When Steve Blank wrote the book “The Four Steps to the Epiphany,” he brought a sea change in the way technology entrepreneurs do business. Rather than plow ahead with a technology-led process, most entrepreneurs have embraced “customer development.” Getting out of the building and doing primary market research has saved a great many startups from solving the wrong problems and repeating the mistakes of projects like Google Glass.
You don’t know what you don’t know
When you are just getting started, the first thing to do is to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. You have hypotheses about your target market and end users, but you don’t know if your intuition is right.
What you need to do at this stage is “problem research.” This is the phase in primary market research where you try to understand the problem. The technique that is central to the Lean Startup movement, MVP (minimum viable product) testing, is all about “solution research,” which I will cover in a separate post.
Three go-to techniques for problem research
Problem research is best done using qualitative research techniques which companies that value consumer insights, such as Procter and Gamble, has been doing for decades.
There are three go-to techniques that are particularly helpful in quickly and efficiently gathering insights to help you build knowledge early on:
- Detailed interviews ― the researcher interviews subjects to understand their needs, wants and expectations.
- Observation ― the researcher observes and sometimes shadows the subject to understand their behaviors.
- Immersion ― the researcher keeps notes as he or she navigates a particular situation or uses a product or service.
One technique to rule them all: The detailed interview
Of these, the detailed interview is by far the most important technique to master. Once you know how to interview someone properly, you have learned how to learn.
Here is a cheat sheet to help you run an excellent detailed interview:
- Establish rapport before you begin, so the subject will be comfortable talking with you.
- Ask short, open ended questions, like, “Tell me about the last time…”
- Let the subject lead. Don’t ask leading questions: “Don’t you think this situation is very frustrating for you?”
- Use active listening techniques: “You mentioned such-and-such. Can you tell me more about why you said that?” Also ask “Why?” and “Why not?” to follow up on insights.
- Talk less, listen more. This cannot be over-emphasized!
- Pay attention to body language. This is why interviews are best done face-to-face. If somebody says: “Sure, I like your idea very much,” but their non-verbal cues exude discomfort… they are probably just being polite.
For more insights, Giff Constable’s excellent book, “Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers,” provides an easy to understand tutorial.
Challenges with running a qualitative research problem
There is one thing that jumps out about these techniques. They are very expensive. They are best done one-on-one, ideally in person. Focus groups are out of favor for very good reasons. Researchers running on a shoestring budget will immediately run into several problems:
- Recruitment: Where will you find people to interview or observe?
- Time commitment: How can you fit 20 one-hour interviews, plus the data crunching and interpretation, into a fast-paced project timeline?
- Cost: Do you have budget to pay for a service to recruit subjects for them, and then provide an additional $100-$150 incentive to research subjects for an hour of their time?
In the past, companies like P&G would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single research project. For entrepreneurs, this is cost prohibitive.
How new product teams can accelerate customer development
While startups cannot match the scale and scope of best practice research programs in the model of multinational giants, this is not an excuse not to do it. On the contrary, startups deal with such extreme uncertainty that they should absolutely double down on their efforts to do primary market research and learn from their potential customers and end users.
How can they do this effectively? Here are some simple steps.
- Articulate 3-5 hypotheses to be tested
- Define characteristics of research subjects
- Make a list of 10 people to call
- Ask for 10-15 minutes of their time
- Face to face if possible, video chat/phone if not
- Interpret results, adjust hypotheses
- Rinse and repeat
Last but not least, Laura Klein’s book “UX for Lean Startups: Faster, Smarter User Experience Research and Design” contains very practical tips of ways to scale down traditional ways to do qualitative research to fit the budget and pace of a startup.
If you are thinking of launching a new product, definitely give this a read. It will help you jump-start your efforts to understand your customers. Happy learning!
Elaine Chen is a startup veteran and product strategy and innovation consultant who has brought numerous hardware and software products to market. As Founder and Managing Director of ConceptSpring, she works with executives and leaders of innovative teams to help them set up and run new product innovation initiatives with the speed and agility of a startup. She is also a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Follow her at @chenelaine.