How to Talk to Users

Jul 30, 2019 00:00 · 841 words · 4 minute read Startup School 2019

These are my notes from “How to Talk to Users”, by Eric Migicovsky. An entry of my Startup School 2019 series where I follow the curriculum in Y-Combinator’s Startup School

Eric Migicovsky founded Pebble in 2008, and is now a Partner at Y Combinator.

The Mom Test

Tips from The Mom Test

  1. Talk about their life, not your idea - The purpose of a user interview is to extract information to help improve our product, marketing, positioning, etc. Not to sell someone on using our product!

  2. Talk specifics, not hypotheticals - Don’t talk about what we want the product to be, or what we could build. Talk about specifics that have already happened in the users life. The path that lead them to your problem. The motivation, or why they have this problem in the first place.

  3. Listen, don’t talk - get as much information as you can. Refrain from selling.

Five Questions

Here are five questions you can ask in any user interview. The following examples are from the point of Dropbox founders trying to build they’re product back in 2005.

1. What is the hardest part about [doing this thing]?

Learn how they currently deal with this problem. This question can confirm that the problem you’re working on is a problem real users feel is a pain point.

example: what is the hardest part about working on a group project with school computers?

2. Tell me about the last time you encountered that problem.

The goal for this question is to gain context around circumstances in which the person encountered the problem. You’ll have real life examples to overlay your solution to see if it would have helped solve the problem.

example: what class was the user in, was it a programming project? a school paper?

3. Why was that hard?

The reason you want to ask this is you’ll hear many different answers. You’ll learn how to market your product, how to explain to new users the value/benefits of your solution.

example: instead of saying I have a tool that can sync files. You can say you have something that solved the exact problem the user face just yesterday.

4. What, if anything, have you done to try to solve this problem?

If users aren’t already exploring ways to solve the problem, it’s possible you don’t have a burning enough problem for users to even be interested in your better solution. What will your product be compared against?

example: did you coordinate to all work on the project in person together? or did you email files back and forth? did you setup rsync

5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

This is the beginning of your potential feature set. You’re not asking “What features would want?” Users are not great at identifying features. If Henry Ford asked what his customers wanted, they would’ve asked for a faster horse.

Talking to users is useful at all stages

Talking to users is useful at any stage of your startup, including:

  • the idea stage, before you’ve even started building a product.
  • the prototype stage, when you’re trying to get users.
  • the launched stage, when you have users to talk to.

Idea Stage Tips

  1. Try asking the five questions to yourself - The best problems are ones you have yourself.
  2. Talk to friends or co-workers - You only need one or two good user interviews to start guiding your solution.
  3. Stop by in person - Cold emails don’t work, we’ve had a lot of success just stopping by un-announced.
  4. Industry events - When working on pebble we went to CES, no budget no booth, just talked people up and setup meetings at coffee shops.

Prototype Stage Tips

Identify the best first customers. If you choose the wrong first customers, they may lead you down the wrong path.

  1. How much does this problem cost them? - How much revenue do they stand to earn if they solve this problem. Or how much do they currently spend trying to solve this problem.
  2. How frequent is this problem? - Hourly? Quarterly? Yearly? More frequent means more pain, and more chances to see if your solution is working.
  3. How large is their budget? - Do they have the authority to solve the problem.

Make a spreadsheet with this data. Each row is a potential customer, and the three columns for each row is the customer’s answers to the three questions.

Use this to prioritize customers that have the highest answers to all of the questions.

Launched Stage Tips

Most definitions of Product Market Fit require you to already have PMF to know if you have it or not. There is a great blog post on how to iterate towards PMF without already being there. When you’re iterating and have users, you can ask this:

How would you feel if you could no longer use [your product]

  • very disappointed
  • somewhat disappointed
  • not disappointed

Measure the percent who answer “very disappointed”. Product market fit when value > 40%.


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