Customer development–discovery driven sales–requires that you first understand the customer’s problem then present a vision of a solution. If that is acceptable you can proceed to a demonstration that provides technical proof of value.

Q: How Do I Make Sure I Understand The Customer’s Problem and Present a Vision of a Solution?

It can be hard to understand the customer's vision of a solution, much less present yoursQ: My start-up is in the online safety for children space – cyberbullying, online grooming, sexting etc. We have developed proprietary technology using artificial intelligence to detect when a child is at risk from many sources which might be a peer being nasty or a groomer trying to get information. We’ve spent considerable time thinking it through, researching available solutions and putting together a concept we believe is better. Now it’s customer discovery time – actually finding out what customers want. We think we know but need to validate and see where we end up. We are at the beginning of that process now and have nothing but questions!

Our proposed approach is:

  • build nothing yet (not even a low fidelity MVP)
  • let the potential customers to tell us what they want first
  • do not say or do anything to influence the potential customers thoughts
  • after receiving the requirements, see if we can build out an MVP to that spec.
  • put the MVP out there for feedback
  • see where we stand at that point and either pivot or proceed

To that end, focusing exclusively on customer discovery at this stage, we propose setting up a website which we will use as a hub for that discovery process. It will give some info on who we are and what we are doing. We want to present it for what it is – an information gathering exercise that we will use to harvest customer requirements but not saying much (if anything at all) about what we think the solutions are. We propose to generate traffic to the site through various channels (Twitter, Facebook, parenting forums and other sources) and ask people to participate in the info gathering process through surveys, questionnaires and open forums. Leave the playing field open to all to tell us their thoughts and what they want.

I would appreciate any and all critical appraisal of our approach.

What is the specific problem you are trying to solve
for a specific type of customer?

A: What is the specific problem you are trying to solve for a specific type of customer? For example:

  • How old is the child? (e.g. 4 vs. 8 vs. 12 vs 16 likely have different solutions)
  • What forums / communication modes (e-mail, skype, Facebook, web browsing, etc..)

How are parents addressing the problem / managing the risks today?
You outline three safety risks that would seem to be very different:

  1. cyberbullying
  2. sexting
  3. on-line grooming

The first two are normally peer to peer communication and a vastly different problem–especially if both children are in the same school–than the third which is adult to child.

I am leery of your “blank canvas” approach where you encourage people to tell you what they want where you “do not say or do anything to influence the potential customers thoughts.”

I would focus first on what they are doing now to manage the risks of on-line communication. Look for real behavior and where they are spending their time and/or money to address the problems.

But then I think you have to offer them a vision of a solution. Many people cannot accurately appreciate what it would be like to use a finished product from a “word picture” in the same way many–myself included–find it difficult mentally exercise a 3 dimensional object from an isometric view, for example what would it look like if I rotated it by 60 degrees. Don’t ask them to predict their future behavior–how they would use your service–ask them to describe their current behavior–what they are doing now to address the need.

The reason why most software startups create a product management role (or have one of the founders take responsibility for a coherent product vision) is that taking a survey to gather a laundry list of requirements and treating that as a specification leads to a “Winchester Mystery House” model of construction without architecture.

Normally a product is developed as a sequence of prototypes so I am curious why you want to build nothing.

You are clearly committed to a vision of a solution because you say, “We’ve spent considerable time thinking it through, researching available solutions and putting together a concept we believe is better. ” I worry by not getting it out of your heads, out of what Albert Savoia–author of Pretotyping–calls “Thoughtland” where everything works perfectly, that you may not discover some flaws in your conception in the absence of customer feedback. I would also think you would want to start testing the concept on example messages just to start work on a technical proof demonstration if asked.

Q: I was particularly taken by your view that we would be well served to focus on current customer behavior to see what they are doing now to solve their problem, using that as a platform from which we could work out a solution to make their life easier without having them to completely change the way they do things, which would be an altogether bigger proposition we would have to turn them around to. I will put some thought into that when coming up with the approach.

It’s normally much safer to ask people about past behavior than ask them to prevent future behavior. Shifting your focus to behavior from a verbal expression a needs will likely save you a lot of time and trouble.

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