The ultimate goal of any product team is to design products that are desirable, viable, and feasible. To achieve this, and drive rapid validation and iteration cycles, teams need to constantly refine their understanding of three key questions.
- Who is my customer?
- What is their problem?
- What is the best, lightest solution I can build for them?
Refine is the key word here, as these questions can never be answered definitively at any point in time. However, by continually circling back to them throughout the development cycle, teams can create top-notch products and minimize time-to-customer value.
Below, I’ll explore pragmatic ways to test and validate product ideas, from conception through launch, while still mapping back to these three core questions.
Build a Shared Understanding of Your Customer
Early in product development, most teams have hypotheses about what their customer needs, but their degree of certainty is relatively low. To deepen this understanding, teams need to get out into the field and talk with customers to validate – or invalidate – ideas.
As your team gathers data, all findings should be thought of as a probability field versus a concrete set of answers. Repeatedly going back to users for feedback, and refining your understanding of their needs, is the secret to product success. Throughout this process, ask yourself: have my customers’ needs shifted? Is there a certain feature, that addresses my customers’ needs, that can be built into the product to increase its value?
Start With Your Core Team and get Organizational buy-in
Another important step for delivering quality products quickly is getting organizational buy-in based on your understanding of the customer. This starts by first ensuring there’s alignment within your core team.
Your core team should include a product manager, design, engineering, data science, and user research. It’s advantageous to also include product marketing from the beginning, so that they’re involved in the entire development lifecycle and understanding the customer value proposition, rather than jumping in towards the end. You should get this core team involved in gathering customer feedback and in forming answers to your three key questions. This empowers them by building empathy and a first-hand understanding of the customer.
Once the core team is set, you should determine who else you’ll need buy-in from – executive sponsors, sales and support, leaders, and so on – and work your way out. Ultimately, no one wants to (or can!) build, market, or support a product that they don’t understand or don’t buy in to. Getting buy-in from your core team and other stakeholders will accelerate the process of delivering a product that is in line with what customers need.
Maximize Research Efficiency
Before you start building your product, you should make sure you’re transparent about key research questions, the methodology, and success criteria. You can avoid getting locked into analysis paralysis by setting clear success criteria for the decisions you’ll be making – that is, “if X happens, we’re going to do Y”.
As you conduct research, regularly share findings to reinforce the importance of your evidence-based approach and cut down on opinionating down the road. Consider time-boxing these research activities to keep development moving swiftly.
Share Customer Research Findings Throughout the Organization
Leveraging the expertise of your key stakeholders will be necessary throughout the development process, and it’s critical to make sure they’re aligned with your vision from the beginning. No one wants a CEO questioning their product when it’s already half-built. Buy-in from sales and support teams is also paramount, as these are your frontline people who will serve as the face of your product.
Once you’ve zeroed in on your stakeholders, you can share research findings with them in a variety of ways: company-wide brown bags, one-on-one meetings, or recorded training. At each stage, you should ask them whether the findings resonate with their experience, and take into account any feedback they provide to share with your core team.
Circle Back to the key Questions
Who is my customer, and what is their problem?
Begin deciphering what your customer wants with needs-discovery interviews, starting at a high level. This will provide context for how customers operate before you arrive at a problem hypothesis.
Questions or prompts might include:
- Tell me about your role
- What are your goals for this year?
- What challenges keep you up at night?
Then, you can delve deeper into the problem space with questions such as:
- How and when do you do X?
- Tell me about your most recent experience. What made it easy? What made it difficult?
- What tool or process did you use?
I’ve found that it’s best to keep interviews 80-90% needs-discovery focused and 10-20% solution-focused. As you chat with customers, you should periodically go back to your stakeholders to share findings.
What is the best and lightest solution I can build for them?
Following customer interviews, get your core team together for a brainstorming exercise to map solutions to user needs. This can be as simple as listing the customer needs you identified from interviews on one side of a whiteboard and brainstorming and listing possible solutions on the other.
Once a set of potential solutions for each need has been established, determine which are lightest by ranking ideas in terms of effort versus impact.
Build it – Fast!
Now it’s time to get building. You should aim to have an end-to-end, working version of your product completed in one to three weeks. It doesn’t have to be pixel perfect, but this early version will let you test assumptions and de-risk engineering assumptions. Begin to test the product internally, and hold qualitative interviews with customers to get their feedback as you continue to validate.
Designing products that are desirable, viable, and feasible doesn’t have to be exceedingly difficult or time consuming. By following the steps above, and continually asking yourself those three key questions, teams can reduce time to market and deliver a product that hits the mark for customers.