Finding the Truth: Three Lies Your Customers Tell You, Why, and How to Find the Truth

Why...understanding three behavioral science principles is key to doing better research and learning from people

Hi, I’m Crystal Yan. 👋 I’m a product and design leader and leadership coach. Here, I write about building products and teams. Every few weeks, I write about customer development, behavioral science, and management, and share resources to help you become a better leader.

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Great product strategy comes from customer insights. But how you find the truth if your customer is lying to you?

Most of my work in product and design has involved discovery: doing the qualitative research & customer development work to understand customer problems and decide if it’s worth the investment to build an entirely new business, product, or feature to solve their problems.

Some common mistakes I see people make when doing customer research is believing everything customers say or believing that one feature idea from a customer is a silver bullet. With my academic training in behavioral economics and my experience working in product and design over the years, I’ve learned there are a few common lies customers tell you. Here, I’ll unpack the behavioral science principles behind each of them for you and share how to deftly navigate customer interviews to better find the truth. I offer tactical tips that I've implemented in my own user research practice to get better at gathering unbiased qualitative data, and surfacing user insights to drive product decisions.

Lie 1: “Yes, X is a problem for me”

Why people tell this lie: Focusing illusion.
People will focus on the problems you ask them to focus on. If you ask customers about the problem your feature is trying to solve, they will articulate pain points they have there. However, you may lose the chance to learn that this isn’t a pressing problem for them.

How to find the truth: Start with general questions. Be okay following the direction of the conversation and occasionally going off script.

Lie 2: “I like this, I will use it”

Why people tell this lie: Observer effect/Hawthorne effect.
People act differently when an observer is present. Customers don’t want to disappoint you, so they tell you what they think you want to hear. If they know you and your team worked hard on something, they may feel more hesitant to be honest about what they don’t like.

How to find the truth: Be careful with how you introduce yourself. Even if you designed the prototype you plan to show a customer, try introducing yourself as a researcher so that customers feel more comfortable providing negative feedback.

Lie 3: “If you build X, I’ll buy/use it”

Why people tell this lie: Egocentric bias.
People lie to themselves. For example, a customer might aspire to be the kind of person who always chooses a healthy meal over an unhealthy one. So they might tell you they would use your healthy meal delivery service, but once it’s available, never sign up.

How to find the truth: Don’t ask customers to predict their future. Ask them to tell you about their past. Instead of asking, “would you try this new service?”, ask, “tell me about the last time you tried a new service”.

Remember, customers are only the experts on their problems. You need to be the expert on potential solutions to their problem.

Additional Resources
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To get started with interviewing customers, download my Customer Discovery Guidebook here (exclusive discount for newsletter readers). This concise yet actionable guide will help you start interviewing customers tomorrow with the specific strategies, tips, and sample interview questions I've shared with clients for years to surface customer insights to develop new products, or improve existing ones. While there are many articles, books, and courses out there, my goal is to help you sift through the noise and make it easier to learn by doing. With specific step-by-step guidance and sample questions, you’ll be ready to craft questions and an interview guide to avoid the biases I described above within hours.
- If you’re interested in hiring me to coach you or your team on user research, book time with me for a product strategy session.

To learn more about behavioral science, check out:
1. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
2. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
3. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

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