Customer Discovery is

  • an ideology, an epistemology, that presumes entrepreneurs should build not what they believe a customer needs but rather what the customer tells them they need.
  • a deeply empathetic process
  • an empirical research method used to develop commercial services, products, and applications.

Customer Discovery is wildly popular in the startup community. This methodology traces its roots to

  • Eric Ries’ 1998 book, The Lean Startup;
  • empiricism, the philosophical school that traces knowledge making to observation
  • rhetoric, especially rhetorical analysis and rhetorical reasoning.

Customer Discovery can be practiced as an informal or formal method—i.e., a method that requires IRB oversight. Customer Discovery uses one-on-one interviews; case study methods; focus groups; and usability studies.

The intellectual processes associated with Customer Discovery are similar to the intellectual strategies associated with writing, composition, and the making of meaning. When people are composing or starting a new business, they need to privilege believing over doubting. Entrepreneurship, like writing, like anything that requires deep thought, is an iterative process.

Customer Discovery presupposes that learning is collaborative and social. As humans, we learn by listening to one another and working collaboratively.

Key Concepts: Design; Design Thinking; Lean Product Development; Mixed Research Methods; Problem Definition; Problem Scenarios; Rhetoric; Venture Design

The goal of Customer Discovery is to go beyond what you think and to figure out what the customer needs or desires.

Customer Discovery is an applied research method that mixes empirical, qualitative, and textual research methods:

  1. Customer Discovery is research method that is informed by scientific, empirical, qualitative research and positivistic methods.
  2. Customer Discovery also relies on qualitative research methods and textual research.

Customer Discovery is an act of rhetorical analysis: you are trying to understand the problem space. You are reflecting on the customer’s pain. You are considering a process that could be improved. Your ultimate goal is to create a new business venture.

Investigators (e.g, founders/developers/marketing consultants/business consultants) engage in Customer Discovery in order to understand a customer’s problems and needs. In the literature on entrepreneurship, Customer Discovery presumes entrepreneurs should build not what they believe a customer needs but rather what the customer tells them they need.

Customer Discovery conceptualizes business development as an empathetic, iterative, rhetorical process based on empirical research:

  1. Investigators choose a problem space to explore.
  2. Investigators engage in customer discovery in order to understand the problem space. They use surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc., to understand the customer’s problems and needs (as well as other stakeholders (e.g., suppliers, partners).
    1. Investigators analyze customer feedback to develop customer personas and problem scenarios.
    2. Founders rely on customer discovery interviews to develop new products and services. By listening to customers, by being open to their perspective and what they say, Founders hope to develop new products and services that meet customers’ needs.
  3. Investigators develop guesses about how to bring some value to a consumer. They then take these insights into developing a prototype, an MVP, a minimum viable product
    1. Investigators may share a visualization of an idea (e.g., wireframing for an app or an illustration of a new invention. They may build a conceptual model.
  4. Investigators develop an empirical experiment. They give prototypes, MVPs, and versions of solutions to customers and ask them for critical feedback. They engage in usability studies to investigate best solutions.
  5. Investigators return to the customers (sometimes to previously interviewed people but more typically new customers). After listening to customers for a while, they conceptualize new services, applications, and products. They continually re-test findings. They develop and administer surveys.


Steve Blank, an entrepreneur and educator, has developed a stunning number of resources to support customer discovery. Blank views entrepreneurship as a scientific process: Entrepreneurs develop business hypotheses by listening to customers and considering the nine elements of the BMC (The Business Model Canvas).

Alexander Cowan, an entrepreneur and educator, provides robust resources on the Venture Design Process.