How do you know what is your friend’s favorite food? How do you find out what your significant other would like to do on Valentine’s Day? How do you know if your mom liked her Mother’s Day gift? The easiest way to find out is to just ask.

When I tell people that I specialize in human centered design, I get two types of responses. Half of the people will ask what it means, and the other half becomes slightly uncomfortable imagining and calculating how much effort I am putting into user and customer research. Human centered design gets a bad rap with cost conscious companies and individuals due to the misconception that research is expensive and time consuming. When in fact, it will save you money to know early if you’re designing the right thing — and if you’re designing it right.

Human centered design is a framework (often credited to being popularized by Ideo) used to help keeping the focus of the design process on the end user of the product. What human centered design aims to ensure is that the solutions being created are tailor made to suit the target audience’s needs. If you knew exactly what your partner wants for their birthday, wouldn’t it be much easier to get them the gift? And the success would be more guaranteed than trying to guess what they might like. So, when I work, I try to get validation from customers early on — already when I am still just sketching for concepts, or even before that.

Knowing your audience is super important when it comes to design. Designing and building a product (physical or digital) is expensive and time consuming even when you get it right. But what is really expensive is designing and building something multiple times because you did not validate to make sure your product resonates with the audience. Research can help us get our designs right early on, so that after having “measured twice” we only need to “cut once.”

Recently, I have been reading some business and brand strategy books. My three most recent have been:

1. The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

2. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne

3. Lingo: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language by Jeffrey Shaw

4. Badass Your Brand: The Impatient Entrepreneur’s Guide to Turning Expertise into Profit by Pia Silva

Each of these Amazon 4.5/5-star reviewed strategy books have their own points of view and unique approaches to solving business challenges, but they all share one very strong common thread: knowing your customer. Few repeating ideas are:

Listen to, interact with, observe, and study your customer to gain competitive advantage.

When you know who you speak to, it is more likely that they listen.

Know what pain points your customer has, so you can create a solution someone else hasn’t thought of yet. Or you can improve and existing solution so much that your customers will choose you over other offerings.

Know what your customer wants, so you don’t have to sell yourself but the customer will find you because you have what they want.

Knowledge is power, they say. And in design it indeed is. And knowing your audience isn’t limited to your design work only, or business or brand strategy for that matter. You should always consider the audience, no matter what you’re doing. Are you applying for a job? You should tailor your resume and portfolio to reflect the skills the job opening requires (and you hopefully have). Yes, you read that right. You should not only tailor your resume, but your portfolio, as well. Consider what the prospective employer is looking for and highlight those aspects of your projects on your portfolio. It is more work than just rewriting your resume, but it pays off in the end.

Are you presenting your designs to your peers or business stakeholders in the office? The audience makes a big difference here, too. When presenting to your peers, you can keep the language more design focused and dive into the details of your designs. But when you are presenting to non-designer audience, first stop to think why are they coming to this presentation, why are you presenting to them. They likely care less about how many pixels to right you have placed your icons. Maybe they want to hear where your design process is going, what implications or dependencies there are in relation to other on-going projects. Depending on the situation, it might be perfectly fine to ask the audience: what aspects of the design work they’d like to discuss. And again you have factual info on what your audience expects.

Knowing your audience is everything, and research can help you with that. There are dedicated design researchers that focus on finding out customer (and market) needs and testing the designs. But in my point of view, it is critical designers participate in the research process — even if it meant only as an observer. Often times, interviews are full of interesting conversations that won’t be as inspiring if you just read them in the research report. I’ve also witnessed many times how people interpret what they heard during interviews and/or testing completely differently. So, forming your own point of view is easier if you get first hand information.

Best thing about knowing your customer is that it is no nuclear physics — anyone can do it. This means anyone can build successful and competitive products and services. All you need is an inquisitive mind and interest to build empathy to your target audience. Yes, there is processes and methods to doing customer and user research, and some people will be better at it than others. At the same time, all these can be learned and the more you get hands on with the research the easier it becomes. I’ve written a quick guide to get you over the fear of interviewing people. If nothing else, you can start there.

Think of knowledge about your audience like switching on lights in darkness. If you’re trying to walk through a dark room, it is likely you’re going to bump into furniture. But when you turn on the lights, you know exactly where to step to walk across safely.