Product Feedback

5 min read

How to Validate Feature and Product Ideas Before You Build

One of the greatest product management sins is wasting your organization’s time and money developing a product or feature that fails. As a product manager it’s your job to ensure that if you green light a product it has a good shot at success, which means it’s critical to ensure that you’re not frivolously hedging bets on something that’s doomed from the start.Validating your ideas, or doing your due diligence before deciding to invest in building something, is a wise move no matter how confident you (and your team) are about potential.Sure you may think you’ve solved a major problem, but have you solved the right problem the right way? And does your target market care enough to invest in it themselves? Being overconfident in an idea and failing to validate it early on is risky, says Marty Cagan:

“One of the biggest and most common mistakes product teams make is to have far more confidence in their product specifications than they should, and they move forward and think they'll adjust the product - if necessary - once they get beta feedback. But of course beta is far past the time for major changes, and it is little wonder so many initial product releases are so far from the mark.” (Source.)

Why Validate?

Before April 2010 when people got their hands on the first iPad models, nobody realized that a touchscreen tablet was exactly what they needed. Yet it was. Astute research coupled with keen insight and a dab of customer input pointed the way for Apple on this innovation; at the time, more and more Internet searches were being performed on mobile devices and Pew Research was reporting that 40 percent of adults used their cell phones to access the internet.Fast forward to 2015, the iPad continues to thrive and IDC is reporting that despite a small drop, tablet sales reached 47.1 million units in Q1 while the latest research from the U.S. Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting shows that nearly one in three children have used a tablet before their first birthday. Now that’s a successful product introduction.At the same time as the iPad was making its debut, Netbooks, a new category of laptop computers, were making inroads into the PC market, proving that consumers wanted small portable devices. However, the market for netbooks went from boom to bust during the six months immediately following the iPad’s launch.

What went wrong? PC manufacturers had identified the right problem but the wrong solution. People didn’t want tiny PCs, they actually wanted fast, versatile easy-to-use devices for checking email, using the Internet, and playing games.

“Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don't care about the idea, the startup fails.”--The Lean Startup

When you take the time to validate, you’re reducing the odds of building a product (or adding a functionality) that fails by answering important questions such as:

  • Are you solving the right problem?
  • Are you solving the right problem at the right time?
  • Is your solution the right solution?

The trick is knowing how to find the answers.

Going Through the Motions

Every organization, product, and idea is different and will therefore involve its own unique validation process. However, at a very basic level there’s three main steps you’ll need to take to answer these questions:

Step 1: Know the Problem

Write a short, concise complete description of the problem. You should be able to do this in 25 words or less. If you can’t state it that concisely, you probably don’t really understand the problem.

Step 2: Know the Market

Once you believe you have identified an actual problem, you need to identify the market that has the problem. It’s better to be very specific about your target market at this stage. You can always expand into adjacent segments as your product idea gels.

Step 3: Research the Market

The next step is actual market research. To many product managers, this means pulling down some market prediction reports from a few favorite research firms, but this tactic won’t help at all if your idea is truly revolutionary. Here’s another place where many product managers lose their way.

Solving the Right Problem

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, points out that the question should not be “Can this product be built?” but “Should this product be built?” and "Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?"The first step toward answering these important questions is identifying the problem you are trying to solve. Dr. James P. Womack, the creator of the lean concepts that are the pillars behind the lean startup principles, suggests identifying the problem and at least 5 countermeasures that would resolve the problem. Many people tend to identify the solution before being sure they have adequately defined the problem it solves, then they stop adjusting their idea because (in their minds) they’ve solved the problem. The solution-first, problems later approach is risky; how do you know that your solution is the best—or even that it’s an adequate solution—if you haven’t taken the time to first define the problem? Most problems come with more than one solution, so it’s a good idea to take the time to explore your thought.

The temptation for many product managers is to jump to the conclusion that they already know and understand the problem, or worse yet, that they know the best way to solve it. These are both very dangerous assumptions because they set the stage for self-fulfilling prophecies at every subsequent step. Those assumptions can spell doom for your product idea--so don’t assume: identify the problem first.

Knowing your Target Market: Gathering Subjects to Interview

In an ideal world you’d be able to turn to your friends, colleagues, and the rest of your network for instant feedback on your idea. While this may be a good first step while you’re identifying your problem or target market, you cannot rely on their feedback to help you make decisions. In most cases, asking friends what they think about your idea is only truly valuable if you’re looking for a confidence boost as it will be biased in your favor. Plus, is your network a good representation of your target market? Usually not.  

So how do you find people who are in your target market to talk to about a product that doesn’t even exist yet?

Landing Page MVP

If you’d like to stick with Lean Startup principles, an MVP would be a great place to start, and it doesn’t have to be nearly as complicated or as costly as it sounds. Consider the cost to your organization (and your credibility) if the product bombs, and apply the U.S. Navy’s “KISS” (Keep it Simple, Stupid) principle (Of course, Henry David Thoreau kept it simpler than that, with his even more famous quote “Simplify. Simplify”) your MVP doesn’t need to be packed with bells and whistles, in fact, it’s not a true MVP if the first iteration does much more than help you learn about your customers.

A simple landing page with a sign-up form is a highly-effective MVP when you’re looking to gauge interest in your solution and get in touch with interested parties. In 2011, when Joel Gascoigne came up with the idea behind Buffer, he validated it with a landing page MVP and was highly successful:

“The aim of this two-page MVP was to check whether people would even consider using the app. I simply tweeted the link and asked people what they thought of the idea. After a few people used it to give me their email and I got some useful feedback via email and Twitter, I considered it “validated.” In the words of Eric Ries, I had my first “validated learning” about customers. It was time to gain a little more validated learning.”

So build a landing page; do keyword research on the problem you’re solving to see how people are looking for solutions (and how often they do) and put together something that looks nice and captures the email addresses or other information you need from potential customers. Once you’ve amassed a collection “sign-ups” you’ll be able to start getting in touch and having conversations with folks that will help guide you in the right direction.

If you don’t get any sign-ups or any interest, it may be a good idea to reassess your idea and how you marketed it. If your marketing failed you, try again with a different strategy; however, if it’s the idea itself that failed to garner interest, move on.If your landing page MVP is successful, you can (and should) do two things: first, get in touch with your early subscribers and learn more about their needs, the more you know the better. Second, continue developing and testing your MVP. The goal with a bare bones MVP is to attract early adopters at every phase and an audience to bounce ideas off of. By the time your product is ready for market, you will have a cadre of existing customers with a vested interest in making your product successful.

Learning More About your Early Adopters: Conducting Effective Market Research

Once you’ve defined your problem and used an MVP to gauge interest and gather contact info from a sample of your target market, you’re ready to see if your idea for a solution holds up. Can you build a sustainable business model around it? Is the pain surrounding the problem severe enough to motivate customers to try (and buy) a solution (your product)? How are people currently solving the problem your product aims to solve? The best way to get closer to answering these questions is to start having real conversations with your early subscribers that delve into the problem you initially set out to solve and current solutions.Whether these conversations take place in-person, over the phone, or via email, it’s important to be aware of your own personal opinions and biases and take steps to make sure they stay out of your results, because as Roger L. Cauvin  points out, “When you seek validation from someone, you will tend to get it.”

Confirmation bias describes our tendency to subconsciously assign more weight to evidence that supports preconceived ideas than is given evidence that is neutral or negative. In sales, this is known as having “happy ears.” It means hearing what you want to hear, and perhaps even seeking out evidence that supports the desired outcome. So how do you avoid it?

Make Falsifiable Hypotheses

Cauvin urges product managers and entrepreneurs to Stop Validating and Start Falsifying to avoid cognitive bias in your research, “If you want to be scientific in your approach to product decisions, you craft experiments and make falsifiable predictions, with the intention of testing, not 'validating', the hypotheses and underlying assumptions.”

A falsifiable prediction, according to Karl Popper’s theory of falsification, is one that can be proven false as well as true. One of his most interesting statements on the theory:

“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”

Asking Better Questions

In addition to conducting these conversations like scientific experiments, it’s important to go in armed with the right questions. Zealous product managers, excited by the breakthrough idea they have devised, often ask questions that are inherently biased and lead subjects to answer in a way that validates the idea. It’s a rare customer who will answer “No” when asked “Would it help you if…?

”It’s a far better idea to ask customers open-ended questions such as how they handle a particular issue or to describe the process. Don’t even ask about what the ideal process would look like, since you will more than likely get a variation on the traditional method or an elaborate and convoluted solution. Users don’t always think about the bigger picture. They think about variations on the current solution. As Henry Ford famously said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Don’t try to build a faster horse, and don’t get discouraged if a faster horse is what your customers ask for. Like both the iPad and the Model T: customers don’t always know what they want, but they do recognize it when they see it.

Usability Studies

Don’t stop validating after you’ve determined your idea and MVP are worth putting effort into. As you learn more about your customers and begin developing and fine-tuning your product, it’s wise to make validation (or validated learning) a continuous process throughout your product’s lifecycle & development process. It might be helpful to bring in a crop of potential users early on for a round of usability testing and observe how they navigate the problem you’re solving, and then observe how they accomplish the same task with your solution.You may discover that existing solutions are just as efficient and effective as your new idea. You may discover that what seemed like a big, hairy scary issue is really an easily tamed pussycat. Or you just might have come up with the next big thing. You won’t know if you meddle with the results, so just silently observe the action.

The TL; DR: Validate Ideas Before You Build

The greatest sin you can commit as a product manager is wasting your company’s time or money on a product that fails; it’s your job to ensure that if you give a product the green light, it has a good shot at success. Investing the time  While it isn’t always easy to leave your personal ideas and biases behind, you must. Use these validation ideas to make certain that if you are making a go or no-go decision the decision is based on more than just your gut.

Heather McCloskey