In a case of what is old is new again, recent articles and literature describe the value of listening to and observing potential customers in order to determine their needs and subsequent requirements for new products. In one case, Nissan is moving heavily toward ethnographic research, an approach that emphasizes contact with and the studying of people and cultures, in order to develop a more complete and accurate understanding of how drivers use and interact with their vehicles. (1, 2) It’s hoped that what is learned will prove useful in the design and development of self-driving cars.

This research is often carried out by business anthropologists who may be on staff at larger firms or independent consultants hired by smaller firms. While anthropologists bring a certain perspective and skill set to these efforts, similar undertakings to define the customer’s needs are often led by business analysts or market research personnel. Robert Tian provides some specific examples of how anthropological research has affected product and process design in the past. (3)

If you’ve been in industry for a while this may sound very much to you like other customer-focused methodologies that you’ve encountered and about which little is heard these days; Voice of the Customer and Quality Function Deployment, or QFD, being two of them. Less formal methods that we’ve often used to understand customer requirements and to insure that the product under development will meet those needs include focus groups and customer panels. Whereas focus groups are often one-shot deals, customer panels entail convening a representative group of potential customers periodically to provide input to the project team on an ongoing basis.

Articles describe these efforts as bottom-up rather than top-down. We’re letting the customers suggest the requirements that the project deliverable must fulfill rather than rolling a specification document down from higher levels of the organization to those tasked with developing a product that meets the specs; an organic rather than dictated approach, although that phrasing is no doubt unduly stereotypical.


What does this renewed interest in bottom-up needs collection mean for the project manager and scheduler? First, recognize the good that will come out of these efforts:

  • An increased likelihood of having a successful product, where “success” means fulfilling customers’ needs at an acceptable price point,
  • An initial focus on the “why” rather than the “how” so that the project team doesn’t jump prematurely into product design thereby creating something likely to fall short of real customer need fulfillment,
  • Cultural awareness that may lead to other product ideas or, at the least, help in avoiding cultural faux pas,
  • A focus on the customer that, if well managed, can only lead to improved business results.


The primary challenge faced by the project manager and scheduler when such customer-focused methods are used for discovering requirements is that it may be difficult to put boundaries, a time-frame on this process. In fact, the phrase “open-ended” is used in both CIO Journal postings we’ve cited describing the push into these practices at Nissan’s Silicon Valley-based R&D facility.


  • If possible and consistent with the situation, treat the collection of customer data as a project unto itself. At the conclusion of this project a second project to produce the deliverable based on the customer needs identified in the first project can be defined and planned.
  • Ensure that the process for collecting customer data is defined and understood and owned by an appropriate party.
  • Develop a range of timelines that captures the variability that may be introduced as a result of what is found during the customer needs discovery process.
  • Understand whether there will be some point after customer needs collection at which a firm specification for the deliverable will be created or if a more agile and/or iterative approach to product development will be taken in which the product is developed incrementally based on ongoing customer input. The schedules for each of these two scenarios will look very different.
  • Finally, consider adding the appropriate amount of reserve (also called contingency) to the schedule, budget and staffing plan given that the outcome of the customer needs research may be very uncertain. Add this reserve into the appropriate place(s) in the schedule, most likely immediately following the end of the customer research phase, but possibly in other parts of the schedule as well.

When managed well, an increased focus on the customer can result in better products, better business results, and improved customer satisfaction.


Relevant Schedule Associates Services:


  1. Hickins, M.  Automation Transforms the IT Skill Set, The Wall Street Journal, CIO Journal, Wednesday, May 28, 2014
  2. Rosenbush, S.  Nissan Robotic Car Group Maps New Route to Product Development, The Wall Street Journal, CIO Journal, Monday, October 7, 2013
  3. Tian, R.  Business Anthropology, Anthropology of Business, Business Ethnography, Corporate Anthropology, (See Product Design and Development section about halfway down page.) Tuesday, February 5, 2013