Three Ways to Start Talking to Users

If there’s anything that startups don’t do enough, it’s talk to users. Sure, you field support calls, talk to users during your sales process, but how often do you sit down and listen to them, trying to understand what problems they’re trying to solve, and how well your product is solving it? Probably not nearly as often as you should.

Going out into the field and talking to your users (“Getting out of the building” as Steve Blank says) is one of the most useful and eye-opening experiences you can have. In the years that I’ve spent doing this, I’ve never come back saying “Yup, pretty much what I thought”. I always learn something, and the product gets better as a result. Every single time.

So, if this is so valuable, why don’t more startups do it? Frankly, I think it’s because they either don’t believe they’ll learn anything, or because they just don’t know how to do it. The first requires being more humble, something I can’t fix for you. The second, I can.

Here are three steps to talk to more users:

Figure out what you want to know

When you go out to talk to your users (or potential users), you should have an idea of what questions you’re trying to answer. Are you trying to understand how they solve a specific problem today? Do you want to know what their environment looks like, so you can design your product to fit in better? Do you want to see where they might be getting hung up on a particular process? It doesn’t matter what question you start with, just that you have something in mind that you want to answer.

A few easy places to start: if you’re pre-launch or doing initial development, go out to find out how they’re handling the problem you want to solve for them. For CrowdSync, we went out and asked users how they currently get people through a repetitive process like onboarding, asking to see their checklists and other materials. That insight helped us to know what we needed to build, and what we didn’t need to build.

If you’re post-launch, you can go out and test your product with people who’ve never used it. Ask them to do a common task in it, and watch them struggle. Don’t help, just ask questions. If you’re considering a new feature, treat it like a pre-launch situation, and go ask how they view the problem that you’re looking to solve with the new feature.

Chances are, you’ve got things you wonder today. Start with those questions and build from there (trust me, once you start doing this, questions are going to pile up quickly).

Ask your networks

When I recommend people talk to users more often, the most common question I hear is “how do I find them?”. Depending on your audience, these users might be everywhere (for a consumer app), or more scarce (for a niche enterprise product). Either way, if you’re starting a startup, you should already have some idea of how to find users (how are you getting to market, anyway?).

Here’s an easy way to start: ask your networks. Post to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever. Ask if you can chat with someone for 30 minutes. Sounds simple, because it is. Post something like this:

Hey! Looking to chat with some dance instructors about how they register their students and communicate with them throughout the year. Not selling anything, just want to chat for 30 minutes. Anyone game?

Another tip: offer up an incentive, like a gift card, to compensate the user for their time. This will both help with finding users, and will ensure they feel fairly treated for the time they’re giving you.

In short, don’t overcomplicate this. Too many people make excuses about not talking to their users because they don’t know where to find them. Start by asking your networks, and you’ll find that it’s much easier than you think.

Resist Helping and Selling

If you’re talking to users, there are two temptations: to help them if they’re having problems with your product, or to sell them on your product if they’re not already a customer.

Don’t do this. Either of them.

If you’re watching them use your product, and they’re having trouble, don’t say “Oh, over here, click this”. Instead, ask them what’s wrong. Saying something like “Can you tell me what it is you’re looking for?” or “Explain to me what you’re doing right now” will yield huge insights into where your product is confusing. Helping them only embarrasses them, and prevents you from finding out why it’s confusing. Yes, you’ll see behavior that’s crazy. That’s the goal. Be OK with that discomfort, and use it to dig into where it’s not matching their expectations.

If they’re not a customer, don’t sell them. Please, please don’t do this. Selling them on your product is an easy temptation to fall victim to. Here’s a user that has the problem you’re trying to solve, and they’re sitting in front of you talking about it. Easy sales opportunity! The problem is, selling them on your product invalidates all your other questions, as you’re now trying to convince them that they have a problem that you can solve, instead of finding out if they really do. It also violates their trust - they signed up to talk to you because they wanted to talk about their problems, not to get a sales pitch.

It’s OK to show them your product, and ask them if it seems like it’d help them. But don’t convince them it will. If they say “Hrmm, I don’t think it would, because…”, don’t try to change their mind. Ask them why, and take that understanding back to your team.

Talking to your users is one of the most rewarding and advantageous things you can do when you’re building a product. And, it’s so rare, it’s also a competitive advantage. Don’t wait until your users are contacting you through your support center. Find a question to answer, hit your networks and find a few people, and go sit and listen to them. Do this a few times, and it’ll completely change how you build products.

One last thing that I get asked often is how many people you need to talk to. The good news is, not very many. This is qualitative research, not quantitative, so sample size isn’t a thing. One person a week is a massive improvement, so start there. Don’t get hung up on numbers, but rather, get hung up on the quality of the time you spend with them.

There you go! No more excuses to not understand what your users are going through. Start today, next issue!

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