Qualitative Research: Problem Exploration for Lean Startups

Key points from Mary Sorber’s presentation on “Qualitative Research: Problem Exploration for Lean Startups” at Lean Culture July-31-2018.

Qualitative Research: Problem Exploration for Lean Startups

Qualitative ResearchAt a Tue-July-31-2018 Lean Culture Meetup in Palo Alto, Practical Insights Founder and qualitative research specialist Mary Sorber outlined a six-step path to effective customer communication.

1. Define Your Goals

Goals – Create realistic milestone goals and write down the necessary phases of development to achieve them. Sorber advises to plan at least two phases each for information gathering and evaluation. Researching and analyzing simultaneously is never a good idea.

2. Start Customer Discovery

Customer discovery – Have potential consumer targets describe their problem and solution in their own words. If the environment is a crucial element, be sure to ask people in that environment. Be open to ideas, follow bread crumbs, go off script, and assume nothing. I think Mo’at phrased it best in Avatar: “How can you fill a cup that is already full?”

3. Define Target Audience

Target audience – Narrow down your target consumer base and prepare questions. Focus on your goals and align them to specific roles and responsibilities. An engineer is not going to give insightful marketing input and vice versa.

4. Refine Product Description

Product description – Prepare a quick spiel that describes your product in terms of value delivered, not technical challenges. Keep in mind that the vast bulk of consumers are conservative and pragmatic; avoid technical jargon.

5. Customer Interviews

Interview – With all the preparation completed in advance (finding an audience, developing a complete product concept, and outlining goals) it’s time to communicate with future customers! Work out logistics in advance and bring a partner for moral (and technical) support. Be insanely curious but not overly enthusiastic. This is not a sales pitch.


  • Start with easy questions
  • Read body language
  • Repeat and reiterate to confirm you understood correctly
  • Lead into your product description before stating your idea
  • Accept awkward pauses. Some people need time to think.
  • Relate to your interviewee and take steps to reduce the “power distance”
  • Follow the improv mantra of “yes, and..” and create a conversation


  • Strictly follow a script and avoid asking probing, personal questions
  • Ask yes/no or leading questions
  • Be cold or rush the interviewee
  • Directly present your idea with no lead up or background
  • Be condescending or belittling

Essentially, be HUMAN. Have a conversation. Avoid accidentally giving your customer, as Sean Murphy phrased it, an “IQ Test.” The goal is to find out whether your product would solve this person’s need, not whether they are smart enough to use it.

For more guidance, see David Telleen-Lawton’s post on Setting up Customer Discovery Meetings.

6. Analyze Results

Analyze – Document and debrief your interview results as soon as possible. Don’t read too much into any one interview and look for patterns. Remember, this is qualitative research. Trying to read quantitative results can lead to very skewed data.

Mary Sorber’s Pro-tip: Implement customer interviews as often as possible, throughout all stages of development. They start to become easier, the qualitative data keeps flowing in, and entrepreneurs gain a clearer understanding of their product’s desired function.


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