Stop Validating Your Product

I talk to a lot of very small companies that are trying to do Customer Development, and the conversations are often the same. The entrepreneur explains that the company is working on a fabulous product, and they want to figure out a) if anybody wants to buy the product and b) if they need to change anything about the product so that more people will buy it.

The entrepreneurs always ask questions like, “How will I know if I have talked to enough people?” and “How do I know if the people who like it are just early adopters?” and “How do I know if I should change the product in response to feedback or if I should just keep trying to find the right market?” The ones who have already been out in the field trying to conduct these interviews all have a sort of glazed, terrified look.

These are all really important questions. I’m going to give you a way to avoid having to ask most of them.

Stop trying to validate your product.

Now, I fully expect a bunch of people to stop reading here and totally miss the point of this post, but for those of you who stick it out, I promise this will make sense in a minute.

The trick is, it is far, far easier to conduct customer development before you have settled on a product or even an idea for a problem.

Why is that? Well, think about products as solutions to problems. Sometimes that “problem” is “I’m sort of bored while I’m waiting for the train” and the unexpected solution is flinging virtual birds at virtual pigs. But often, the problem is something more concrete, and it’s frequently shared by a large group of similar people.

So, instead of focusing on validating a solution, try one of the following techniques.

Validate a Problem

Let go of your preconceptions about how you are going to solve a problem for people and concentrate on first figuring out whether lots of people have a particular problem and what they’re currently doing to solve it.

For example, let’s say that you’ve posited that people have a really hard time finding and making appointments with trustworthy auto mechanics. The mistake you will probably make is to jump right into solving that problem and then going out into the world with some half-baked idea for Yelp meets OpenTable meets AAA and trying to find out whether it solves this problem that you’re not technically sure exists yet.

Instead of doing that, first validate the problem. Get on the phone with lots of different types of people and ask them how they found their mechanics. Talk to them about all of their mechanic-based issues. Find out what causes them the most pain.

Also, this is a good time to narrow down your market. Start with the market “people who have cars and will talk to you,” but quickly start noticing patterns. Do all the busy people have similar problems? What about people who live in cities vs. suburbs? How about people who are new to an area? Try people with special kinds of cars. I’ll bet that they all have very different problems, any of which you might want to solve.

Once you’ve spent time talking to people in various markets with various problems, you’ll come up with all sorts of ideas of how to solve those problems. The great thing is that then you can validate your product idea with people who you already know have a solvable problem.

This is a great way to do things if you have a particular problem yourself, and you want to find out if there are other people like you who have that same problem. By talking to lots of people with the same problem, you’re going to come up with a much better solution than you would if you just solved things for yourself.

Solve a Problem for a Particular Market

A slightly different approach is to pick your market first. Let’s say you have a special affinity for auto mechanics or busy moms or accountants at mid-sized companies.

The trick here is that you’re not going to change your market. You’re going to figure out some massive problem that is being experienced by a large portion of the market, and you’re going to solve it for them.

Your first step is going to be some ethnographic research. You need to really get into the heads of your target market and see what makes them similar and what’s driving them nuts. You’re not going into the research with an idea of the problem you want to solve for them. You’re going to let their needs drive your product decisions.

This is a great method if you happen to have some specific connection with a group or industry. Let’s say you collect porcelain owl figurines. You might desperately want to solve a problem for other porcelain owl aficionados, but you should be open to what problem you want to solve for them. For example, it might be how to get large numbers of high quality porcelain owls. Or it might be ways to contact therapists that deal with severe hoarding issues. Let the user research guide you!

The Easiest Kind of Customer Development

Hopefully you’re noticing a pattern here. The easiest kind of customer development is the kind that you do before you have a very solid product idea.

If you figure out your problems and your market before you come up with an Idea or a Solution or a Product, then when you do build something, you’ve already done a huge amount of the work in figuring out if anybody’s going to use it.

This is really about controlling which variables you’re testing. It’s hard to simultaneously find a problem, a market, and the problems with a real product all at once.

However, once you’ve validated your market and your problem, you can create something that solves that specific problem for that particular market. The beauty of this is that if you build a product for a problem you know exists in a market you know needs it and still nobody uses it, you can be pretty certain that the problem is your product.

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