If you have customers, you likely have your own opinion on how best to gather customer feedback. As a design consultant, I've noted that while more companies are allocating time and resources for teams to go out and talk to customers about their ideas, there are still concerns about the value of this feedback. As Steve Jobs argued, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them." There is certainly a lot of truth here.

Customer feedback is important because it helps us learn something about our product and improve it. While customer feedback is foundational to innovation, there are certain points in the innovation process when talking to customers may be ineffective. At some points in the process, there may be other, better ways for you to learn.

After hundreds of customer-feedback sessions, I've created a framework around how and when to engage with customers--and when not to.

I approach customer feedback by first asking what we are trying to learn at a given phase of the innovation process. I then ask whether talking to customers will help us learn and move forward, and if not, what will.

There are typically five questions I ask during the innovation process. They are:

1. What are the problems our target customers face in their lives?

2. What problem do we want to solve?

3. How do we want to solve this problem?

4. Have we solved this problem in an effective way?

5. What should we do next?

I've found that talking to customers is especially helpful for Questions 1 and 4, when you have something that people can respond to.

Questions 2, 3, and 5 don't always lend themselves to talking to customers because you yourself are still establishing direction. You don't yet have something concrete for people to respond to.

Here's a deeper look into what the process looks like at each stage:

Question 1: What are the problems our target customers face in their lives?

At the start of any project, my team and I establish the segment of customers we want to better understand. We identify them based on specific behaviors, mindsets, and lifestyles, and occasionally by demographics, like age and hometown. We then conduct one-on-one interviews with at least 10 people who meet our criteria. When we start, we remove the pressure by saying, "Don't worry about giving us product ideas. We just want to learn about you." We ask them to tell us about their day-to-day lives, then dive into the category of their lives we're trying to solve for (e.g., finances, online shopping, or health care). We ask them how they deal with this topic today, and where they struggle. We may also ask to observe their behavior when faced with a specific task within our area of interest (e.g., navigating their online banking account, purchasing an item online, or setting up a doctor's appointment).

During this type of customer discussion, my team and I take specific note of what we hear people say, and also observe what they do. We build empathy for this person we want to serve with our product, and look out for opportunities to improve his or her life. Notably, we do not ask the person what we should design.

Questions 2 and 3: What problem do we want to solve? How do we want to solve this problem?

When we know what problem we are trying to solve, it's up to our team to think creatively, gain inspiration from analogous businesses, and innovate internally. As Ford said of innovating the automobile, "If I has asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Ford fundamentally understood the pain people faced with existing methods of transportation, and he then imagineered a way in which he could alleviate this pain.

Question 4: Have we solved the problem in an effective way?

After coming up with an idea for a solution, we go back to customers, this time with something tangible (even if it's an early, low-fidelity rendition) for them to respond to. We might intercept people somewhere that is relevant to our idea (i.e, near a bank, at the mall, at the pharmacy), conduct user observation sessions, or invite a group of people to come in and provide us with feedback over dinner.

At this point in the innovation process, the point is to get a directional understanding of whether your idea resonates with target customers. Do they think it is something they will use? Does it profoundly solve a problem in their life, so much so that they can't imagine using any other product?

Question 5: What should we do next?

It's up to your team to collate what you learn and determine how to proceed with your idea. If it resonated well with people, the next step would be to build it out at higher fidelity and put it out in the wild to a limited target base. In this case, you would track how people use it over time, then reach out to them to better understand if and how it is improving their lives. If the idea doesn't resonate with people, it's up to your team to go back to the drawing board and change or improve it.

While people are experts in telling you about their lives and responding to your ideas, they are less helpful when you put them on the spot to dream up new ideas. Yes, customers are always right, but it's not always the right time to talk to them.