How to build a tech product #1 : Defining the customer

by Patrick Weissert, CPO

Imagine an 11 year old car upgraded with conversational Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning in an advanced piece of hardware that can be installed in 3 minutes — that’s Chris. A deep tech product for low tech consumers. We just got funded on Kickstarter and now share our learning on building Chris.

Who is the customer” and “what problem are you solving for them” are the hairy big two questions in the early days. It’s important to do this early, and then stick to the decision through thick & thin. Since you will not have oodles of market research you will need to formulate a hypothesis based on what you think happens. Important is to have the discussion, have it with all the key people, and then make the decision — and stick with it.

Once we had the right people place we ran a workshop on those 2 questions, together “honorary guest participants” whose input we wanted. It was a hot Summer day, and the discussion made it even hotter. But we followed the framework “V1” vs. “later” vs. “never” vs. “doesn’t matter” for both questions, and in the end of the day we had reached agreement on both.

The purpose of being clear on those 2 questions from the beginning is to de-bottleneck the design process. Most design discussions where people can’t agree for hours are essentially discussions about these 2 questions, but disguised as discussions about a feature.

You can typically immediately stop those discussions if you can point back to who you work for, who not, who later, etc. There is often the input “oh, but we need much more research to make this decision” — this is paralysis by analysis.

If the segment is large enough (30 mins of desk research should give you a feel), and the problem is real enough (validate through early pitches), go for it. Importantly — do NOT change that decision in the design process unless you have truly and fully validated that it does not make sense to pursue this segment and/or problem.

You can change the solution you are building, a “solution pivot”, i.e. the kind of product that will solve the problem, and you can change that quite radically (from digital to physical…), but if you change your mind on customer or problem you are resetting the design process back to the start — because you’ll again start with needing to learn about the customer, etc.

V1: This is who you want to target with the very first product iteration. These are the people you will think about all day and night for the next weeks, months and years

Later: These are segments for whom the product will have value (you believe), but you can’t target everyone in v1, so you’ll make them happy later. This list gets parked, and if in any future meeting someone brings up that one of these guys need feature X, you will say “I know, but that’s not who we are solving for right now”

Never: It’s also very important to know who your product will never be for, or what problem it will never solve. Have the list, and make sure the team knows it

Doesn’t matter: Some dimensions can lead discussions to get stuck, but actually are irrelevant. For example, for some products it’s important if people have a smartphone or not, for others not. In our case, we ended up concluding that whether someone has a company car or their own car does not matter for us, the need applies to both in the same way. When you do research later on, these are dimensions you don’t control for.

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Patrick Weissert is founder & chief product officer at German Autolabs. He is passionate going on weekend-trips and has been waiting for years for someone to build a good voice assistant for cars. Now he is building it himself.

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