Interview Prospects To Find Unmet Needs, Persistent Problems, and Goals at Risk

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Customer Development, skmurphy

Given a specification for a software tool it’s straightforward and enjoyable to deliver a working solution to a customer.

If the customer is kind enough to write the specification or sit with you and help you to craft one  it’s delightful and reminiscent of programming assignments in college where the professor would give you a written specification, test data,  and a time frame to complete it in and would then wait for you to turn it in without moving the deadline or re-writing the specification.

“Walking on water and developing software from a specification are easy if both are frozen.”
Edward V. Berard

After a few experiences talking to prospects who could not easily specify their requirements and were forever changing their mind it’s easy to nod your head knowingly when you come across:

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Henry Ford

Des Traynor has a very well written critique of entrepreneurs who use Henry Ford’s “Faster Horses” quote to avoid any conversation with prospects. Here is the opening to give you a flavor, but read the whole thing:

This often gets quoted as being some sort of proof that customers don’t know what they want. The reality is that Henry Ford didn’t ask, and if he did it’s really unlikely anyone would have asked for faster horses. Cars had been around for quite a while before Ford, the problem was they weren’t affordable for most people. It’s far more likely that customers would have asked for cheaper cars, and in fact, by pioneering development of assembly lines for production that’s actually what Henry Ford delivered.

Traynor  includes a great insight from Dan Saffer (original  IXDA thread).

The most common misconception about design research is that you are asking users what the design should be. You aren’t (or shouldn’t be). Instead, the best design research I’ve been involved in is about finding data on three things:

  1. Unmet needs. Usually unspoken and unrealized. Yes, people would have asked for a faster horse, but what is the need there? To travel longer distances quicker. The automobile was the solution to that need.
  2. Pain points. Where is what is being done now difficult?
  3. Opportunities. Where is there a space for a product or service that would meet those unmet needs or fix the pain points?

Then it is our job to design the solution.

There’s a lot more in the post that’s worth reading but his deeper point is to maintain a curiosity and a sense of appreciative inquiry for the prospect’s situation and needs, not to ask them to sketch a screen layout or detail a solution. Prospects are much better at identifying constraints and objectives than a detailed implementation, so the interview is less about a preplanned list of feature questions and more a serious conversation that fosters a joint exploration of the situation and particular problem.

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