Stop Asking “Would You Use This?”
Building a new product or feature costs a lot of time and money. To avoid wasting time and money building something no one uses, we naturally wonder if people will actually use the thing we want to build. When trying to answer this question, our first instinct is often to just ask people outright: “Would you use this?” There are big issues with this approach.
As the renowned cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead explained, “What people say, what people do, and what they say they do are entirely different things.” Humans are naturally bad at accurately recounting their past behavior and predicting their future behavior.
When you ask someone if they will use your product, there is zero risk for them to say yes and be wrong. In that moment, they’re not thinking about the countless other things competing for their time, attention, and money. I might tell you I’ll use your product, but what about when I get home and Netflix lures me to the couch? Or, if the product is meant to be used at work, what about when something urgent monopolizes my attention?
We also have to consider demand characteristics in any experiment we perform. The term demand characteristic refers to a phenomenon where participants interpret an experiment’s purpose and alter their behavior to fit that interpretation. By asking “Would you use this?” you make your interview’s purpose glaringly obvious. The customer is now much more likely to say they’ll use your product, simply because they don’t want to disappoint you.
What to Ask Instead
Lean Startup methodology tells us a lot about how to validate that people will use our products. However, it’s important to fully understand the lean methodology. A key tenant of Lean Startup is to “get out of the building” and talk to potential customers. But if you bias your conversations with these potential customers, you risk tainting your perspective on the market even more. If you’re looking for a deep dive into customer interviewing techniques, check out Ash Maurya’s book Running Lean or Rob Fitzpatrick’s The Mom Test. In the meantime, here are some questions you want to answer during your interviews.
Does Your Participant Have the Problem?
Past behavior is an accurate predictor of future behavior (Oulette & Wood,1998). Instead of asking “Would you use this?” we need to hone in on the problem the product is meant to solve. Don’t even mention anything about your solution. Focus your early interviews entirely on the problem itself.
In our example above, the product doesn’t solve a problem for the woman being interviewed — she doesn’t even build apps. We need to make sure the person we’re talking to actually has the problem our product solves. To do this, tell your interviewee a short, narrative story about the problem, with characters, conflict, and setting. Then ask open ended questions about the story, such as “How do you relate to that story, if at all?” You can use this same approach if recruiting users via survey.
Is the Problem Painful Enough?
We also need to understand how painful the problem is. Ask your interviewees how the problem compares to other problems in their life or work. You can even ask them to rank their problems or rate them on a scale.
If your product doesn’t solve a painful problem, people won’t use it.
But don’t stop there — dig deep into the problem by asking why it’s so painful (or not painful). This is where the real nuggets of information live, and they’ll end up shaping your solution. For example, let’s say your potential customer Fran struggles to decide what to eat for dinner every night. If that’s all you know, you might make a generic app for finding carry out restaurants. But if you dig deeper, you find out that Fran’s husband is a vegetarian while she never misses a day without meat. They can never agree on what to eat. Now, your solution might focus more on finding dinners that cater to different taste palates.
Are People Actively Trying to Solve the Problem?
Last, ask your target users to show you, not tell you, how they try or have tried to solve this problem. If they haven’t actively tried solving the problem, then they’re not going to spend money or effort using your product. If they simply tell you how they solve it, they will leave out details or remember incorrectly. On the contrary, if they are really struggling to solve the problem, you can make a serious impact on their lives. And seeing the issues they encounter firsthand will set you up to solve the problem in a way no one else does.
If your problem checks all three of these boxes, you can have more confidence that people will use your product. There’s a lot that goes into running an unbiased research interview. While mastering this discipline will take some practice, following the above guidelines will decrease your business risk and provide more reliable knowledge about your customers.
Ouelette, J.A. & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124 (1), 54-74.
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