Building Julia
Nov 17, 2021

How We Spoke To Users Before Building a Product

Speak to users. Get out of the building. Find your true fans.

We’ve all heard these very important words of advice dished out when you’re in the early stages of building a product.

While it is true, the process is not entirely straightforward. When you’re trying to build your vision and at the same time figuring out multiple aspects of your product, it’s easy to get sidetracked and be oblivious to what the user wants. At the same time, it’s often hard to make that first step towards finding potential users and speaking to them.

What follows is how we went about speaking to users and understanding more about the problem we were solving, without a working product in hand.

Disclaimer: This is in no way perfect, but this is something we wish existed when we started off.

Pre-preparation: Start with a Hypothesis.

Blank asks you to start with a hypothesis.

As someone who was new to the product and the company when I started off, this was a very fun activity. I started off by asking questions, learning as much from peers as to understand their perspectives about various aspects of the problem.

Some example hypotheses

This is not fancy work, there’s a lot of research and writing in this phase of things. We listed all of these hypotheses down in a document and iterated on them as we went. And this is a document that we’ve personally revisited multiple times over the last 2 years to understand how far we’ve come and how our thinking has evolved.

If you’re looking for a place to start off, download our template to help you get started.

Once all of your thoughts are on the same page, the next step is to kickstart the process of user interviews.

The key to a successful user interview is dead simple:

  • Finding the right people
  • Asking the right questions
  • Getting the right insights

But when it comes to execution, there are many things that come into the picture.

Since we were building for a market that was far away from us, we settled on digital video interviews as our method of talking to potential users. So we wanted users to spare 30 mins with us.

Here’s a step-wise breakdown of how we went about this.

Finding the right people

If you’re especially in the early stages of customer development, it doesn’t matter as much. Again, this doesn’t apply to a B2B company where there are different stakeholders for different problems in which case understand the influence and hierarchy of each stakeholder.

Here’s where we lucked out. The problem we are solving is universal. Everyone eats. And most importantly, everyone has an opinion on food.

Never interview someone you know really well: More than finding the right people who will fit your demographic, it is important that you find people who will be unbiased in their answers. In most cases, when we interviewed people we knew, they would tell us what we wanted to hear. But not what they actually did or felt. So pick the kind of people who would give you 30 mins of their time and give you unbiased and brutal answers.

And since we were building for a new market, we optimized for diversity in our customer base. We wanted to get as many diverse opinions as possible so we reached out to different types of people — different ethnicities, states.

Some simple ways to recruit the right people:

  • Ask your contacts to introduce you to someone who you haven’t met before.
  • Ask in your personal social media networks. Twitter was very helpful in this regard.
  • And if you’re reaching out to acquaintances or professional contacts, be creative and respectful in your outreach. It always helps ;)

Plus in our interviews, we always asked people who we should talk to next. People always referred at least 1 or 2 of their contacts and that helped us expand the network as much.

Pro-tip: If you want to convince someone, use the word “advice” liberally. We explained that we were a young startup, trying to solve a problem and wanted their advice. It often worked!

Asking the right questions

Our hypothesis by now was super detailed and wordy. There were so many assumptions we wanted to validate. The challenge was coming up with a script that was short yet concise enough to let us validate all the above-said hypotheses.

We started off by putting down as many questions as we had and then began culling down questions that didn’t fit the brief.

After rounds of brainstorming, this is how we decided the flow of the call would be.

The flow of the customer interview

We started off by asking them what they were and what they did, moved on to asking generic questions about their eating habits. This included understanding how they ate daily, how often they ordered out, what the hardest part of cooking was etc. We then went to ask them more questions about the kitchen itself: like what they enjoyed, what kitchen appliances they used etc. And finally, we introduced them to the product itself and asked for their reactions on what they thought about the product’s idea.

Before we ended, we asked them to show us or share pictures of their kitchen spaces with us. And also asked them to introduce us to relevant people who they thought would be great for us to talk to next.

The interview style often helped us connect to our interviewees a lot. Our calls would extend beyond the 30 min mark, and go on for 45 minutes.

People love to talk about themselves, you just need to ask the right questions!

The actual interview:

Make sure you have enough practice. We set up 2 calls with friends as mock calls just to practice and ensure we had the right set of questions. We reworked our script and flow and based on how the conversations went, we iterated some questions.

And through this process, we realized that we needed 2 people on the call: one an interviewer and two a note-taker.

The note-taker is listening in on the conversation from different perspectives and can interject if some questions aren’t clear or if the interviewee’s point of view has sparked a different question. The interviewer’s role is to connect with the person, make the interviewee at ease, ask questions and ensure they listen fully and it flows well. If you only have one person who is in charge of customer development, make sure all your interviews are recorded.

P.S.This is something Blank also mentions in the book, but we ignored that part and made a few mistakes.

Some generic pointers:
- Avoid leading questions.
- Ask questions based on the current situation, don’t hypothesize. Ex: How do you do this currently is a better question than what would you do differently.
- If an interviewee doesn’t seem to be opening up, cut the interview shot, thank them politely and move on.

Getting the right insights:

The magic is in making sense out of the madness.

The next challenge was in understanding how to break down and process what we learned from the interviews. We transcribed all the interviews with transcription software and then came up with a template to record all the relevant information from the interviews.

Transcribe all the interviews, because even if not right now it’s something you might end up using in the future.

This information was broken down into the problem, customer, and technology-related questions. We went back to the hypothesis document and revisited some aspects of our understanding. And after rounds of discussions and brainstorming, two things came out of this.

  1. We came up with the final list of features that would be part of our MVP.
  2. We made a customer profile based on all of these points and narrowed it down to the demographics and psychographics of the type of people we wanted to go behind.

There are also many other ways in which these initial sets of calls were helpful.

  • It helped us solidify some of these “hunches” we had as a team and uncover different pain points that were part of the main pain point.

Example: We knew people hated cleaning up after cooking. We just didn’t know “how much they hated it” or to what lengths they’d go to avoid this.

  • It gave us vocabulary, to think about users and their problems in their own words.
    Take a look at this particular quote from a user:

“All I want to do is eat”

If I have to cook, even if it is Hello Fresh — it’s too much after a long day. Like sometimes the prep and cooking is actually fun and almost relaxing because you’re just sort of doing that. But most of the time, you know, it’s like, OK, I have to cut all these vegetables. I have to cook them in this particular order. Then I eat and then I have to clean everything up. So when I think cooking, it is not just it it’s all those kind of cutting, cooking and then cleaning . But all I really want to do is eat.

  • It helped us articulate the value proposition and positioning.

Example: Here’s how we used to describe our product during these calls. “Julia is a smart-cooking robot that can cook most one-pot meals for you, automatically”.

One-pot meals are typically meals that are made in a single pan. And upon talking to multiple people, we figured that one-pot meals gave the impression of something that was simple and lazy. So, when they heard about the value proposition that we offered — make one-pot meals automatically — people felt they didn’t really need a robot for that.

All things said and done, these initial sets of calls were extremely helpful in helping us get up and running and gave us ways to think about some of these problems. If you’re still thinking about kicking off this process, here’s a quote to convince you:

“Intuition and conviction are extremely important in building early-stage products, but pairing it with listening to users can increase your chances of being right.” — Sunita Mohanty, Product Lead @ Facebook, First Round

A few months and multiple iterations later, we’re still talking to customers, but the way we do has since then evolved and transformed. Talking to users is something that we’ll continue to do as we refine and build out the product.

After all, we are in love with the problem. Not the solution.

If you enjoyed reading this, do share this and considering leaving us a few claps :)

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