7 Decision traps of effective customer listening

I’m continually fascinated at how good product design & development can come down to basic psychology. I’ve previously written about how to use Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory for product design by understanding consumer decision biases. However, customers and developers alike can fall into the same “decision traps”, as my friend and former business partner Professor J. Edward Russo, would put it.

Here we’ll look at some of these common decision traps, and how they can become roadblocks to qualitative customer research, on the road to finding product/market fit.

The 7 Decision Traps

  1. Confirmation Bias: This occurs when you gravitate toward the evidence that reaffirms your original hypothesis or design. The “focus group” setting can often further contribute to this bias, as participants often go out of their way to avoid telling you your baby is ugly.
  2. Reactance: Almost the opposite of #1, is the urge to do implement exactly what the customer tells you to do. While it’s easy to turn a customer wish-list into a task-list, guiding development via your product vision is especially critical for discontinuous or disruptive innovations.
  3. Availability Heuristic: Customer stories tend to be most salient, and anecdotes tend to have a lot more social legs. Resist the urge to gravitate to these and spend more time meticulously recording and rigorously analyzing your data.
  4. Negativity Bias: Often the negative feedback is the most tempting to act upon, since it’s actionable. Negative feedback must be separated in two groups: that from the people can live quite happily without your product (or those who you are too far away from satisfying) vs. that from people who like you’re product but need to see some tweaks. Moreover, though also spend time deeply understanding what customers love and why — building on love not only works in life, it also works in product development too.
  5. Representativeness Heuristic: Weighing all feedback as equal, can result in a disjointed product experience. Careful segmentation and synthesis of all of your data can help to guide development, when prioritized by your product vision.
  6. Focusing Effect: It’s easy to listen to what users are doing in the “now”, and their immediate reactions. Look for signs of what else they are doing around your product experience, such as exporting your data into a spreadsheet, building add-ons, or hacking it to solve another problem for themselves –> those are the lead users you want to build around.
  7. False Consensus: In assembling a group of captive customers, it may be tempting to use their listening session, as a marketing commercial. However, doing so assumes that customers think the same way you do, and the session is a mechanism for building consensus and moving on. This approach really isn’t customer listening at all, and in effect is a one-way lecture.

Decision Traps can impede your search for truth
Qualitative feedback sessions are integral to understanding the full customer experience and psyche. However, falling prey to the seductive allure of these decision traps can cause you to overlook the real gold. These traps stem from need to synthesize a lot of information under the time pressure of getting a product to market or making revenue projections. The increased need to quickly synthesize and implement feedback in turn fuels these biases, and causes teams to fall into the traps.

You can avoid these by removing the artificial pressures by conducting qualitative feedback sessions much more often, and throughout all parts of the design and development process. Secondly, maintaining a nearly religious commitment to collecting, quantifying, and analyzing all collected data can remove the allure of making snap judgments. But let me turn to someone who says it better than I ever could:

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
-SIr Winston Churchill


For More Information…
Winning Decisions by J. Edward Russo

J. Edward Russo’s book, Winning Decisions.

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