Customer testing for start-ups

This blog post is dedicated to helping you to get a better understanding of customer testing in start-up.

Why am I writing this post? Well I have been stood on both sides of the fence. Learning my craft as Head of Customer Experience in gigantic businesses like Sainsbury’s, to starting-up my own CX Agency CMXperience LTD, and through my bizz helping lfloundering founders to get ahead when it comes to all things customer.

I’m going to share my insight with you about what customer testing is, why it is so important, a little bit of theory behind testing and my top tips for boot strapped start-ups to get close to and test with real customers, on a budget.

The key questions I know you are asking and will help answer are:

  1. What is customer testing and Why is it so important?

  2. What should I be thinking about when it comes to customers?

  3. When should I be testing?

  4. How do I do user research?

  5. How can I create low cost prototypes?

  6. How can I find customers to test with?

1.    So what is customer testing, and why is it so important?

Customer testing is a critical part of product and service design that if done well, can deliver infinite benefits. Put simply, knowing who your customers are and really understanding what they want means you’ll bring products and services to market that solve problems for them in ways that meet their needs better than others. Hey presto…. You increase your chance of success in growing a sustainable business, exponentially.

Conversely, failure to do your research and customer test can lead to very big, very expensive mistakes. Especially if you base big decisions on untested assumptions, or start sinking money into digital design and development without getting customers involved early on.

So let’s see if I can help you avoid that.

I hear you cry… hang on a minute, Clare, this is all starting to sounds like the kind of thing that needs a massive budget, and maybe even a team of researchers and designers? I’m a boot strapped start up, how can I afford to do this?

Well fear not… as promised, I’m going to give you ideas you can do for free, and some low-cost stuff too, but it all starts with you, switching your mindset to really tune into customers and their experience.

2.    What should I be thinking about when it comes to customers?

There are some questions to ask yourself to judge how far along you are on the journey to being customer focussed.

  • How well do I know my customers? 

  • Do I have personas that represent them to help me design? 

  • Do I understand their beliefs and values? 

  • Do I really understand their needs? 

  • Could I stand in a room and spot my potential customers? 

  • Would I know where to find and market to them? 

If the answer to these questions is  yes.. great start. If no.. it’s time to get closer and lean in! My first piece of advice COSTS NOTHING…  If you aren’t already, GET CUSTOMER OBSESSED! Relentless curiosity about what makes your customers tick, will make you great at customer testing. And will be a great foundation for your future as CEO. 

Start-up is the phase where you get to build a brilliant product and/or services based on understanding your customers and innovating to meet their needs. Being driven to not only satisfy them, but seeking to delight them. At this point in start-up, be thinking “When I have all those thousands of employees, how can I ensure they care about customers as much as I do” and start leading by example. (A lot of big company’s success started with a customer focussed founder. Jeff Bezos went on to build Amazon, the most customer obsessed business on the planet through his drive for customer obsession. They are now not only number 1 in terms of Customer Satisfaction, but also top 3 in terms of scale. That isn’t a coincidence)

My Top Tips for starting out right by having the right mindset….

Be open minded. This is something that catches a lot of people out. As a founder, you probably already have crystal clear vision of what you think the perfect product and service should look like. Customer testing will throw up all sorts of insights you have probably never considered. Be ready to ask open questions, to understand customer needs and motivations as well as getting feedback on your ideas.

Be prepared to be flexible, if your target customers don’t like the idea, be ready to change features to meet their needs. If they don’t get it in research, they’re not likely to like it when you launch, and you’ll have to change anyway. But you’ll have lost time and money in the process. This is easier said than done, as we all fall in love with our own ideas, but being conscious of this fact and being prepared to listen to your customers will help you avoid costly mistakes. 

3.   When should I be testing?

The simple answer is as often as possible. You might have heard the term ‘Agile’? This revolves around testing and learning early and often… throughout your product lifecycle. We don’t have time just now to go into the in’s and outs of product life cycles or to discuss the merits of Agile as a way of working, but I strongly recommend you get familiar with these terms and get Googling! 

Top-line, Agile is a methodology that isn’t about designing perfection first time, but creating something quickly, that you can get in front of customers and test with them in order to get feedback and build on your learning with the next version of your offer.  The first stage is all about discovery. You can start with a set of assumptions and hypothesis about what customers want and their needs. And user research can help you to test assumptions and validate your hypothesis. 


4.    How do I do User Research?

There are lots of ways to do user research, and some UR is certainly better than none: Here are some techniques to help you.


1-2-1 Interviews are a great way to get a deeper understanding of how people think and really probe why they do and think the things they do. All you need is a discussion guide and a voice recorder on your phone to save you having to make notes. What are the big questions you want to ask? At every opportunity to probe, ask open questions like who what when where and why to get the most out of the participant.  

Focus Groups

Slightly harder to organise and moderate but still possible to do for free. Again, you’ll need a discussion guide and voice recorder on your phone, but slightly more skill to facilitate the conversation and ensure everyone gets involved. The benefit of group discussions is that you will get a greater range of opinions and the group dynamic can move the topic forward to areas you perhaps hadn’t considered. 


Watching people, can be a great way to understand behaviour and get an accurate perspective. Sometimes people report what they do with a kind of rose tinted glasses that doesn’t reflect reality. If you are able to go and watch people shopping for a similar product or doing something that your product is going to help them with, go for it… who knows, they might even be happy to answer a couple of questions. Being ready for being cross examined might also be a good idea, so you don’t come off as creepy. Also, just to warn you.. other businesses are unlikely to be happy if you are using their stores or customers for research, so be discreet and ready to apologise and leave if you get a negative reaction.

Remember: In this day and age of data protection, taking picture or recording anyone will mean you need to get written authorisation to use their information!

Ideally your research will have given you a clearer understanding of your customer context and their needs around your product or service. Make sure you use this lovely new knowledge to refine your offer, and iterate your design.

5.    How can I create a low-cost prototype?

Once you know what you want to offer, the next step is about prototyping, and getting your prototype in front of people to test. A ‘prototype’ is an early sample, model or release of a product built to test as a concept or process that can be learned from. This can take many forms depending on what your product or service is but here are a couple of useful tips.. 

Story boarding

If you want to know how something could work in practice, like how your customers will buy and receive your product, you could make a story board of the experience you want to create, show it to a few customers and get them to tell you what they think. 

I find sketching out the story in boxes on paper and writing a narrative of what is going on from the customers POV is a great start. If you’re good at drawing, good for you! but if you’re not (like me), a top tip is to mock up the scenarios of your story board using friends acting out the scenes, and take photos on your smart phone. You can use apps like Prisma to turn them into cartoons you can drop into powerpoint that make professional looking story boards. Sitting down and talking someone through the concept will enable them to ask you questions and give you feedback. These tools are also great to help investors understand your vision.

Digital prototype

If your product or service is digital, you can create working prototypes and get customers to use them and see what they say about fiction and form to help guide design. We can start with free apps or ones that have free trials. For basic wireframes, you can try Sketch, Balsamiq or For a fully working prototype I recommend Invision  If you Google the names you can click through and find out more about how they work and some helpful tutorials.

But when you have built one, I am a big fan of asking users to ‘talk out loud’ as they try to navigate the interface. You’’ soon know if its user friendly or not. Again, the power of prototypes is being able to collect real data, to help guide decision making with a far greater level of reassurance that you are on the right track… and also great to show investors the latest versions.


6.    How do I find customers to test with?

The answer to this is really determined by who your audience is (and if you have any money). If you have no budget, available humans who could likely represent your customers are a safe bet. 

·      This might men asking family members to do an interview 

·      or a group of your friends over for coffee and a mini focus group

·      And for observations, hitting the high street and observing people who might help answer some questions about why they just bought what they bought could work.

Caveat.. this isn’t going to be 100% accurate or statistically valid, but it’s certainly better than nothing! Obviously, getting a real sample of people who represent your target customer would be better, but they are less likely to do something for nothing.

  • Could you use social media and hashtags to make a little ad requesting help?

  • Could you give away some free samples of your product as an incentive?

  • If you had a little budget could you give gift vouchers to say thank you?

Or even cleverer, target people who could become your future customers and treat testing as a co-design exercise with the potential to engage users far more thoroughly than any marketing campaign could. I’ve seen this work in practice to create the most loyal brand advocates who will go on to add immeasurable value to your brand long term. 

Unfortunately, that’s all we have time for in this post, but if this is an area you are particularly interested in, or would like to know more about, head over my website and subscribe to my mailing list or follow me on Instagram @cmxperience, or follow me on Linked In/ clare muscutt. 

I often run webinars on different customer topics that could be helpful on your journey to customer success. Best of luck with Customer Testing! I’d love to hearing your stories of becoming customer obsessed and delivering amazing results!