How to Coax Reluctant Engineers to Join Customer Development

Better products happen when everyone gets to learn directly from prospective customers. But not everyone is excited about talking to customers — in particular, it can be especially tricky to rope in your engineers.

There are a couple of good reasons for this, and if you understand those reasons, you can work around them.

“I’m not comfortable talking with customers.”

A-ha! Don’t try to make engineers (or anyone who doesn’t enjoy being customer-facing) actually conduct the interviews. Sure, they could get up to speed, but a reluctant interviewer is never going to elicit as good feedback as someone who enjoys the process more.

We ask our engineers to be note-takers. We do customer calls via phone. So the commitment is purely to listen and take notes — not to have to dress up, sit up straight, or worry about on-the-spot questions. Often, the interviewee doesn’t even know who the note-taker is (or that there is one, even!)

“It’s a better use of my time to write code.”

You can’t really blame engineers for thinking this; they’ve probably had managers tell them that for ages. (And, to be honest, there are a lot of times when shielding your engineers from meetings is the best thing to do for productivity and morale reasons.)

But this is not one of them. Most engineers — like all the rest of us — fundamentally want to build something good. And investing an hour in understanding customers is what helps you build something good.

“It breaks up my whole afternoon.”

Respect the makers’ schedule. Context-switching sucks, so try not to inflict it on others.

Try to schedule interviews for right before or right after lunch. Then you’re drafting off an already-existing interruption. Or better yet, ask when the best time is! Everyone has a different time of day when they’re lower-productivity: that’s a good window of time to spend listening and taking notes as opposed to some higher-brainwave-requiring activity.

“I’m still not sure…”

Bribery. I recommend cupcakes or beer. Do what you’ve gotta to get the first few engineers in the door and taking notes.

In my experience, folks who listen in and take notes on customer development interviews don’t have to be begged a second time — there’s just so much interesting and surprising stuff that emerges from them. Once you’ve had a few engineers who took notes — and found themselves able to speak up that “hey, actually, customers don’t behave that way” or “I watched how hard it was for someone to use that screen” at opportune moments — the others will opt in much more easily.