I’m currently reviewing the translation of my first book, called “Startup Guide: How startups and established companies can create profitable digital products” and I came across this interesting chapter which discusses the common belief that customers don’t know what they want.
It is common to hear in conversations about product development that the customer does not know what he wants. At some point, someone will say the famous phrase from Henry Ford, the inventor of the car:
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Henry Ford
Incidentally, the one who liked to repeat this phrase to exhaustion was Apple’s eternal CEO, Steve Jobs.
Yes, people do know what they want. They want a solution to their problems. What they do not know, or sometimes think they know but do not know, is what is the solution to these problems. This is where Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and us, the rest of mortals, come in, who want to develop products to solve these problems.
The first steps to create a good product are:
When you talk to people with problems or needs, some will even say that they think this problem could be solved this way or that way. But right now, the important thing is to find out if there is a problem or need to be solved. You must separate the problem from the solution suggestion your interlocutor is trying to pass on.
That was the problem that people wanted someone to solve for them in Henry Ford’s time. No matter how. It could be with more horses in front of the cart, it could be with horses trained for roller skating, it could be with genetically modified horses to ride faster, it could be with the invention of the automobile, it could be with the invention of the airplane, it could even be with the invention of teleportation.
Note that, for those who had the problem of being late, how it would be resolved did not matter as long as it was resolved. Some people may have suggested solutions, such as the fastest horses of Henry Ford’s famous phrase, but that was just a suggestion for a solution. The problem to be solved was that people were spending too much time moving around.
This is a problem that many parents have. There are several ways to solve it. One of them is with an iPhone, iPad, or any touch device loaded with games and movies for kids. This is certainly a solution to this problem that no one had imagined before this technology existed. I do not think even Steve Jobs had thought of that kind of use.
But as our focus is on the problem, not on the product, it is easy to see that this is not the only solution. There are others, such as the restaurant handing out children’s kits with activity books and coloring pages, or the restaurant having a reserved area with educators to play with the children while the parents can have a quiet meal.
Whenever you go to doctors or nutritionists, those diet leaflets and various menu suggestions come up. Anyone who has been on a diet knows: restricting something in food consumption is very difficult. We keep counting the days to end the diet and be able to eat again what we have been restricted from. And in the rush of everyday life, following menu suggestions is impractical.
One day I met a nutritionist who made no restrictions, just asked me to make a food diary, that I write down what I ate and how much so that we could then analyze together what needed to be adjusted, which “slips” did not do much harm and which ones should be avoided. Finally, a control that was more adaptable to my daily life. She told me that people who keep a food diary lose up to twice their weight than those who do not have a record.
Hence, the idea of looking for some calorie counter system. I found several ones, all with some interesting points, but none of them good enough to keep me motivated to keep using it. To meet my need, I decided to create ContaCal.
When we search for problems to solve and talk to people to understand what they are, often what they describe to us is not necessarily the problem, but the way they see the problem or, what is even more difficult, the way they imagine it to be the solution.
For example, going back to Henry Ford’s car and cart, imagine an imaginary dialogue between Henry Ford and a hypothetical Mr. Smith, a potential buyer of his future product:
Did Henry Ford really understand the problem? Or did he understand the solution Mr. Smith presented to him? Was not Mr. Smith’s real problem that he spent little time with his family and might need to review his to-do list outside home?
Anyway, this was a hypothetical dialogue, but I think we could get an idea of how easily we want to cling to the solution right away without spending enough time trying to figure out exactly what the problem is. A good understanding of the problem will greatly help make a good software product.
Imagine a person using an internet banking system. It is common when someone is going to use a software to do something before using it as a preparation for it, as well as something after, with the result of using that software. The person may be so used to perform these tasks that he just does not see a problem with it. This is the time when a person with the knowledge of what can be done with the available technology comes up with the idea of a solution to a problem that has not yet been realized, but that exists.
The big issue in these cases is that the problem was not noticed by the people who might be interested in a solution. In such cases, it is very important to make sure that they really acknowledge the problem you just discovered as a real problem, for which they will want a solution. Otherwise, there is no solution to be sold.
The closer you are to the people you are going to research and to whom you will eventually solve a problem for, the better. The optimal situation is when you are solving your own problem, in which case you know exactly what to expect from the solution. And it is easier to discover problems you did not realize from yourself than from others.
There are several cases of startups that were born as solutions to their own problems. ContaCal is an example. If you solve a problem of your own, when your product is ready and you are using it, you will clearly understand the interaction flow of your system and know what can be improved.
The only caution is that you will quickly become an advanced user of your own product. And you should not forget that there will always be new users who have never seen your product and will need a user experience that is quite different from the one required for an advanced user like yourself.
Cool technology is nothing if it does not solve a problem. As we are increasingly surrounded by new technologies, it is common to find people who see a new technology and soon think it would make a good product. This is very common in the startup world: having a cool idea based on a new technology and making a product with it simply because now it is possible.
“Startups don’t fail because they lack a product. Startups fail because they lack customers willing to pay.” – Steve Blank
A technology, as incredible as it may be, if it does not solve a problem, will never become a product.
Bottom line: problem + technology = solution = product idea
In short, when we put together a problem, which is not always easy to figure out – but the closer you get to it, the better -, with the technology that can solve that problem, we have a possible solution that can turn into a product idea.
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