Customer Development is fundamentally about understanding your users but the anonymous nature of web makes it tough to connect with visitors to your site. When I worked on a supermarket checkout it was easy to understand what the customers wanted from me. If I screwed up or did something they appreciated, they were right there to glare or smile, and that feedback helped me improve my performance very quickly.
When I worked in the game industry, one of my favorite jobs was actually tools programming, despite its low status. The artists using my programs were literally sitting right behind me, so I was right there for either a stream of swear words or an ecstatic hug (sometimes both in the same afternoon!). That was one of the most productive times in my career, and after that I always sought out ways to connect with my users and get the rich learning that comes from having in-depth daily conversations.
I've never been able to make that sort of connection to my users on the web, until now. I went through Techstars with the SnapABug team last summer, and while I loved their technology it never seemed relevant to my problems. Last week I got together with Jerome and we chatted about what we'd been up to since the program ended. He told me about how they'd pivoted from their original product (a bug-reporting tool that let users submit a screenshot) into a chat widget for website owners. I was intrigued, I wanted a really easy and low-friction way for users to contact me, so I could really understand what parts of OpenHeatMap weren't working well and generally learn by chatting to them.
When I tried it out I was blown away by how well thought-out the whole service was. You enter in a number of GTalk addresses, in my case just my personal gmail account, but for larger companies you could have a bunch of people in the pool. You can either set up a customized 'Chat Now' button, or what I love, program it to prompt users when they've been idle on particular pages for a certain amount of time or when an error occurs. It keeps track of your accounts so it can let the user know if there's anyone online.
So I installed it over the weekend, and over the last few days I've had some fascinating conversations with a wonderful set of users. I've learned so much about what people actually care about, and now have a long to-do list of ways to improve the service that are driven by actual user requests. I can't emphasize how important that is, and how much of a relief it is to no longer have to mind-read to figure out what my priorities should be.
While I love Net Promoter Score and other survey techniques to drive development, nothing beats having in-depth conversations for truly understanding what your users really want. Just look at IMVU's learning process – they had the advantage of being a chat client so they could reach out directly to their users, but most companies aren't in that position. Now with SnapABug any web company can easily strike up conversations with their users and turbo-charge their customer development.