Customer Discovery

Customer Discovery is

  • an empirical research method used to develop commercial services, products, and applications.

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

Why Does Customer Discovery Matter?

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

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.

Steps in the Customer Discovery Method

Customer Discovery conceptualizes business development as an empathetic, iterative, rhetorical process based on empirical research involving a number of steps, depending on the exigency–the call to write.

  1. Investigators choose a problem space to explore.
  2. Investigators engage in strategic searching and textual research to identify what is known about the problem and solution space
  3. Investigators engage in customer discovery interviews and survey research in order to better understand the problem space. They use surveys, interviews, focus groups, etc., to understand the stakeholder’s s (e.g., clients, suppliers, partners) problems and needs
    1. Investigators analyze customer feedback to develop customer personas and problem scenarios.
    2. Entrepreneurs 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, entrepreneurs hope to develop new products and services that meet customers’ needs.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.


Does Customer Discovery require IRB approval?

Because customer discovery is typically conducted by startups and intended to inform prototype development it does not typically require IRB oversight. Customer Discovery uses one-on-one interviews; case study methods; focus groups; and usability studies to develop and test prototypes

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