Proven Need

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How 30 pre-product user interviews can minimise your startup risk

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

One of the biggest risks you have as a founder is building a product nobody wants. The best way to reduce this risk is to understand your target customer’s needs and desires before you start building.   Pre-product user interviews are a powerful and super efficient tool for getting a quick sense check on whether your idea is valid; figuring out what the first pass of your product might be; identifying copy for early versions of the product and for determining who your early adopters are. This guide will show you how to run them.

Key takeaways

  • Use pre-product interviews to understand what product to build;
  • Running around 30 interviews should give you enough interesting feedback;
  • There should be a common format to your questions;
  • Use open and inquisitive questions to extract needs and desires.

Don’t ask them what they want, ask them what they are trying to achieve

Pre-product interviews are not about asking customers what they want (they often don’t know what is possible), but rather understanding what problems they currently have, what outcome they are trying to achieve and what is difficult or frustrating with the current solutions available. You can use the information to determine how important the problem is to them, how actively they are looking to solve it and what the product solution could be. Working with a number of pre-product founders we have found that 30 interviews over a week can provide enough information to move onto defining your first product.

The interview format

As a pre-product founder you are in information seeking mode. It’s not the time to sell your idea. It is important to be mindful of the questions you ask, be inquisitive, interested and always keep the questions open. A good indication that you are asking the right types of questions is that you are listening over 80% of the time. Even better, the format of the interviews are roughly the same regardless of the company.   The following format tailored for your company is optimised to extract actionable information.  

Very brief intro to the general theme of the company. I.e outdoor spaces or legal needs.

Ask for demographic data. Get them talking with easy questions to get the conversation flowing and let you categorise the responses and create personas and user journey maps.

Ask about real examples of their problem and how they have solved it in the past. This is the main part of the questioning. You are helping them express the steps they took to solve the problem, understand their desired outcomes and the feelings they had along that journey. Some good follow-up questions are:

  • Can you tell me about that in more detail?
  • What was frustrating?
  • What were you trying to achieve?
  • How did that make you feel?
  • That’s interesting tell me more?
  • What do you feel about it now?
  • What were the fun parts of this?
  • How do you do that today?
  • What information did you find useful?
  • How did you discover the solutions you used to solve this problem?
  • Did you look for other solutions?

Ask them for their ideal way to solve the problem. Look for clues into how people might want this solved without pushing your own solution. Sometimes this can uncover some other needs and expectations that you might want to fulfil. Some good follow-up questions are:

What has stopped you from doing that already

Is that something you would be willing to pay for? How much?

Share the concept. This can give you a reaction to the initial idea. A good follow-up question might be:

Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to use a service like that?

Ask for a referral to some more people to interview.

And that is it! Here are a couple of interview questionnaires from a couple of the company’s we have worked with that gave us some very good results. This questionnaire is from Lexoo (a legal marketplace) and this questionnaire is from Patch (a personalised urban garden design service).  

Let the conversation flow

The preferred way to run an interview is to run them in person and have 2 in the interview along with the interviewee. This allows one to record the interviews and the other to be free to ask questions. If you can’t do the interviews in person then a Skype call is still good and can be much more time efficient. If you are by yourself then ask if you can record the interview so you are still free to ask questions without pausing to write. The flow of a conversation is really important to let people open up. However, if you have to write then that is far better than not doing the interview at all.

Record the important phrases

At the end of the interview, go through what was said and if you record nothing else, write down the comments or phrases you heard that you felt were important or insightful. It is often these special comments that you will remember as you make product decisions. For example with Lexoo, one comment we heard a lot from startup founders was “I didn’t know what I didn’t know”. This led us to understand that for a certain type of customer the relationship with lawyers was extremely one-sided and a service that helped customers be more prepared when dealing with lawyers would be useful. We also used this information to prioritise content marketing as an acquisition strategy to great success.

Choose your customers carefully

The key to making the 30 interviews count is that you have pre-qualified them so that they have the problem today or have had it recently. So for Lexoo, we targeted founders of companies of different sizes from small through to large that had recently had a legal problem. For Patch, we targeted people with balconies or small gardens in different areas of London that wanted to make them nicer. In both these cases, this also gave us a nice cross section of demographics to help us figure out who the early adopters might be. To find customers, we use a combination of our networks, social media posts and going to places where our target customers might be hanging out. If none of these work then paying for customers is also a possibility, either through user testing agencies or direct advertising on websites. However, remember to always screen so you are speaking to relevant people. If you can’t find 30 customers to talk to then you should consider it a sign that you are not ready to start this particular business. If you are struggling now to find 30 people you probably don’t know enough about the problem or the industry it is in. It is a sign that you need to immerse yourself for longer in the problem.

Stop when you start hearing the same things

Interviewing 30 customers is the minimum number to make sure you have enough material. If you can do more then that is great, however, you should you stop when you start getting similar responses. You are learning nothing new and it is far better to build a prototype of the product and get feedback on that quickly.

What to do when the interviews are complete

Hopefully, you will have written up all the interviews and responses and shared them with your team. Everyone needs to get a shared understanding even if they were not in all the interviews. We typically use this information in the first day of a design sprint. This 5 day process takes us from processing what we have learnt through to building a product prototype and getting more feedback from customers. The pre-product interviews allow us to share knowledge with the team, create personas and user journeys, come up with our first prototype and think about acquisition channels.

Useful links

Dharmesh Raithatha

Product Partner @ Forward Partners

Dharmesh is Product Partner at Forward Partners and helps founders the've backed go from ideas to a great products and businesses. He has a passion for User Research, Lean UX and using data to inform decision making. Dharmesh has a background in artificial intelligence and has been doing product for over 12 years in his own or other high profile startups.

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