Xiaochang Li is the cofounder of Somaware, an eyes-free, ears-free, hands-free wearable navigation device. This post is part of the Lessons Learned series featuring NYU entrepreneurs’ first-hand accounts of challenges faced in starting a business and the lessons learned along the way.


One of the first things I noticed when my co-founder, Mike, and I began speaking to people about tactile navigation devices was how just about everyone had ideas about what (and whom) they could be useful for.

It was encouraging, of course, to see that people not only understood what we were trying to do, but also found the idea compelling enough to begin imagining their own scenarios for how it might be used. And admittedly, I was a bit taken by the thrill and novelty of that kind of immediate comprehension and enthusiasm.

As a PhD student, I’m more accustomed to polite nodding and the occasional glazed expression when I try to describe my work to people outside my field.

But, in trying to go from a cool concept to a functioning company, we needed to narrow down who our customers are and how they would use our tool. Yet, the more we talked to people, the more the use cases seemed to proliferate. Figuring out our unique use case, and by extension our customer, quickly became a top priority in our customer development research.

During our customer interviews, we began to track, differentiate and categorize various use cases, such as different kinds of cycling habits, activities, preferences, and environments, hoping to find a pattern. While we uncovered some great insights that will certainly influence design and functionality of our device, we were still failing to identify anything that resembled a clear signal.

Interest remained scattershot, and it began feeling like a whole lot of noise.

patternrecognition Getting beyond the use case: How to get the most out of customer interviews

Over time I began to realize that thinking of the customer as an extension of a use case was the problem. We had become so focused on figuring out the use case that we were reducing our customers to their activities and attributes — the surface data.

We had to get beyond the visible traits and behaviors to the social factors that shaped their key ideas, values and priorities. In other words, we didn’t need to look more closely at the customer. We needed to look from their vantage point and understand how they see themselves.

This is, of course, far easier said than done, but through our mistakes and the advice of those around us, I’ve picked up a few helpful tactics for getting into your customer’s mindset:

1. Manufacture distance

When conducting customer interviews, it’s easy to assume you know what the customer means when they say something is interesting, or frustrating, or useful and so on, particularly since many of our product ideas come from challenges we face ourselves.

Instead of assuming familiarity, imagine yourself as an alien: smart and curious enough to manage interstellar travel, but completely lacking any kind of context for what everyday life is like for your customer. Asking your customer to explain what they mean, even (or especially) when it seems obvious often leads to great insights.

For instance, one of our best discoveries about what our customers needed came out of asking cyclists what they meant when they said they looked for “pleasant” roads. Asking them to elaborate on that single word led to the understanding the detailed criteria they have for evaluating streets and how it’s underserved by most mapping apps.

2. Look for (their) surprises

Finding out things that surprise you is great, but one of the best pieces of practical interviewing advice I’ve ever received was to ask our customer what they found surprising about something they did or used.

Surprises are informative because they reveal assumptions and expectations that are, by definition, deeply ingrained and largely invisible. In the same way that we only become aware of the electrical grid when there’s a blackout, asking your customer what didn’t happen as expected can tell you about the assumptions that make up their mindset.

3. Rethink the genre

Customers are, in a way, kind of like television genres. Over time, we’ve developed a lot of standard categories for defining them, such as demographics.

But genres aren’t authoritative categories; they’re habits. There’s no reason TV shows have to be grouped as police procedurals or soap operas. You could just as easily decide to define a genre based on shows that take place in Chicago.

Similarly, with your customers, sometimes you have to step back and ask yourself if you’re defining them by the most relevant characteristics. If you thought your customers were young and urban, but discovered that interest is popping up across all kinds of age and geographic groups without any kind of pattern, maybe you’re defining the genre wrong. Maybe your customer is actually people who like small dogs.

In general, what I’ve learned in the past few weeks is that in order to get into my customer’s frame of reference, I have to step out of my own, and let go of a lot of the habits and assumptions I’ve built up over time.