How to Use Customer Data to Understand Their Pain Points

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Do you know who you are designing for?

Whether you are a designer, team leader or manager, you are always also: a consumer. If you work in product design, this brings the risk of designing for yourself, not for your customers. 

It’s easier to focus on personal pain points, likes and dislikes (as these are stories we can relate to, personal experiences we have gone through) than collecting data, and analyzing other people’s behaviour (this would force us to change perspectives).

If we want to create a truly successful product, it’s important to think beyond our limitations and solve problems that are valuable to a wider audience. To do this, we need to connect with our customers and understand their needs and challenges.

Here are some tips on how to deepen your understanding of your customers.

Make use of customer data

If you aren’t a start up, you might already have some data about your customers you can start with: take a look at data analytics, review any existing customer feedback (from surveys, the call-center, sales calls), and talk to internal stakeholders who interact with customers.

In addition, do some secondary research: there are lots of consumer studies out there that provide statistics and trends. Make sure to use representative resources for your industry.

If existing data isn’t giving you the answers you are looking for, go out and collect more data:

Use short surveys

In addition to tracking basic data (like page visits of your website or click rate), make use of short surveys. Add them into your customer journey where they are least disruptive — for example, as a link included in your newsletter, as a message after a user has completed a purchase or as a call-to-action in your product (“Leave your feedback”).

Quantitative vs qualitative data

Quantitative data is often seen as the real gold as it gives you hard numbers and collects feedback from the masses, not just a few individual voices. Numbers are important for business, they can easily be turned into measurable objectives. You need them — but you should be aware of their limitations: quantitative data are descriptive and will give you answers about the WHAT and HOW MUCH, but not about the WHY.

If you see a huge drop-off in your check-out process for example, data analytics will tell you how many people dropped off and when, but it doesn’t tell you WHY people are not completing a purchase. Is there a technical issue? Is the price too high? Are they not happy with the shipping regulations?

You want to strive for a good balance between quantitative and qualitative methods (such as interviews and observations). Combined they will present you a more holistic picture of your customers.

Review data regularly

Collecting data is just the first step. You also have to make sense of data and turn them into actions. This is best done by starting a routine: review your data regularly. Bring your team together and invite anybody with additional data sources to share knowledge. Discuss possible interpretations of existing data, try to reveal underlying problems and define any additional, focused research you might need to validate your interpretation or gain clarity.

Use storytelling to relate to your customers 

The reason why it is easier to design for ourselves than for “a customer” (a black box) is our experiences and memories. We can tell stories, share emotions and remember how we did something and when we got frustrated.

You want to do the same with your customers: you want to share their behaviour, their experiences and feelings in the form of stories. How do we do that?

You have probably heard about “personas”. It’s a popular tool, widely discussed (some like it, some dislike it), mostly used in design and marketing. This is not going to be another article about personas — there are already lots out there. However I do think personas can be a very helpful tool to relate better to your customers, and I want to provide some tips on how to use personas.

Personas should be based on real data

Personas are a representation of your customers. They help the design team to understand behaviour patterns, expectations, needs and problems. Even though they are being expressed as a description of a single person, they shouldn’t be a copy of a single customer but represent commonalities across your customers.

If you don’t have customer data yet (because you are starting a new product and don’t have a customer base yet or because struggle to reach out to your customers), you can still start with personas by collecting your assumptions. These personas are called “assumptive” or “Proto-Personas” and should get validated over time with user research.

Marketing personas aren’t user personas

Personas are a helpful tool to make design decisions. To make them relatable, you want to tell stories about your personas. That’s where user personas differ from marketing personas: demographic and life-style information (like age, favorite brands, hobbies) is less relevant. User personas focus on common behaviour patterns, skills, goals and barriers in relation to your product or service.

A user persona should help you to describe:

  • what experience users have with your product (and similar solutions)
  • in what situations users are interacting with the product
  • why users are using the product, what their goals are
  • what expectations they have, what would provide value

You won’t get there by using quantitative data (like a survey) alone. You do need to go a level deeper and talk to your users and oberserve their actions.

User persona vs buyer persona

Even if you have existing personas, you want to start every project by reviewing and updating your personas. The personas are just a guideline for your design — and every project has its focus. Keep in mind that a USER can be different from a BUYER. Your project might involve both or just one or the other. 

If you sell software to larger organizations for example (typical SAAS model), you need to consider two core user groups: on your website and in your sales messaging you want to convince the buyer, who might be the IT lead. The software itself though might be for a completely different audience with different technology skills. Your messaging might look very different for your user group vs the buyer group. 

Continuous research: turn research into a habit

So, you collected data about your customers, you turned them into a description of your customer in the form of a persona, now you know your customers, right?

Yes, you have built a very important foundation. But like our world is constantly changing, so are our customers. Customer research never really stops. Technology changes, therefore markets change, and society norms change — and all of this has an impact on our customers’ behaviour, expectations and needs.

If you want to keep your product competitive, you better make customer research a habit in your design process. You could start a routine on a project basis (i.e. every new project starts with a research phase), or you could create a time-based rhythm for your design team (i.e. every 2 months you do x user interviews to inform your product roadmap).

And remember, collecting data is just the first step. It’s in the review cycles that you make use of your data by turning them into actions.


Knowing your customer is key to designing good solutions. In product design, you want to focus on customer behaviour patterns, not just demographics and messaging. Make customer research a habit to keep up with the constant changes we live in in our world.

Over to you

What action can you take tomorrow to gain better customer knowledge?

Want to learn more?

If you are interested in learning more about user research and how to make sense of it, take a look at my online course for Data-Informed Product Design.