Product Design: The User


PRODUCT DESIGN CHAPTER 2 : Knowing What Users Want

Often entrepreneurs and start-ups will come to us with a potentially great idea. But a great idea is table stakes - it has as much to do with the success of a product as a seed has to the success of a plant. It is essential but great ideas and even perfect design does not guarantee success. A successful product is one that answers an unmet need of the product’s target customers. So, let’s break this down.

There are a number of things you need to know before you start to design your product.

  • Who is your target user? Can you describe them? Age, gender, household income, etc.
  • What unmet need is your product is attempting to fulfill? What is currently being done to solve the problem or fulfill the need that your product will satisfy?
  • What experience would you like to design? We know if people have an emotional connection to your product or service you will be more successful in attracting them and retaining them. What you want is not necessarily the same as what they want.
  • What is your market opportunity? What is the potential market size?
  • Who are your competitors?
  • Can you express your value proposition?

Now that we have this preliminary list of questions, how do we go about answering them? Depending on your budget and schedule there are a number of ways to go about this. If you are an individual or a pre-funded start-up, let’s assume you don’t have the funds to hire a research firm and need to bootstrap this phase. Don’t be daunted by that or think you need to skip this step.  There are several options at your disposal.

Once you have a hypothesis for who your potential customer is, you want to put it into writing. For example; 55-65 year-old female, household income of over $50K a year, uncomfortable going out alone at night. Once you have your description, you want to put together a list of what you need to learn, and the methods you will be using to find out. Once you know that you can put together your survey or interview guide.

Online surveys. There are a number of online services to help you reach your target audience. One that the students I mentor like to use is It is a low-cost way to reach a large number of people, and you pay by the number of respondents. There are a number of services out there, from do-it-yourself services to high-end but excellent services like cspace. If you use an online survey, you cannot get to the emotional depth that you can with an interview, but you can get many questions answered nonetheless. Do your best to ask questions that are not leading and those that will give you the richest answers. Find out if the issue you are trying to solve is an issue they have, and how they currently solve it.

One-on-one interviews. This is the best way to truly understand your customers; however, this takes more time and more skill. The point of a one-on-one interview is to observe and inquire. That means asking open-ended questions and being curious rather than getting specific answers. Here is a good interview with Steve Portigal, a well-known user insights researcher. While it is possible for an untrained person to get results with interviews, you will get the best results hiring a professional for this work. They will create what is called a screener to find the right demographic to interview, write an interview script, conduct the interviews, then synthesize the results with recommendations on feature sets, messaging, etc.

Friends and family interviews. While not as in-depth or revealing as one-on-one interviews, this is often the best path for start-ups. In these interviews you are getting feedback from people you know in a more informal manner. There are a number of places you can go to get some help with putting together your questionnaire. Here is an example. This method is best used in conjunction with an online survey to get as much information as you can. The limits of these methods is getting to the underlying emotional response to a given problem; which is what you want to understand in order to best design a product that resonates with users.

At the end of this research you should have a working theory on who your target user is, what her needs are, and what recommendations to give to the design team to create a product that will speak to the user’s needs.

In the next chapter we will talk about the steps to design and develop a product. Please feel free to send any questions you might have to

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