Designer, Know Your Customer – 5 Tips


Lee-Bath Nelson  

Mixee Labs 3D printed bobble heads

As a continuation of our Make a Living series, today we will tackle one of the most important sections: knowing your customer. It is important because it is so fundamental to all aspects of your business. Designers are entrepreneurs, and as such should heed the advice of the many books and blogs dedicated to (mostly hi-tech) entrepreneurship: know your customer inside and out! There are, of course, some adjustments to be made to apply advice from a hi-tech entrepreneur to a designer, but most of the advice is solid business advice that applies with very little adjustment. In knowing your customer, for example, no major adjustment is needed. So, what do all the entrepreneurship gurus advise? Here are 5 tips to follow, with examples for product designers.

Disciplined Entrepreneurship path from Bill Aulet's Book

1. Know, Hone, and Refine Your Market Segment

In his great book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, Bill Aulet outlines the 24 steps of getting to a sustainable business. Aulet writes about hi-tech start ups, but a lot of it is highly applicable to industrial designers and their products. The light blue steps (see above, steps 1-5 and 9) are about getting to know your customer. The first step in this journey is Market Segmentation.

Market segmentation is asking: what is your product (sub-)category and are you selling to consumers or businesses? For example, if you are selling a car smartphone holder, earphone organizers, and an iphone stand, like bhold does, your market segment is mobile accessories for consumers (people are more likely to use these accessories for personal, rather than business, use). If you are selling just desks and storage systems, like Normal Projects‘ (renamed MKCA) KG below, your market segment is office furniture/decor for consumers. If your desks and storage are for cubicles, your market segment is office furniture for business. In the case of KG, we can further refine the segment: home office furniture/decor for small spaces (home office implies it’s for consumers). Notice that we are trying to be specific, the more specific we can get the easier the next steps will be for us. On the other hand, when designing the product we must be careful not to be overly specific or else our potential buyers will be a very small group (more below), making it harder on us to reach enough customers to sell the product to….

Normal Projects' K-G system with 3D printed screens

2. Identify Your Target Customer

Market segments, even if refined, are by nature large and general. The mobile accessories segment, for example, includes screen protectors, trinkets to hang off of old Nokia phones, pouches, bags, etc. Some segments can be further refined by describing the kind of customer that would use them. Even if your segment is finely diced, defining the characteristics of your target customer is important. The described accessories from bhold are aimed for people on the go (busy stay at home parents, professionals working in cafes or attending meetings, or commuters). Your target customer is who you will target your marketing to, and who you should be thinking of when you design and refine your product. For example, people on the go will find it hard to be tethered to an electricity jack, so any electronics aimed for them will have to include batteries. Obvious? Here’s a less obvious one: if you are designing a product for accountants, what should you avoid?* At times, it seems tough to know how to answer questions like this for the target customer since it is a nebulous group. Have no fear – in the next tips, we will further develop this target customer until he/she becomes very tangible and relatable.

Omote 3D Shashin kan - Escalator

3. Size Your Customer Group

It is important at this point to check that there are enough people (or businesses) in your target customer group to warrant your design and marketing efforts. If you are selling a 3D printable, commercialized digital design then you potentially have global reach and no inventory or logistics costs. This means your hurdle will be lower and you can make a product specific to a small group (like 5 year old children with an amputated pinkie) especially if you have good access to this group. However, if you have to manufacture a minimum number of items in advance, then store them, and manage their logistics, and ship them, your costs are much higher. In this case you have to make sure that there are many potential early adopters (see below) within your shipping radius. With a smaller group you will not be able to recoup your early investment into design, production, inventory, logistics, and shipping. In either case, the larger the potential target audience the more likely you are to sell in large quantities. For example, if you designed an accessory that is only compatible with the latest Nokia Windows phone, you might want to consider an iPhone (or Galaxy) compatible version as well. If it is a digital design you are selling, the added cost of this version will be small but the added potential target market much larger.

bhold 3D printed bsteady car smartphone holder

4. Create a Workable Customer Profile

Profile your “early adopter”, the customer that will buy your new product early and can later be used as a reference for others. In the case of the bsteady, above, from bhold (which I, for example, bought), the customer is someone that needs his smartphone during driving. An early adopter spends quite a bit of time in his car, values convenience, and maybe thinks it’s cool to have something useful that is 3D printed. Ideally, this person has tried other ways of holding their smartphone which did not work out, and every so often their iPhone goes sailing out of the cup holder on a vigorous turn landing in a tight spot that is virtually unreachable (ok, so in this case I’m speaking from personal experience). The early adopter must be adept at purchasing online (since the product is offered online).

It is important to figure out what would compel an early adopter to look for this product online and want to buy it. In my case it was fishing for my iPhone from under the rental car seat the same day I met Susan Taing from bhold at a Maker Faire. But it’s better not to depend on coincidence. Clay Christensen (of Innovator’s Dilemma fame) suggests that we should think of customers in terms of the jobs they want to get done and how the product gets the job done for them. In this example, the job could be: see and hear Waze driving instructions on my smartphone, safely, at all times (including during and after sharp turns!). This would imply that a key feature of the design should be stability during turns and that perhaps advertising on Waze might be interesting for this product. Interestingly, thinking about jobs comes more naturally to designers, I believe, than to hi-tech execs.  Alan Klement and others are trying hard to educate start ups to think in terms of customer jobs (as illustrated below), but it is an uphill battle. One of Clay Christensen’s suggestions is to ask (here in a story about the job of a fast food milkshake – sounds weird but it makes sense) – too bad the customer profile can’t answer… Or can it?

Omote 3D Shashin Kan was the first exhibition by the Creative Lab Party. It's a pop-up store, where you can create a 3D printed miniature figurine of yourself.

5. Find Your Persona

The persona is a real life person who fits the profile (mostly, no one is perfect…) and could be an early adopter. The advantage of a real life, representative, person is that you can ask them questions and get answers – they’re not always the ones you thought you’d get. For example, you can ask people what websites and social networks they spend time on. I asked this question of my company’s persona, expecting to hear facebook, twitter or maybe linkedin, but instead I found out we should open a Pinterest account… It is best to find someone geographically close so you can meet in person. Sometimes during the interview you realize that your persona is not likely to buy your product – learn from this (why, what would make a difference, what other product would they be interested in and why) and find another persona for this product line.

While interviewing your persona, make sure to glean information that will help you market your product to her and to others like her. Would it be useful to bundle products on your website? Does she always (or never) try to buy on sale? Does she respond to email mailers on specials? What are price points she thinks of in the context of similar products (take this with a grain of salt and check out our post on the psychology of pricing)? What marketplaces or other websites would she look for such an item on? What keywords would she google looking for it? Remember to let the interviewee talk much more than the interviewer. Finally, connect with your persona on at least one social network where they are active – you will get a treasure trove of information this way without bothering them.

Throughout the rest of this series, tips we provide will need information learned about your customer to work. Even in the earlier quality content post we talked about keeping your content consistent (e.g., tweeting every day and roughly at the same time) but the frequency and timing of your content should be influenced by your customers’ habits. For example, if most of your customers are parents that put their kids to bed and only then check out their social networks, time your content accordingly.

If you are interested in some questions to start off your interview with your customer, let me know in the comments section. It is really a crucial part of the business and key to making a good living from design. Check out our Pinterest Make a Living Board for some interesting infographics on online marketing, social media, consumer psychology, and pricing items online. On our other board you can see some 3D printed design inspiration.


* The answer is numbers written in red – red denotes losses in financial reports and therefore has a negative connotation to accountants and investors.


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