Customer Development Playbook

Table of Contents




Step 1: Set Up

Step 2: Organize

Step 3: Schedule Interviews

Step 4: Interview Customers

Step 5: Synthesize

Step 6: Determine Next Steps



Our playbook: Who it’s for

Ahoy! This playbook is for Lab Zero’s product teams, and our client partners, to conduct meaningful customer development. It is geared towards smaller teams of 2 to 5 contributors, but is also applicable to solo contributors and larger teams. Everyone on a Lab Zero product team is capable of talking with customers—not just designers, product managers, or domain experts.

Why customer development

Example #1: Health insurance

Think back to the last time you had to sign up for healthcare. Maybe it was through an online marketplace or an HR website while onboarding for a new job. Were you able to easily compare and understand the insurance plans?

American health insurance and HR websites make it hard to compare plans side by side, especially as you compare more than two or three plans. Costs are hard to calculate, such as premiums vs. co-pays for specific procedures. These sites notoriously focus on business needs over the needs of everyday people like you and me. As a customer, I need to compare plans, see what I can afford, see what my options are with preexisting conditions… the list goes on and on. Yet I can barely understand what I’m buying.

At Lab Zero, we don’t want our customers to have this kind of an experience. That’s why we advocate for talking to customers about their needs. When we talk about customer development, we are talking about stepping away from our desks to test hypotheses with customers. It’s a subset of user research, and is our umbrella term for iteratively clarifying who our target customer segments are.

Example: Survey emailed to customers from banks

Example #2: Email surveys

In this second example, companies like banks notoriously email generic surveys to customers to ask for feedback. These surveys typically ask for the customer to rate the bank on a scale from ‘1 to 10’. At best, the bank can look for quantitative trends. But it’s very difficult to get to the root cause of a customer satisfaction rating using a survey. Survey respondents don’t like to answer open-ended questions. Knowing what questions to ask often depends on observing a person’s tone of voice or body language. With the right learning goals and set of questions, the bank can learn more by talking directly with customers.

Product teams often forget to ask customers for feedback. Some teams assume quantitative survey data is sufficient. Some don’t know how to approach their customers, or what to ask. Others are afraid of negative feedback. Others might think they do not have time, and fear blocking the development team. By not talking with customers, teams miss out on critical information, which can help a product deliver value and achieve product-market fit.

When to use this playbook

This playbook can be used at all stages of a product development cycle. Teams often associate user research activities as a ‘phase zero’ before development kicks off, but we find more success when the team prioritizes customer development at all stages. We find it just as important to speak to customers as we iterate and refine a product as we do during an early discovery phase of work.

How to use this playbook

In this playbook, we share some of Lab Zero’s strategies for setting up hypotheses and learning goals, conducting interviews with customers, and making sense of insights.

There are two main sections:

  1. Principles: These guiding principles and mindset serve as a framework throughout the customer development process.

  2. Process: These steps are the foundation to conducting customer development while staying grounded in outcomes. Through these steps, we have included recommendations and templates to get started.


Value of empathy

We are motivated to understand and solve people’s problems. Other people’s problems are interesting, especially when we are in a position to solve them.

Goal of learning

We focus on what the team wants to learn. Learning directly from our customers will signal if our team is on the right track and is building something customers find valuable. Once we start learning their pains and goals, we start to uncover how to address their key problems with a valuable solution.

Outcomes, not outputs

Customer development should result in insights into customer behavior rather than ideas for features. Focus on outcomes, the changes in customer behavior we want to see, rather than features. Remember that delivering a product no one values or wants is much less important than understanding the customer’s root problems, pains, and goals. Because it doesn’t matter how many features our product has if they don’t serve our customer’s needs.

Full team collaboration

Everyone on the product team can help with customer development. Insights should be shared so the full team can make informed, evidence-based decisions.

Continuous feedback loop

Talking with customers can be light, flexible, and an ongoing priority to keep the team on track. Customer development can be done at any stage of a project. It is not ‘done’ before developers kick off work (waterfall) or as ‘phase zero’ of a project. What we learn may lose relevance as time goes on, so it’s critical to continue talking with customers because context can change.

Process at a glance

At Lab Zero, talking to customers is a critical part of our product design and development process. It is an ongoing, foundational part of all projects and requires the whole team’s support to be of any value.

  1. Set Up

  2. Organize

  3. Schedule Interviews

  4. Interview Customers

  5. Synthesize

  6. Determine Next Steps

Step 1: Set Up

First, we like to assess our existing and potential customers. We start by deciding team roles and responsibilities, assessing where we are today with customer development, and stating our team’s internal learning goals. The following set up activities do not have to be done in a certain order. Set up depends on what we know and what gaps we have.

Access Lab Zero’s Set Up Template here.

Organize roles

These tasks are geared towards smaller teams of 2 to 5 contributors, but are applicable to solo contributors and larger teams. Remember, it’s best if the full team participates and has clear ownership of these tasks:

  • Lead: Responsible for driving the five steps of the customer development plan

  • Scheduler: Responsible for obtaining customer contact information and scheduling interviews

  • Interviewer: Responsible for leading the interviews

    • Needs to be comfortable leading conversation with a customer, setting context, and asking questions

    • Does not need to be a domain expert to interview someone—sometimes it actually helps to not have previous knowledge when interviewing a customer

  • Notetaker: Responsible for taking notes during each interview

    • Great role for people less comfortable leading a conversation

    • Great way to involve team members with less time available; someone can be Notetaker for just one or two interviews

    • Great for teammates who want to hear firsthand from customers but who are not typically customer-facing

    • Needs to determine if/how they plan to record the interview

    • Can be served by Interviewer recording the interview if a notetaker is not available

  • Advocate: Responsible for sharing insights to the team, facilitating sensemaking efforts, demonstrating any results to the team, and demonstrating value to leadership

Assess where we are today

Here are some questions we discuss to align the team’s priorities, and uncover assumptions.

  • Do we have any learning goals? What are we most curious about our customers? (See next section)

  • Is the product live and do we already have existing customers?

  • Are we trying to identify new customer segments?

  • Who on the team already talks to customers? e.g. product leads, user researchers, sales, marketing…

  • Are we already doing customer development and talking to customers? What have we learned so far?

  • Who do we want to meet, and why? How can we contact those customers?

  • Are we having trouble identifying customers? Can we talk to subject matter experts or stakeholders to get unstuck? If not, who can we ask for guidance?

State the team’s learning goals

We articulate what we are trying to learn from customers. This step seems obvious, but writing down learning goals can be the best way to get the full team on the same page. Learning goals are most effective when the team gets aligned on them, as well as the roadmap and product vision. Often they’re inspired by the team’s curiosities.

  • What do we think we know about our customers, and is it still relevant? How do we know that’s still correct?
  • What don’t we know about our customers?
  • When it comes to our customers, what are we curious about?
  • What are our riskiest assumptions?
  • Why does a customer have a problem?
  • What does the customer do to solve this problem (without using our product)?
  • How does our product currently serve the customer?
  • How does our competition solve the problem better than we do?

Establishing the team’s learning goals is a great opportunity to involve teammates who do not typically help with customer development, stakeholders, and executives. Developers often feel disconnected from customers, yet often have ideas for how to improve the product. Stakeholders and executives are typically focused on business objectives over customer objectives, and can benefit from hearing from customers firsthand.

Draft a script of questions

While learning goals are internal facing and focused on what the team wants to learn, the next step is to draft external facing questions appropriate to ask customers. Drafting questions is best done after stating the learning goals.

We use the following guidelines for drafting questions:

  • Questions should tie back to the learning goals
  • Ask questions about the customer as opposed to our existing or proposed solution or idea
  • Ask questions that try to invalidate our hypothesis
  • Don’t ask leading questions
  • Don’t ask questions about the future. For example: “If we built this future solution, would you use it?”

    Customer Development Labs: “When you use the word ‘would’, you’re making a thinly veiled attempt to validate your product… not their problem.”

  • Don’t ask questions about averages; instead, we like to ask about the last time a problem occurred or they tried to do something, in order to get specific responses.

Here are sample questions we like to ask customers:

  • What is the hardest part about your problem?
  • Can you tell me about the last time your problem happened? Or the time before? Why was that hard?
  • What, if anything, have you done to solve your problem?
  • What don’t you love about the solutions you have tried?
  • How often do you experience your problem?
  • Today, how much are you spending to solve your problem?
  • Where do you find information about your problem?
  • If you could wave a magic wand to fix things, what would you wish for?
  • Have we missed anything else you expected or wanted to talk about today? (Great last question to ask)

Step 2: Organize

Once we have identified our target customers, learning goals, and potential questions, it’s time to get organized. Ideally, this step happens before scheduling interviews. Can we call up a customer at this point? Yes, of course. Can we start learning from customers and improve the product without taking notes? Sure. But for larger teams or customer development plans, organization is key.

Create a shared folder

Start by creating a shared folder on your team’s drive and populate it with the following.

  • Project summary document for all details from set up (step 1)
  • Interview tracker
  • Interview script template
  • Folder for interview notes (one document per interview)

Create an interview tracker

Interview trackers serve two purposes: 1) a place to save the list of customers we plan to interview and 2) one stop shop for putting all documentation in one place. For us, this means creating a table with rows for interviews and columns for contact information, interview status, and more. If multiple people will be conducting interviews, we include a column for ‘ownership’ to identify who is taking the lead on the interview. The ‘status’ column gives stakeholders a quick view on progress to see which interviews are completed and in progress.

Interview trackers are great because they can easily be shared as a link and pinned to a Slack channel. Since virtually no one wants to read lengthy research documentation, trackers are often well received because the viewer can click into documentation if they want to learn more. Interview trackers do not replace CRM tools, but are similar in helping the team coordinate who speaks to specific customers. They are also helpful providing background information for longer running efforts. If we plan to speak with a customer, we can first search if anyone else on the team has spoken with them in the past.

Access Lab Zero’s Interview Tracker Template here.

Example Interview Tracker

Create an interview template for note taking and documentation

Next, we recommend creating a template for note taking so that we can copy and paste a new document as we schedule interviews. We like putting placeholders for ‘next steps’, ‘open questions’ and key insights’ above the raw note.

Access Lab Zero’s Interview Notes Template here.

Step 3: Schedule Interviews

Once our customer development plan is set up, we are ready to coordinate interviews with our targets. We add names of target customers to the interview tracker and determine their contact information, or if we need an introduction. We then establish who can work on which customers, by assigning who will lead the conversation and who can join to take notes. This is a great time to invite silent participants, too, if helpful. From there, we start reaching out to target customers to schedule an interview.

It is important to set context. Customers will likely not accept the invitation if they do not understand the purpose of this interview. After we confirm an interview, we send a calendar invitation with logistics such as the dial in number or meeting location. Finally, we like to send a reminder to the customer the day before the interview to confirm the time.

Sample email to request an interview with a customer

Step 4: Interview Customers

At this point, we are finally ready to meet with customers! To start the interview, we do the following.

  • Introduce ourselves
  • Thank the customer for their time
  • Ask for consent to record the interview
  • Remind the customer that anything we hear will only be used for internal purposes and will not be shared
  • Restate the purpose of the interview
  • Ask if they have any questions before asking our first question.

We keep the following interview techniques in mind to ensure effective communication.

Work from the script of questions, but be flexible to go off script: Customers appreciate getting asked their opinion, especially when the problem impacts their life in a significant way. But if the interview resembles a list of survey questions, how can we justify taking their time (and ours)? We like to think of interviews as an opportunity to have a conversation to gain insights in a way a survey cannot. A script helps us prepare our questions, but we are willing to go off script if the customer shares insights that we did not initially consider. It is OK to go off script and ask follow up questions, if it helps us learn. Plus, we can always get back on script.

Start by asking warm up questions: Customers have a better interview experience when we start with easier warm up questions before diving in to heavier, detailed, or more technical topics.

Silence is a good thing: When interviewing a customer, we try to listen more than we speak. Silence is counterintuitive, because we as a society perceive it as a negative thing. In reality, silence gives the customer time to think. When the interviewer creates space and does not talk too much, there is more room for the customer to share more insights.

“Tell me more”: When in doubt, ask the customer “Can you please tell me more?” This tip is particularly helpful if responses lack details.

Five Whys Technique: Originally developed by Toyota and adopted by lean methodologies among others, this iterative questioning technique is used to determine root causes of problems. If the customer says something, the interviewer can simply ask “Why?” to try to learn more. Not all problems have a single root cause, so it is helpful to assess possible nuances.

Consider a topic map instead of a script: When we are worried about coming across as too formal or robotic to the customer, we consider this advanced technique of writing down questions in the form of a ‘topic map’ instead of a linear script. Author Christina Wodtke promoted this idea in her blog post, “Five Habits of Design Thinking”.

Thank the customer: Finally, we always end the interview by thanking the customer for their time and providing contact information in case they think of anything else after the interview.

Step 5: Synthesize

As soon as we complete an interview, we capture key insights as soon as possible. We write these insights at the top of our notes so that they are accessible for future needs.

When we conduct several interviews back to back, it is critical to capture key insights sooner rather than later, to avoid conflating what we hear from one customer to another. Wine tasting helps illustrate this point: if we go to wineries to try different wines, taking notes in real time is better than waiting till we have tried too many and can no longer differentiate our tasting notes. Interview synthesis is no different.

As we synthesize our findings, we consider the following:

  • Revisit our learning goals: What did this customer share that helps us answer our learning goals?
  • Do we need to follow up with the customer to ask additional clarifying questions?
  • Do we need to ask different questions?
  • Do we see any themes, patterns, surprises, or contradictions?
  • Are we being careful of our personal bias?
  • If we are not a domain expert or did not understand what we heard from customers, can we facilitate sensemaking activities?
  • Can we put the top insights into a modular format, such as index cards, so that we can move them around, look for patterns or relationships, and make sense of the data (often called affinity grouping)? As frequency of themes increases and patterns emerge, assess what insights are ready to be shared with the team.
  • Can we sort the data based on different factors to help view it in new ways before making conclusions?
  • Have we looked at the data and coaxed every bit of insight out of the research to think beyond the obvious?
  • Are we targeting the right people? Have we learned enough to pivot our product strategy or design?
  • Are we targeting the right people? What gaps do we have?
  • Do we need to conduct more interviews?

When insights are uncovered, the entire team needs to rally behind new insights, learn from them, and make better-informed decisions to achieve and maintain product-market fit. An insight might be one of the following:

  • Themes that tie together multiple interviews or questions.
  • A clue to the customer’s mindset or mental model.
  • Learning more about the customer or what is most relevant to the customer.
  • Ideas for “How might we’s”.
  • Information that challenges previous assumptions.
  • Changed context.
  • Conflicting information within or between interviews.
  • New information about the customer journey.
  • Possible solutions that come to mind in response to the customer’s pain.

Step 6: Determine Next Steps

Based on what we learn, customer development helps us assess if we need to conduct more interviews, create new learning goals and hypotheses, or change the customer development plan.

Immediate next steps including sending a thank you note to the customer for their time and insights. This is a great opportunity to ask clarifying questions, especially if something did not make sense. We then make sure documentation is up to date and that our notes are linked on the interview tracker.

Next, we share top insights with the team to demonstrate the value of customer development.

  • How insights will be best received?
  • Who will receive these insights?
  • Are daily or weekly highlights over Slack or email are sufficient?
  • Can we share insights at team demo?

We understand that nobody wants to read a lengthy research report. People want highlights that validate the hypothesis, so our goal is to make research as visible, insightful and efficient as possible across the team and organization.


We hope this helps. If you have questions about your customers and want to talk about how to build a better product, we would love to talk with you. Contact us at

This playbook is inspired by many authors and practitioners in the product design space, including the following.