“The notebook is in the glove box.”

My grandfather used to say that to my dad whenever they had car trouble. He (my grandfather) emigrated from Honduras in the late 1940s, and by the 1960s he’d graduated from college in the states, started a family, and was driving a Chevy. And when he bought his first-ever new car, milestone though it was, the first thing he did was put a notebook in it.

Why ? He knew things in the car would start breaking before long, so he kept track of them like a shopping list for his mechanic. Brand new car.

I remembered that story the other day as my car was in the shop for (regularly scheduled) maintenance. I was thinking how no one would stand for that today. And then I thought about how the moment I left the house that day, I put my phone on low battery mode so it wouldn’t do that thing where it goes from 70% battery to 10% battery for no reason.

And how I also carried a charger in my pocket to be safe.

And how I save Word documents and spreadsheets every three minutes because I’m terrified of crashes.

And how I know when I send a meeting invite from my phone there’s a 50% chance it’ll get screwed up somehow.

And how I often switch off Wi-Fi to 4G in my house because God decided I should never have a good Wi-Fi signal.

And how UserMuse’s clients ask our users to sign into Webex meetings 15 minutes early to allow for telecom issues.

And how I’ve had free credit monitoring subscriptions for the last four years because every company I do business with has been hacked and my data is presumably held by thieves at all times.

It turns out I’ve got notebooks in glove boxes all over the place. (Also, has anyone ever kept gloves in a glove box?)

Find the Hacks Your Competitors’ Customers Use

If you’re able to dogfood your product, finding the rough edges that need smoothing is a matter of using the product in enough circumstances and being attentive to how you’re using it. It gives you user empathy you can’t get otherwise.

Watching your existing customers use your product in real scenarios will show you where they get confused, where they have to use spreadsheets to patch the gaps in your product, and what they just plain don’t like about it. User testing with existing customers is how you optimize your product for the market.

To turn from production optimization to competitive differentiation, you need to watch your target market use your competitors’ products. Find the hacks their users rely on to use their products. Talk to them about every little step in the process their product supports. Somewhere, there’s a notebook in the glove box.

Finding your competitors’ gaps is easier than you might think. You talk to competitors’ users about how they do their jobs, what they like and don’t like about what they have, and let them walk you through the process. All it takes is (1) a good competitive user sample, and (2) asking lots of questions.

All those nagging little issues your product has that you desperately want fixed if only you had time/budget/capacity? Your competitors have them too. Many won’t lead to significant differentiators for you, but others may. We may be entering a golden age of user behavioral measurement. Don’t let that blind you to the rest of the world not using your product.

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