This is a text written three years ago, for the participants of a workshop on customer validation interviews. As I’m referring to it often, in other workshops, best is to make it available. In the end of the article, there is a list of resources that guided me through the process. At that point I was involved in a startup called UseTogether, a peer-to-peer marketplace and community for people to exchange items they don’t use often.
Some months ago, in the beginning of the summer (note: it was 2013), we set down and looked more carefully on the product metrics trying to understand better what to do next. At that point we had around 2000 members on the platform, so it was enough to get some conclusions for the next phase. Basically we had two important conclusions:
(1) less than 5% of the members joining where posting 1 or 2 items (1 of 100 was adding more than 5) and
(2) 95% of the items posted were not requested by anyone else.
Bottom line: there was no point in going on the same direction so we had to change something about it. But what?
We were thinking about changing the marketing message, to make the platform more search oriented and to focus on a specific niche (we decided to research the next market segments: students, parents and employees. Each of these categories could use a platform like this, we wanted to see which one has a stronger need.
After two weeks of research, the most promising one seemed to be the parents niche. They were needing a lot of items for kids, spending a lot of money on them, these items were used for a short period of time (as the kids were growing fast) and in the end the items were just taking up space.
Also important was the fact that the behaviour was already existing, so parents were exchanging/borrowing/giving away items in their circles of friends.
Anyway, to be sure about that, we started doing more customer validation interviews with various parents: younger and older, with higher salaries and lower, with babies, toddlers or with kids around 5–7 years old.
I really felt that I want to be sure as much as possible and to understand the parents, their needs, their behaviour and how a platform like this can help them. Luckily I had some knowledge gained in some workshops on customer validation which helped me getting started. After tens of face-to-face interviews, a few surveys and focus groups, below you can read about the general structure applied.
Basically, there were a few questions which added together, step by step, followed the logic.
1. “What are the problems that you encounter related to…?”
I believe that for getting a truthful validation, the interviewed people should not know anything about what you want to build (or the less the better). The point is to ask general questions and dig deeper into the problem this way. For example “tell me about the issues that you encountered when raising kids”, probably they will say health problems, finding relevant information, spending money on various stuff for the baby. At this step, you should relate to the problem that you want to tackle the most with your future product (in this case it was spending money on baby items) and ask another general question about this problem and so on until you think you have the enough of the ideas needed.
2. “What are the alternatives that you use to solve this problem?”
As it is a problem, for sure people are trying to solve it somehow, off-line (calling friends, asking for professional help, going to various off-line marketplaces or to shops) or on-line (searching on Google, posting on Facebook groups, checking specialised websites etc.). It is really important to find them because these are your competitors, direct (a product doing the same thing) or indirect (as alternative, substitute).
3. “What issues do you find with these alternatives?”
Maybe those alternatives are too hard to use or it takes time or money, or they lack proper usability. These issues, once you find them out, are also transforming into reasons why to use your product over those alternatives and these are suggestions for what you should avoid or implement better. The point is that, hopefully there will be issues that you could solve with your product and bring added value to your potential customers, if not, then there not much use of adding one more product to these alternatives.
4. “What is the perfect solution for you?”
At this point, people should be thinking deeply about the situation and already some ideas about how things can be improved, so you need to help them imagine the right solution for them. You might get some surprising advices, creative or really different from what you have in mind, still really valuable out-of-your-box ideas. In the case they say something that is really close to what you have in mind, you can be really happy, your thoughts are validated.
So this is the first part of the interview. After this, you can mention what you plan to do, describe the details, features and ask direct feedback on it, show some mockups (if any). In the end, ask also with whom else to talk with, can they recommend someone else who can provide valuable feedback?
If possible, do this 20 more times on the significant segment, do some surveys and focus groups in order to get more ideas or to confirm what you know already and then start building the product.
Some short advices:
- focus first on customer validation
- it’s important to find out what works and what not, as much as possible before building the MVP
- do segmentation and focus your interviews on customers segments
- in the customer segment discover the early adopters (EA)
- find the EA for whom your product is a must have, not just a nice to have
- do interviews until you see the information is repeating itself
- iterated interviews (adapt them according to the results from the previous interviews)
- use customers’ words in phrasing your marketing message
- when you market the product tell the benefits first and not the features
- if possible, do customer validation for every new feature
- the quest is not about getting new users but more precisely about getting to understand the users for whom your product really solves a problem
- always try to find facts and actual happenings, these reflect the true behaviour which might contradict user’s belief (ex: “I would use this…”, but in reality they would not use it)