As soon as we have a business idea, it might be tempting to put up an online survey to quickly gather some insights to clarify our thoughts and hopefully get a green light to proceed. However, there are at least three reasons why this is not a good idea.

Preparing an online survey may be the first thing that comes to mind to gather customer insights.
In fact it’s easy-peasy: join a free tool, brainstorm the most burning questions we have about the new product and share the survey on Facebook or LinkedIn hoping for a snowball effect. It all sounds like a brilliant idea.

However, there are at least three reasons why online surveys at a very early stage of a new product definition are more likely to produce harm than benefit, and might end up to provide incorrect information to guide us through the new product definition.

  1. Survey are faceless. By hoping in a snowball effect produced by my contacts, we’d be self selecting the sample based on our network. But are these people really the target market for the business idea or the new product? We need to hear from prospective customers, better if early adopters. Any other insights may be confusing, and may let us think that we are armed with information while we’d just be looking in the wrong direction. As an alternative, we should instead make an assumption on the target customers are most likely to feel the pain we are willing to solve, and meet face to face with a few of them. These are called Customer Discovery interviews (read more about how to Customer Discovery interviews, and what to ask Customers to validate our problem assumptions)
  2. Surveys provide limited information. A good share of what we normally get when interacting with customers is non-verbal communication. We can’t read between the lines when reading survey responses, while we can do it by meeting face to face with our customers. Moreover, most of them don’t know what they want and generally can’t articulate their purchasing motivations or pains. By meeting them in person, we have the chance to let them focus and communicate, go through their workflows and ask for their motivations. In this way we discover new problems potentially more critical than my initial assumptions, all for the benefit of a winning new business idea.
  3. Surveys don’t provide context and can be misinterpreted. When sending a survey around, it’s very common to try to minimise the effort required in order to increase the response rate. We promise “it just takes five minutes”, and reduce the lines of text and the number of questions and options to make sure more people will complete the survey.
    The problem is: there are only a very limited questions we can ask on an online survey, and whatever the questions, they will be mostly a limited number of options from which respondents can choose. This is awesome to confirm what we know already. But how about what we don’t know we don’t know? What if the assumptions about customers problems are wrong, and they have some more painful problems to solve? We need customer to tell us about their workflows and motivations, and this needs time, connection, empathy. It needs a clear understanding of the context. Something we can only do through a face to face interview.

Quantitative researches like – properly administered to a professionally selected sample – surveys are effective tools to quantify assumptions that we have validated before. Things like how many of my customers use Netflix, or what is the average weekly expenditure in groceries are answers that could come from a survey. Surveys can effectively quantify attitudes, opinions, behaviours, and if the sampling is correct, will help represent the broad customer segment.

However, if we want to know what customers are most frustrated about when watching TV or what they find more annoying when shopping at Tesco, we’ll need to meet people face to face and have proper qualitative interviews.
Meeting with customers will provides us with an understanding of underlying reasons, opinions, and motivations behind their behaviour. It will validate our assumptions about the problems we want to solve, will inform the value proposition, and at the same time, we will have the chance to develop ideas or hypotheses for a potential quantitative research.
You can find here some tips about running successful qualitative interviewshere which questions to ask to validate customers pain points and here tips about recruiting customers to interview, which is usually the trickiest part of the job.

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