Zoom in and out to TRULY understand your customers

Nick Coster

Pinch and zoom. Apple trained us to do this on our phones. Google trained us to do this with maps.

If you want to look at something closely you “zoom”. If you want to view the big picture you “pinch”. As a Product Manager you need to be able to mentally “pinch and zoom” your perspective to switch between high-level vision and fine-grained attention to detail.

When we think about how a customer might use a Product in their lives, we can consider:

  • Their day-to-day experience
  • The entire life cycle of the Product with the customer OR
  • Any time scale in between.

How can we possibly have a sensible shared conversation about a customer without understanding the specific context and level of detail that we are all thinking about?

Without a language to communicate what “zoom level” we’re on, there’s enormous scope for confusion and misalignment. It’s hard enough to get people to focus on just one customer target group at a time, but that’s just the beginning.

A model to really understand your customers’ problems

A useful mental model to help with this is to consider which “zoom level” of the customer context we are considering and communicate this to others.

For example, if we think about our daily routine, from waking to sleeping, we can consider this to be a timeline of a single day. However, if we’re interested in a customer’s toothpaste choices, then this might not be focused enough. We can mentally zoom in, to consider where toothpaste fits into the customer’s morning routine. Zooming in further we can consider the individual actions of reaching into a bathroom cabinet and picking up the toothpaste, opening the cap, squeezing out the toothpaste onto a toothbrush, tasting the toothpaste as they brush their teeth, and recapping the toothpaste when they are finished.

The zoom level that we are considering completely changes the conversation that we are having about the customer and the customer problem. This is why it’s important everyone involved in the conversation knows what zoom level we are talking about.

Zoom in for detail, zoom out for context

The challenge is that when we zoom in, we lose context but gain detail. When we zoom out, we develop greater context, but the details vanish. We can never have a complete view of the situation all at once.

To build great products we need to regularly zoom in and out to get both context and detail. I noticed Malcolm Gladwell demonstrating this in his latest book (Talking With Strangers) and podcast series (Revisionist History – which I’d thoroughly recommend by the way). He explores a single case of interest in fine detail before zooming out further to find causative dysfunction at a wider scale. It is also an approach that Tim Urban describes in an interview on the Tim Ferriss Show (scroll to 28Min:38Sec) as being part of his writing process. The zooming confusion is also captured in Carl Sagan’s quote – “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” , which is ridiculous yet captures the need to clearly describe what the zoom level is for the conversation.

Here is a great video that expresses the different worlds that we discover depending on the zoom level that you are looking at “Powers of Ten™ (1977)

What can you zoom in and out on?

I think that this zooming idea in Product Management is critical, and it can be applied in a variety of dimensions:

  • Time: moment to moment vs a day vs a year or a lifetime.
  • Field of view: interaction scale 1mm-1m vs human scale. 1-10 metres, vs crowd scale 10-100 metres.
  • Population scale: 1 individual, vs a family vs a community, vs a wide interest group, vs a city or country.

Capture the “zoom level”

Individual viewCommunity viewDayLifetime
SkypeDana can keep in touch with her mum when she is travelling overseasRemote communication aid which enables better visual, auditory and text communication between remote individuals and groups.Dana checks in with her mum to let her know she arrived safely in London.Dana and her mum remain closer and know each other better despite living on different parts of the world for much of their lives.
Electric bikeKimba can beat the traffic on her commute despite having to wear a suit and living downhill from work.Enables better personal mobility and freedom by allowing more people to travel further.Kimba uses her electric bike to commute to work each weekday morning.Kimba has saved money and is feeling fitter because she used her bike more than her car.
She is also excited that she is contributing to a cleaner world.


When you’re describing the experiences that you want a customer to have, you should be explicit about the zoom level that you’re talking about. You will get to a shared understanding with your team and stakeholders much faster.

But remember, there is always a bigger picture. When you zoom out you gain perspective but you lose some of the intimate detail. For a TRUE understanding of how your customers use your Product you should consider multiple zoom levels and examine how things change as you adjust your view.

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Nick Coster

Nick Coster | Author

Passionate about building products and services that delight the user and customer. Ask Nick about changing Product Manager behaviour.

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