use
what they know, which is why user
adoption for certain products may
take longer to catch on than

The Human Desire to Develop
Patterns and Habits

The second danger in asking
customers direct questions is the
human desire to develop patterns
and habits. Sigmund Freud called
this phenomenon “repetition
compulsion,” in that humans seek
comfort in the familiar as well as a
desire to return to an earlier known
state of things.

What is even more desirable than
returning to an earlier state of
things is the desire to maintain
certain habits. In the book The
Power of Habit: Why We Do What
We Do in Life and Business , Charles
Duhigg spends much of the book
describing various examples of
products and adjoining habits
while using a simple “Cue –>
Routine –> Reward” diagram that
illustrates the psychology behind
how habits are formed and

These habits are sometimes formed
over long periods of time, which
makes trying to break or introduce
new habits an extremely difficult
and delicate process. During our
user research phase, we try to
avoid asking questions about
potentially disrupting a customer’s
current habit, instead asking
questions that are related.
For example, in attempting to
understand how a person organizes
a party or trip, we may ask them to
tell us how they typically go grocery
shopping. This way we can begin to
understand from a contextual
standpoint, whether they are more
strictly organized (have a specific
list of items written down and go
directly for those specific items) or
they are more casual and
spontaneous (venturing up and
down each aisle and choosing
items as they go).
Rather than asking individuals to
“imagine a new world” that would
alter the current habits of their
lives resulting in potential
resistance, we are able to gain a
better understanding of their
natural tendencies, current
mentalities and preferences, which
results in more rich and insightful

Our Overwhelming Need to
Please Others

The final risk is people’s
overwhelming desire to be a part of
something, to be well liked, and
the need to please others. While
this is a slightly easier peril to
overcome than the others, it is still
important to understand how this
behavior can influence individuals
and skew results or information.
Often during interviews, customers
will attempt to answer a question
the way they think they should
answer the question or provide an
answer they think is “correct.”

of the primary causes is the asking
of what are called “leading
questions.” In other words,
questions that are asked in such a
way that there are only one or two
answers that a person can respond
Likewise, questions such as, “Do
you like coffee or tea?” leaves little
room for original thoughts or
answers because the question is
too rigid and the answers too pre-
defined. These types of questions
establish a barrier to discovering
how people truly feel about a
subject, which can be counter-
productive and result in unusable
Interviews are treated as more of a
conversation than a survey or
interrogation in order to build a
rapport with customers so they feel
comfortable enough to share the
stories and events of their lives. It
is through these stories that we
uncover an individual’s thought
processes, how they react in various
situations, and additional insights
that point to how they truly feel
about certain products,
applications and experiences.
The dangers mentioned in this post
are not to say that “this-or-that”
questions are completely useless.
In certain situations and settings,
such as AB usability testing, these
types of questions can be quite
valuable and informative. It is
during discovery research, when
you are trying to understand
customers’ needs, desires and pain
points regarding a product, that
these questions can be detrimental
to a project.
So when you’re looking to improve
an existing product, develop a new
experience or enter a new
marketplace, remember there are
no quick and simple answers when
it comes to understanding what
customers want or need.

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