Four Essential Techniques to Understand Customer Behaviour

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under marketing product seed-stage

Customer pointing into distance

How to get insightful customer insights without spending too much on market research agencies. Discover four techniques you can use right now!

There’s no better way to to see a founder’s true colours than by asking about their customers. As an experienced product guy, I can instantly see through founders with a weak understanding of their customers. They’ll often talk in generalities about industry-level concepts, making sweeping claims that are obvious and lack insight.

In contrast, founders who understand their customers are full of insight, and they have the kind of specialist, specific knowledge that only someone with high levels of customer contact knows.

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The classic advice is to ‘speak to customers’. But the best founders don’t just speak to customers, they listen to them every chance they get.

Here are the four things that product-focused companies can do to gain a much deeper understanding of their customers.

1) Interviewing users

User interviews allow you to understand your customers’ existing behaviours, motivations, and goals. I spend 30 to 45 minutes on each, and I aim for five interviews per week during a product’s early stages.

User interviews should not dwell on customer opinions nor should they focus on what customers think they would or wouldn’t do in specific situations. Generalizations about how they think the world should be are to be avoided.

Instead, user interviews should pry into the specifics of past behaviours, either with your product, a competitive product, or a substitute set of activities. By the end of a customer interview, you should be able to articulate a customer’s:

  • Motivations
  • Intent
  • Triggers
  • Specific behaviours
  • World-view

For an in-depth look at the questions to ask, check out What You Should Never Ask Your Customer. In addition, here is a generic set of interview questions that I use in interviews. Feel free to use this as the base for your own user interviews.

During the interview, I make a note of direct quotes. When we translate other people’s words into our own, we lose critical information — and when we share these ‘Chinese whispers’ with our team, we can often lose track of the original meaning. Preserving the original language prevents the chance of this happening.

2) Automating emails and surveys

If you’re using surveys to build statistics, you’re missing out. A great product isn’t built on statistics — it’s built on insights. I prefer to use surveys with a short number of open questions that allow me to learn something new. I’ve become obsessed with word choice as a way to get a better sense of my customers’ world views.

In ‘How to Get Amazing Customer Insights Automatically’, I shared with you the exact email flows and surveys that I use in my products. These include:

  • Founder reach outs
  • Product/market fit surveys
  • Premium member surveys
  • Satisfaction surveys
  • Cancellation surveys

To capture insights from emails, I use Zapier to add emails from customers into a spreadsheet, which allows me to do more quantitative analysis on the free text. 

3) Performing usability tests

After 12 years of designing, I’m constantly humbled by the confused faces of users testing designs that I thought were battle ready. It pays to spend time testing before sending designs into development.

I prepare my mock-ups using Sketch and then ask customers to tell me what they are looking at. I give them a goal and ask what buttons they would push and what they’d expect to happen if they did.

In an ideal world, you could show designs to actual users of your product. However, in the real world, it’s unlikely that you have a queue of users outside the door, so here are a few things you can do:

  • Pay people to take usability tests — this is the most expensive option, but a lot of big tech companies do it to measure reactions under controlled conditions.
  • Use an online service like — these services find your target audience for you and administer tests online. However, they require your site to be live, making it less useful for testing design.
  • Find the nearest person to you and show them your designs — don’t underestimate how obvious UX mistakes can be to virtually anyone. This is the cheapest and fastest approach, and it’s great for getting a sense check.

Testing with at least two or three people will fish out 80% of usability issues. Identifying these issues early in the design process is far cheaper than finding them further down the development process where changing them will involve writing code.

4) Analysing user behaviour

Behaviours trump opinions, so I spend a lot of my time analysing user behavioural data. In my current stack, I use Google Analytics, Facebook Ads analytics, Hotjar, and Metabase. If you haven’t heard of Metabase, it’s one of the best-kept secrets in tech. It’s incredibly powerful and it’s free.

Metabase is an open source business intelligence tool that allows you to run specific queries against your databases on the fly. You can write queries for cohort analysis, customer behaviour flows, and operational metrics. Once you create a query, you can save it as a chart, place it on a dashboard, or schedule it to be sent to your email or Slack on a regular basis.

If you haven’t written a SQL query before, it’s worth learning how. Not only will you understand your customers better, but you’ll also have a better handle on your data structure, which gives you a deeper insight into how your tech works. You can get started in an hour or so and writing them can be quite fun.

Once upon a time, there was a startup and every single person used data platforms every single day to drive their work. This is the fairytale, but in reality, while data can be extremely useful for most roles in a company, not everyone is inclined to hunt for metrics every day. I recommend having at least one person in every company who takes responsibility for analysing data and reporting on the insights.

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Build something customers want

Listening to customers is a bit like listening to your team. We pay a lot of lip service to it, but the amount of time we dedicate to it is less than we’d have people believe.

Listening carefully to the exact words that customers use can have a huge return. I’m not a big fan of generalizations — I like the specific details that shine a light on how people see the world. That’s the level of care you’ll need to create something your customers will love.

Continue reading about product research:

Originally published Jun 25, 2019, last updated Jul 28, 2023

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