Neglect Product Concept Testing at Your Own Risk

In the beginning you have an idea for your new product or capability. But will it really solve your customers’ problem? Before you start building it you need to test the idea with your target market. You want to do this early – before you spend time and effort building it. Keep the process lightweight so it can be done fast and for a low cost.

Your goal at this stage is to find out whether the product will solve your customers’ problem, whether they are willing to pay for it, and whether they will buy it from you.

“When testing your product concept, visuals more effectively communicate your ideas to customers. Rely on visuals instead of written words when possible.”

You are creating three main outputs at this stage: Your product concept, your interview questions, and summary of your findings and recommendations.

Important: Before you interview customers about the product concept you need to investigate the problem your product solves. Your customers should have already confirmed that they have the problem. That the problem impacts them. That the problem is significant. And that they want you to solve it for them.

Product Concept

When testing your product concept, use visuals as much as possible. Visuals are more effective in communicating your idea to the customer. They better show what your product will do and how it will help users.

The medium and format doesn’t matter so much. Use whatever you think makes sense for your product. You can use mockups, wireframes, slides, white board, or story boards. Use whatever visuals you think will convey the product concept in a way that can be easily understood by the people you’ll be sharing it with.

Use diagrams, illustrations, user interfaces, hand drawings, or whatever works best. If you use written descriptions at all, use them sparingly.

You will use the product concept to walk the customer through your idea and get their feedback. Generally, you are testing that the product would solve your customers’ problem.

Interview Questions

Write down your list of questions. I do this after the product concept is mostly completed. Doing the work of creating the product concept will help you to discover what questions you need to ask. You will use these questions to help you guide the conversation with your customers.

Focus on areas with the most uncertainty. This could be anything. Maybe you need find out which features will be most important to users. Or maybe you’re struggling with the pricing model.

Here are some sample questions you might ask:

  1. Would the product solve your problem?
  2. Is this product a must have or a nice to have?
  3. How would the product improve your job?
  4. What characteristics of the product are most important to you?
  5. Which are least important?
  6. Would you and your business commit to paying for the product if it was built?
  7. How much would you expect to pay for the product?
  8. Is the product something you would expect to purchase from our company? Or from somewhere else?

I like to run the list of questions by at least couple of people before I use them with customers. Others will look at it from a different perspective, and you will get some useful input. I typically choose a handful of people from engineering, product management, professional services, and customer support. Choose people who interact with customers and whose opinions you value most.

Getting the Meetings

I am covering this step because some of it takes tact. Make a list of the customers you want to interview. Involve others in creating your list if needed. Choose customers who are most engaged with your company and who have provided useful feedback in the past.

Ideally you should have some relationships that you can call on. If you don’t, find out who in your organization has the relationship and ask them for help. If you are a start-up and don’t have customers yet, leverage your broader network of former colleagues, customers, partners, and contacts to make introductions for you.

If you want to speak with existing customers, reach out to the account manager to get approval before you contact the customer. The account manager should be informed of what you are doing. There may be a sensitive issue or other circumstance going on at the account, and it may not be a good time for you to reach out to the customer.

When you contact the person to ask whether you can interview them, be sure to let them know why you want to talk with them, what’s in it for them, and how long it will take. The interviews should take about 20-30 minutes.

Interviewing Customers

Walk the customer through your product concept. Use your questions to guide the conversation. Take detailed notes on their feedback. Ideally, the interviews are in person so you can also pay attention to physical indicators and cues. But if that’s not possible, web conferencing works reasonably well.

You’ll know when you’ve talked to enough customers. You’ll start to hear the same responses. I typically hold 7-15 different interviews, depending on what I am testing, whether a new product or new capability for an existing product. You can always do more interviews if you think it’s needed.

After your first couple of interviews you might realize that you need to tweak your product concept or interview questions. You may just need to revise your product concept to make it more clear, for example. Or possibly add a couple of new questions to your list, ones you didn’t think of initially.

The customer should leave the conversation feeling like you heard them. Ideally, the customer gets something out of the conversation too. Such as insight into your thinking or vision of the future. Or that they’ve helped shape your product direction in some way.

As you are wrapping up, be sure to ask the interviewee whether they would give you feedback on the product definition, or whether you may contact them if you have any follow-up questions. I’ve found that they are always willing to do this. Respect their time. Don’t go over the 20 or 30 minutes you’ve scheduled. Thank them for their feedback.

Your Findings & Conclusions

Next you process your notes. I like this part because it’s analytical in nature. You are looking for similarities and differences in what your customers have told you. Sift through all of your notes in detail. Parse and categorize the data.

Do the product solve their problem? What was most important and what was least important to them? Where did they agree and where did they disagree? Were they evenly split on anything? Do you need to follow-up on anything to get a better understanding? Were there any big revelations you weren’t expecting?

Now summarize your key findings and draw your conclusions. The feedback you get from customers when testing your product will also help you shape your minimum viable product (MVP).

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

~ Thomas Edison

Present the results to others in your organization who need to know. I typically created a slide deck, called the team together, and presented the results to them. Explain your process too – how you reached your findings and conclusions.

I’d love to hear what methods and techniques you’ve used. Please share in the comments.

Photo by Bob Marquart | CC BY | Modified

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