Please learn from our mistakes

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19 Jul

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“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.”

— Steve Jobs

But then, the natural question that would arise in anyone's mind after reading this is:

How can you build for customers if you don't know what they want?

Hint: It's not about NOT knowing what they want, it's about directly asking them what they want.

There are a few problems with leading questions.

Let's say you go ahead and ask your friends,

"Hey I'm building this product. Would you be interested in using it?"


"Hey, I'm building this app. What features would you want in it?"

Now, the problem with the first question is that your friends love you and they will lie to you. They will tell you that they're interested so that they don't need to have the hard conversation around why what you're solving has never really been a problem for them.

And that you're simply wasting your time.

The problem with the second question — asking for feature ideas directly assumes that the person you're talking to will be using your app.

For all you know, they might not even download it as it's not a problem they face on a regular basis.

So then, what are the questions you should be asking?

Any question you ask a potential customer should be aimed at identifying their current lifestyle, problems, and behaviour, not what they “would want.”

The questions you ask should lead to factual answers, not hypothetical statements based on some time in the future.

Some examples of good questions:

  1. Is X a problem for you?
  2. If so, how often do you face this problem?
  3. What do you do to solve the problem whenever you face it? How do you get around it?

If they say X is a problem, but they haven't really done anything to solve it, that means it is not really a problem for them. And they most definitely won't be paying for a solution any time soon.

But if they say that X is really a problem they've been trying to solve, you can follow up with questions like:

  1. What is the hardest thing about X?
  2. What happened last time when you encountered X? 3. Why was this hard?
  3. What don't you love about the current solution?

Observe that none of these questions talk about a product!

Rather, they try to identify and get at the root of the real problem the person is facing.

Ideally, you want them to be as honest as possible and tell you if it isn't a problem for them at all.

And finally, instead of quickly jumping to pitching ideas like,

"What if you had an app that solved X?" or "What if I built Y to help you with X?" — again, hypothetical questions — try to talk less and listen more.

Allow the person to talk about the issue in-depth, along with everything else in their life that is relevant to it. Your purpose with the interview is to get to the root of the problem and build a good understanding of the problem, and not ask the user what they think the best solution to the problem would be.

That's your job.

Sometimes, you don't even need to ask a lot of questions. General observation reveals what people actually do versus what they say they do.

And the former is much more honest and accurate than the latter. Try not to get all your insight from these user interviews themselves. Not many will tell you this, but all good entrepreneurs know that there is far more insight to be mined just via observation of what people do and how they behave than asking questions to people within the frame of an interview.

For more on this topic, read this essay.

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