5 Magic Questions to Create Killer Customer Experiences

There’s a story in Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal (which you should read if you haven’t) about a consultant. At least I think it’s from his book. There’s probably many versions of the story. I’ll paraphrase here, but it goes something like this.

A manufacturing company is having problems with its assembly line. Somewhere along the assembly line product isn’t getting made nearly as fast as it should be. After months of exhaustive testing and analysis the managers at the plant can’t identify what’s wrong in the process. Is it mechanical, managerial, aliens? Whatever they do, they can’t figure it out.

Sooo… they bring in a consultant. The consultant immediately goes to work inspecting every inch of the assembly line, talking to people, testing machines, pushing buttons, etc. The managers watch intently as the consultant works. After 10 Minutes the consultant reaches into his pocket and pulls out a giant red magic marker. He calls up to the managers peering down at him. “Here’s the problem” he says, and places a red X on one of the parts of the machines in the assembly line.

The managers immediately have the part replaced and sure enough the assembly line is fixed and product starts flowing like magic.

Astonished, the managers shake the consultant’s hand, thank him, and ask him how much they owe him for his time. He replies “That’ll be ten thousand dollars.” Taken aback, the managers, now wide-eyed reply “But you were here for only 10 minutes. How can that be?” The consultant looks at them and replies, “ For the 10 minutes I’ve been here it’s $1 and $9,999.00 to know where to put the red X.”

Why do I tell you this story? Because knowing where to put “the Red X” is everything. With your own website or application wouldn’t it be nice to know where to put that red X to dramatically improve sales, generate more leads and improve the overall user experience?

Well the good news is that there’s a tool that can quickly and easily help you identify where to place that red X. What is it? Hold on to your hats…

It’s a survey!

Wait! Before you deflate in a sea of being underwhelmed that this remarkable tool is a simple little survey, let me tell you that I’ve seen this method lead to dramatic results for countless websites and applications whether they are ecommerce, brand-driven websites, games, or business applications. The methodology is always the same.

Surveys have a bad name because too often they are waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy too long, too intrusive and overwhelming. And too often the data doesn’t yield any actionable insights because the survey is asking the wrong questions.

So what are the right questions and how should the survey be implemented?

The questions

Here’s the awesome part. Yep, I said awesome, you can hold it against me if you want, but you really only need to ask 5 questions at the RIGHT time. Here they are:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Why did you visit today?
  3. Were you able to do or find what you wanted?
  4. If not, why not?
  5. On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your experience and why?

The 5th one is really optional, but sometimes I’ve found this question can yield some good insights and hey, who doesn’t like ratings, right? Here’s an overview of the questions:

  1. Who are you?

You should ask this question to identify who is visiting you. In creating the survey I’ll usually list out the most likely candidates. For example if it’s a survey for the CIA’s website, under “Who are you?” I might put radio button options for “Spy, Hacker, Traitor on the Fence, Carrie Mathison (Homeland fans, you know what I’m talking about. Brody!)

AND, you can’t forget the all-important “Other” with an open text entry. Other without an option to actually say who you are is a little bit like saying “Hello, my name is Name.” You might be amazed at who tells you they are coming to visit your site. This can be so much more insightful when combined with the demographics you’re getting from your analytics.

  1. Why did you visit today?

This really is the magic question. So often we jump to creating solutions, features, and functionality without ever really knowing what the need is we are solving for. Lazy people will implement this question closed-ended with only multiple choice options because it’s easier to analyze results. This robs the question of its pixie dust. The magic is in leaving this question open-ended and just letting people write in why they are visiting your site or using your app. You may discover an entirely new need you didn’t even know your fans expected you to satisfy for them.

  1. Were you able to find or do what you wanted?

This question puts question #2 on steroids. It’s one thing to know why someone visits you, but it’s money in your pocket to know if someone was able to actually fulfill that need. If the answer is “Yes” then you should go treat yourself to a Cronut because you’re doing a great job meeting the needs of your customers. But, if your customers tell you they were not able to do or find something then that’s a little bit like knowing where to put that $9,999.00 red X. In this answer is where you’ll often find the leaky bucket in your conversion process or lead-gen strategy.

  1. If not, why not?

This question let’s your visitors tell you in their own words how you failed to deliver on your promise of being awesome. But that’s OK because this will let you know what you need to do to actually be awesome next time they come back.

In UX speak the answers to this question will give you insight into your user’s “Mental Model” which is really a fancy word for the way someone thinks about doing something. For example, my Mental Model for “GET COFFEE” is a little bit like this…

  1. Find nearest Starbucks.
  2. Order Coffee.
  3. Drink

My wife’s mental model for GET COFFEE might be something like this.. “

  1. Put pod in Keurig.
  2. Push button.
  3. Drink

See, people think about things in different ways and understanding your user’s mental models can help you create better experiences for them. If it’s not obvious, you need to keep this question open-ended. Let them literally tell you what they think, do not give canned answers. That’s leading the witness…

  1. On scale of 1 -10 how would you rate your experience and why?

Sometimes I’ll qualify this question and add “where 1 is terrible and 10 is excellent.” This question is really extra credit and you don’t have to ask it, but so often we just want to know how we’re doing…if we’re hot or not, and this question gives you that nice satisfying quantifiable answer. But it’s pretty much worthless without the why. If someone comes up to you and says “You’re a 10!” You’d wonder what you were a 10 in? Being super awesome, super smart, super hairy, super awkward, all the above? You’d really like to know, right? Well the same is true for your digital venture. You need to know why someone rates it they way they do. And again, you need to let your users tell you in their own words so keep it open-ended.

Ok, so there you have it. 5 simple but incredibly powerful questions that can help you increase sales, leads, and just be all around more amazing at meeting your customers needs. Of course you have to actually implement the survey and analyze the results to reap the rewards. A couple more things…


How many results is enough?

This question is subjective. You could probably do some sort of calculation for statistical significance against your average number of visitors, but I would say implement the survey, let it run and keep looking at the results over time. Try to identify patterns and look for those outliers.

AND use your judgment in applying your learnings. I was once running a usability test for a travel website and I asked my tester if there was anything missing from the site. He looked at me and asked, “Where’s the music and red?” “What music and red” I said. “It’s a travel site.” “I know,” he said. “I just want to hear some Caribbean steel-drum music and I want it to be more red. I really like red.”

This may have made more sense if it was travel site for Jamaica, but it was a travel website for a destination in Northern California. Remember what I said about how people really do think about things in different ways.

How to implement the survey

The last thing you should know before you run off and start mining for gold in your users’ answers is the best way to implement the survey. Hands down, the best way to initiate the survey is when the user exits your site. This is called a True On-Exit Survey. You want to do this because you want to capture input after someone has actually experienced your site or app. And you don’t want to interrupt their experience by putting it up front like so many do. You’ll get less participation and more bogus answers than you need. True on-exit surveys get the best results.

What’s the best tool to use?

There are lots of options out there. Whether you use something out of the box or custom build your own. The key is to make sure it’s a true On-Exit survey. Google “On-Exit survey” and you’ll find some options. The easiest ones allow you to paste some JavaScript into your footer if you are a website. For an application, you may have to get creative and create a link to your survey on exit of your application.

Good luck finding those nuggets. They are out there. You just need to know how to find them. And now you do! So no excuses! Go create an experience that makes people smile.

And if you need any help or just want to bounce some ideas around you can always tweet me @tdonehower, or connect on LinkedIn at

Happy hunting!

10 Rules for Startups

I have co-founded two companies. The first company was a 20MM e-commerce company I affectionately named Blue Lava Group because it sounded cool and everyone at the time seemed to agree. The second company, Xperience Interactive was a successful digital agency specializing in user experience.

Today, I had the opportunity to meet with one of my close friends and a trusted advisor who has also founded his own technology startup. We were talking about the roller coaster ride that comes with the birth of every startup and he asked me if I had learned anything. As simple and obvious as it may sound I told him I’ve learned that relationships and integrity are everything and without those it’s very hard to get traction or momentum for any business…unless you are just plain evil (insert evil laughter here Muhahahaha).

In addition to that golden rule, I also wanted to share 10 other rules I wish someone had to told me before I founded my startups.

1. Pick Your Partners Wisely

It’s true, founding a company with someone is a lot like getting married. You’re going to be spending a LOT of time with this person or person(s), make sure you like them, trust them, and believe in them and they feel the same about you. If you don’t, you can always try to change that, but it’s better if you gel from the start.

2. Be Passionate and Damn Good

Make sure you’re passionate about your business. You’re trying to make a dent in the universe, right? You’re not just in it for the big exit. But if you are in it for the money then make sure you’re damn good at your role in the company and that it is clearly defined. Don’t have overlap in responsibilities. It will lead to confusion and poor exectution.

3. Relationships and Integrity are Everything

Bottomline, your business will test your relationships. Keep them. You don’t want to be a lonely a billionaire.

4. VC’s and Angels are Not Your Friends, They Are Your Investors

Although I was very good friends with the VC’s and Angels that invested in my company, I learned the hard way that they are first and foremost investors. Don’t assume that because you are friendly that funding will keep coming. You have to earn the investment through the performance of your company.

5. Focus but Don’t Get Tunnel Vision

I know the “Pivot” is very trendy for startups right now, but I think businesses run a higher risk of failure by not focusing on the core problem they are solving and creating a great customer experience. However, markets change, things happen and you can’t be so focused that you lose sight of what’s happening around you, in which case it might make sense to pivot.

6. Hire When You Absolutely Need to and Make Sure It’s a Damn Good Fit

What’s the most expensive mistake a company can make? If you said a “Bad Hire” then you win! But really you can’t win with a bad hire, you can only lose and lose really big. When you hire, make sure you absolutely need to. Don’t do it because you think you can afford to. And make sure that person fits with your team. If that person is a heavy hitter, it won’t matter if they don’t gel with the team. They will ultimately be negative value, not to mention additional overhead. If you can figure out a way to try before you buy, I would strongly recommend it.

7. Solve a Problem or Create a New Market

You can be a tried and true service provider or a maverick innovator or both. The bottomline is there needs to be demand and a form of distribution for what you offer. Obvious right? It is, but sometimes, we get so caught up in our revolutionary digital products that we forget we might be the only ones who would want them. Self-invention can be a powerful and intoxicating spell of disillusion. Do some market testing on your next big idea before setting up shop.

8. Create A Killer Customer Experience that Delights

Whether you intuit customer wants and needs like Steve Jobs or research and uncover insights to fuel your product design, you ultimately need to craft a customer experience that goes beyond practical need, you need to tap into emotion and the holy grail of experience, which is delight. If you’re going to build a Time Machine, why not make it a Delorian?

9. Get Real Fast. Prototype, Iterate, and Test

I’ll borrow a page from 37 Signals here, and just say get to a digital product as quickly as possible. Don’t boil the ocean and get bogged down in requirements when you could be prototyping, testing, and iterating with that precious time. Iteration will trump trying to create the perfect product specification every time.

10. Never, Ever Take Your Eyes Off Cashflow

Cashflow is the life-blood of your business. Always know where you stand and where break even is. Even if you have a CFO, you should still keep your eye on that target.

For anyone out there who is on the startup roller coaster ride or dreams of taking the trip, I hope these tips will help make it a little smoother for you.


Thomas Donehower

Lover of tech startups, agile methodologies,  and killer customer experiences. Serial entrepreneur and business book junky.

G.O.T. Strategy

My Chess Master coach Richard used to taunt me and say, “You’re no good. You’re no good” before I even attempted to make a move. Then, when I finally found the courage to make a move he would yell out “That’s the worst move I’ve seen in 50 years!” He would say “You’re taking too long and over thinking your strategy. Picture Charlton Heston with grey bushy eyebrows and a voice that sounds more like Woody Allen than Moses on the Mountain, and you get a sense for what Richard was like.

While I never became a Grand Master, my lessons with Richard did help me to win a couple more games against the NYC West Village locals and taught me that strategy doesn’t need to be some 3000 page document or week-long offsite planning meeting that gets beautifully documented in a binder and never executed.

I think most strategy planning sessions and strategies in general fail for the same reason that Richard would tell me “You’re no good.” They are over-thought, rigid, complex and as a result ultimately difficult to execute.

In planning sessions with clients for digital strategies and within our own digital agency in Los Angeles, we use a very simple framework when we talk strategy that anyone can use to kickoff a discussion or lead a white board session. It’s called the G.O.T. framework and it’s super simple, yet very powerful to implement.

I think part of its power comes from its simplicity. Because it is so simple it’s less intimidating for participants. Anyone can draw a circle and line and contribute. I’m a lefty and have horrible artistic skills, but I can still use this framework to lead a session. The key is to make sure everyone has some level of situational awareness i.e. (Trends, Technology, Competitive, Economic, Consumer, etc. awareness that they bring to the session and not research doing it;-)(We’ve all been that guy at some point.)

Start with a Simple Goal

To use the G.O.T. framework you start by drawing a circle at the center of your whiteboard, paper, napkin, or wall (if you really want to upset your partner.) In that circle you want to write your goal. Don’t over think it, just write the desired outcome you want. I know a lot of people are fans of S.M.A.R.T. goals. I am too, but I don’t like to force S.M.A.R.T. goals in the beginning because they are too rigid.

Instead start with a simple goal like “Increase qualified leads from our website” and then go back later and make it S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound). Sometimes we’ll also make it a question by starting with the phrase “In what way might we…” (Improve sales, get more leads, crush the competition, conquer the world…) you get the idea.

Add Objectives

The next step is to add objectives. To do this you just draw lines out from your goal circle. And…you have just drawn the sun. Now just add circles to the end of those lines and add in objectives. I like to think of objectives as mini goals that when added up together will equal the big goal. So for our Goal of “Increase qualified leads from our website,” some objectives might be:

  • Improve SEO
  • Initiate SEM
  • Enhance Content
  • Streamline contact form
  • Integrate with CRM
  • Improve usability
  • Do social media
  • Buy Superbowl ad

Don’t get too caught up in what is an objective and what isn’t. Just add an idea at this point if you feel like it helps to accomplish the overall goal. You can always go back later and revise. And if you are running a group session, you must follow the golden rule that all ideas are good. We are exceptionally fragile beings and if there’s one thing everyone brings to a meeting it’s their ego whether it’s worthy of the Sears Tower or a tiny home on 4 wheels. You must include all ideas. The minute you censor will be the minute ideas stop flowing freely and the minute someone’s ego comes quietly crumbling down.

We often encourage participants to share crazy ideas. One time I was running a strategic brainstorm of about 15 people with an organization for a viral marketing campaign. And after I gave my spiel about all ideas are welcome and the crazier the better, I was met with dead silence. No one wanted to speak up. Then the CEO spoke and all I remember was him saying something like “What if we did a video of a guy going into a store with a machine gun…” As Richard would say it was probably the worst idea I had heard in 50 years! But I wrote it up on the board anyway amidst dead silence and one smiling CEO. But once it was up there someone spoke up and said “What about if we…” And from there on the ideas flowed freely and we came out of the session with some fantastic ideas.

Get Tactical

If you’ve been following along, your simple strategic framework is actually right now a little too simple. You’ve got the G.O. framework but you’ve got to get to G.O.T. so you have to get tactical. If you haven’t guessed yet, the “T” is for tactics. To add tactics just draw lines out from your objective circles and add circles to the end of those lines. You’ll add your tactics in those circles. Your tactics will be the specific assignable actions to accomplish your objectives. For the objective above “Do social media” some tactics might be:

  • Identify and setup social channels
  • Plan editorial calendar
  • Do viral video involving man enters store with machine gun…

Actually, don’t do the last one.

It Should Start to Look Something Like This…

Additional Thoughts

Some additional things you might want to consider. To turn your G.O.T. strategy into something that actually yields results you might want to prioritize some components. Always look for the 80/20 rule and put your efforts into those tactics you think will yield the most results. You also might want to assign an owner and a due date to your tactics. I’ve found you should only assign one person to an initiative. More than one will lead to confusion and you’ll end up with both parties saying “I thought youwere going to do that.” With one person, there’s no confusion about who is responsible for getting it done.

That’s it. Simple, right? That’s what you want. Just identify your Goal, then think of the objectives that make up that goal and lastly think of the tactics to accomplish those objectives. And now the next time someone asks you to get strategic, you can say “I’ve G.O.T. that.”

Miscellaneous and Resources

For the curious out there, if you want to see my late great chess teacher in action, my friend Dino Reyes (@dreyesnyc)shot a very short film of Richard giving me a chess lesson at the Village Chess shop in NYC circa 2004. Here’s the link:

If you’re interested in learning how to take your drawing or whiteboarding skills farther you might want to start with this great talk Dan Roam gave at Google:

His books are also great.

If you’re interested in developing a digital product strategy and translating it into a beautiful user experience and design then feel free to get in touch.


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