Learn how to validate your product idea
Does My Product Have Legs? Part I

Identifying the right problem 

Nine out of ten start-ups fail. And if your start-up is a seed or crowd-funded company in the consumer hardware space, the failure rate is a staggering 97%!

In this first blog of a 3-part-series, Motovated provides guidance on how to validate your product idea early.  Part 1 investigates challenge definition (identifying the right problem), Part 2 outlines solution testing (validating the benefits), while Part 3 highlights pitfalls in delivery (time to market).

According to research by CB insights, “No Market Need” and “Running out of cash” are the key reasons why startups fail. Whether you are a startup or a large corporation the key question is the same, How do you validate your product idea and confirm market need before spending a lot of time and money?

Why startup's fail-  Validate your product idea blog

Figure 1 Key reasons of Startups failing. (Source: CB insights)

The Need
Observe the Product Development Model shown in Figure 2 - everything begins with recognising the market need. Many developers start their process at Phase 3, resulting in an endless loop of design iterations of a product which does not meet the real need.

Integrated Product  Development Model- Validate your product

Figure 2 Integrated Product Development Model (Source: Andreasen and Hein, 1987)

Latent Needs are needs that customers are not aware that they have. As an example, McDonalds increased milkshake sales by increasing their milkshake thickness to make them last longer. They found that a latent need of their main customers was to relieve a boring commute with a long lasting drink. Before getting to that point McDonalds had spent a lot of money on research and lab-testing to improve the taste of their milkshakes, with no increase on sales. Unlike McDonalds, most companies cannot afford large expenditure on “useless” or “needless” R&D activities. That is why most companies should learn from McDonalds’ mistake and focus first on customer needs.

Determining customer’s basic needs

Einstein is reported to have said that if he only had one hour to solve a problem he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and the remaining 5 minutes solving it routinely.  Following Einstein’s thoughts, this blog focuses on determining first customer needs to then achieve a solid problem definition. Furthermore, understanding why the customer needs your product will support design decisions during your development process.

Double diamond of design for Latent Needs Part

Figure 3. Double diamond of design. In this blog we are dealing in the first diamond – challenge space

The basic need your product idea should address is not always a latent need, but to determine it, you must still get to know your users and understand their problems. As represented in Figure 3, designers should diverge from a vague need to a set of problems that could be ranked and converge to the real problems to solve. This process is a journey in which empathy with the customers is developed.  Designers should be focused on observation while trying to avoid assuming they understand too much.

To identify user needs and translate them into the real problem definition you will have to conduct research and expand your knowledge. A structured way of doing it is to use a toolbox called Design Thinking.

1) OBSERVE – Ask the market
Looking directly at real user interactions in the actual market is a great way to undercover latent needs, discover new problems and validate previous assumptions. You do not necessarily need to make a product and give it to users to try. Depending on the type of product it may be possible to extract important insights by investigating users interacting with existing solutions. For instance, you can ask the market questions such as: 

  • What are the failure or success factors of existing solutions?
  •  What do users think about those solutions?
  •  What basic need are those solutions addressing?

If you are able to invest time and resources into implementing market research strategies, you can conduct surveys, focus groups or ethnographic studies, but take care, because findings obtained from these methods can be biased by the type of questions asked. 

2) ANALYSE – Ask the designers
A list of need statements should be developed during observation and later on analysing that observation. MIT lecturer, Thomas A. Roemer, provides the following five guidelines to write statements in a way that leads to uncover latent needs. The example is for the design of a new Water Filter (WF).

Product Validation

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

From a set of initial statements designers should aim to converge to the root cause of problems, uncover latent needs and understand the way customers value existing solutions. To achieve this, here are three useful methods from the Design Thinking toolbox:

  • The 5 whys process: It is a common process used to find the root cause of a problem. Based on asking “Why did something happen?” repeatedly, drilling down deeper with each iteration. It is useful to converge to basic needs and even to find out latent needs as the following example shows:

Q. Why did you pick out Cheerios when you selected a breakfast cereal?
A. Because it tastes pretty good and it’s low fat.

Q. Why is it important to you that a cereal is low fat?
A. Well, I heard that the oats in Cheerios make a difference in lowering your cholesterol levels.

Q. And why is it important to lower your cholesterol levels?
A. Well, I have a three year old son, and I want to be around for him when he’s older, because you know I had an uncle that died of heart disease, and I don’t want that to happen to me.

Latent Need: To feel they are making a healthy cereal choice

Example of Cheerios moto on their marketing campaign for how to validate your idea blog

Figure 4. Example of Cheerios moto on their marketing campaign addressing identified latent needs  Source: Cheerios

  • User Persona Profiling: Personas are fictional characters designers use to reflect user types. Designers create personas from user data, to understand user characteristics, needs, goals, etc. Personas can be really useful, as well for team discussions during product design later on, to prevent designers wandering from the intended target customer. E.g. I can’t imagine “Dangerous Dave” using that feature.
 Persona Profile Example for how to validate your product idea blog

Figure 5. Persona Profile Example. Source: Optinmonster

  • User Journey Mapping: investigates the steps customers go through to solve their problem. It is usually done for the different Personas profiled. For instance, you could record the steps a user takes using an existing product to develop an understanding of frustrations with their current solutions.
User Journey Mapping for how to validate your product blog

Figure 6 User Journey Mapping. Source: Kerry Bodine & Co.

When profiling personas and mapping their user journey, remember: “We are not thinking machines that feel, rather we are feeling machines that think”. Antonio R. Damasio.

To Conclude:
When time and money are limited prioritizing activities is crucial. It can be a real challenge organising data and assumptions. This is quite a complex issue to solve and there are great structured tools to address them, such as, Affinity Diagramming and Assumption Mapping… It sounds like a good topic for a future blog!

When you have a good understanding of the problem to be solved and your target customer needs, the next step is to test solutions without breaking the bank. The follow-on blogs show how to validate assumptions and test your ideas using a “Lean Startup” approach.

Recommended Reading

  1. Top 20 reasons why startup fails
  2. Marketing, milkshakes and Understanding Your Customers
  3. How to Use Market Research for Identifying Customer Needs
  4. Thomas A. Roemer on understanding customer needs.
  5. 5 Whys getting to the Root of a problem Quickly
  6. User Personas
  7. How to Create a Concrete  Buyer Persona
  8. How To Use Our FREE Journey Mapping Template
  9. Affinity Diagramming for Collaboratively Sorting UX Findings and Design Ideas

Carlos Alonso

Product Design Engineer

Passionate mechanical engineer focused on achieving innovative design solutions. Always looking for more robust and sustainable designs.
After having worked in several interesting and innovative projects I enjoy putting the know-how I have acquired into practice in new professional environments.