Five ways to understand customers who are 10,000 miles away

Many of the entrepreneurs I’ve spoken with in the developing world focus on developing products for their home markets.  While there are certainly important needs to be satisfied in these countries, startups shouldn’t be shy to compete in global markets.  One of the theories I often hear is that it is too difficult to develop great products if you don’t live in the local market.

I beg to differ.  It is possible to develop great products for users who live very far away from you.  This is the case even if you cannot meet with potential customers in person.  While there are many product development techniques rely on face-to-face interaction (such as Stanford’s Design Thinking Process), there are many alternatives as well.  Here are 5 ways to understand customers from afar:

1. Set up a forum like UserVoice where users vote the best ideas to the top

2. Do regular customer development surveys to understand how to create passionate users

3. Identify a group of users in your own country who are similar to users in your target geography.  If you are designing a product for U.S. teenage males, then interview teenage boys in your own country, at least as an input to your decision making process.

4. Use web conferencing technology like Webex to perform usability testing of prototypes you’ve developed.  You might miss some body language and visual queues but you’ll learn enough to make it worthwhile.

5. Have somebody in your target country perform research for you.  While many people think the entrepreneur should be doing all the research, there are times when this isn’t feasible.  Finding this someone to do this might be challenging, but it’s certainly possible.

Be flexible in finding new ways to understand your customers from afar.  The main point is to make sure you are working to gain customer insights at all.  If you adopt the right methods, you will have an advantage over most entrepreneurs who live in the markets they intend to serve.  Many entrepreneurs lack customer focus, even though they are surrounded by potential customers.   Remember, designing great products isn’t easy for anyone.   Your chances of being successful are MUCH higher if you adopt a set of techniques to gain insights related to users in your target market.  Founders in the developing world who are disciplined in terms of user-focused product development have a tremendous opportunity to create web and mobile products for an international audience.

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