Wednesday, April 4, 2012

I Don't Know What's Wrong with Your Product

When I’m talking with startups, they frequently ask me all sorts of questions. I imagine that they’re probably really disappointed when I respond with a shrug.

You see, frequently they’re asking entirely the wrong question. And, more importantly, they’re asking the wrong person.

It is an unfortunate fact that many startups talk to people like me (or their investors or their advisors or “industry experts”) instead of talking to their users.

Now, obviously, if they just asked the users the sorts of questions they ask me, the users couldn’t answer them directly either. This is the wrong question part. But the fact is, if they were to ask the right questions, they’d have a much better chance of getting the answers from their users.

Let’s take a look at a few of the most common sorts of questions I get about UX and how we might get the answers directly from users.

What’s Wrong With My Product?

I often get people who just want “UX advice.” I suppose they’re looking for somebody to come in and say something like, “oh, you need to change your navigation options,” or “if only you made all of your buttons green.”

Regardless of what they’d like to hear, what they typically hear is, “I have no idea.” That’s quickly followed by the question, “Which of your metrics is not where you want it to be?” If they can answer that question, they are light years beyond most startups.

You see, the first step to figuring out what’s wrong with your product is to figure out, from a business perspective, some realistic goals for where you’d like your product to be right now. Obviously, “We’d like every person on the planet to pay us $100/month” is probably not a realistic goal for a three month old venture, but hey, aim high.

Once you know what you want your key metrics to be, you need to look at which of them aren’t meeting your expectations. Are you not acquiring new customers fast enough? Are not enough of them sticking around? Are too few of them paying you money? While “all of the above” is probably true, it’s also not actionable. Pick a favorite.

Now that you know which of your key metrics is failing you, you need to conduct the appropriate sort of research to figure out why it’s so low. Note: the appropriate sort of research does not involve sitting around a conference room brainstorming why abstract people you’ve never met might be behaving in a surprising way. The appropriate sort of research is also not asking an expert for generic ways to improve things like acquisition or retention, since these things vary wildly depending your actual product and user base.

The appropriate sort of research depends largely on the sort of metric you want to move and the type of product/user you have. You will, without question, have to interact with current, potential, or former customers of your product. You may need to observe what people are doing. You may need to ask them why they tried your product and never came back. You may need to run usability tests on parts of your interface to see what is confusing people the most.

Feel free to ask people like me for help figuring out what sort of research you need to be doing. That’s the sort of things experts can do pretty effectively.

But if any expert tells you exactly what’s wrong with your product without considering your user base, your market, or your key metrics, either they’re lying to you or your problems are so incredibly obvious that you should have been able to figure them out for yourself.

What Feature Should I Build Next?

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have built a Honda Civic. Good for you! That’s a nice, practical car. Now, let’s imagine that you come to me and ask how you should change your Honda Civic to make more people want to buy it.

Well, I drive a Mini Cooper, so it’s very possible that I’ll tell you that you should make your Civic more adorable and have it handle better on curves. If, on the other hand, you ask somebody who drives a Ford F-150, they’ll probably tell you that you should make it tougher and increase the hauling capacity.

Do you see my point? I can’t tell you what feature you need to build next, because I almost certainly don’t use your product! To be fair, even the people who do use your product or might use your product in the future can’t just tell you what to build next.

What they can tell you is more about their lives. Do they frequently find themselves hauling lots of things around? Do they drive a lot of curvy mountain roads? Do they care about gas mileage? What about their other purchasing choices? Do they tend to buy very expensive luxury items? Do they care more about status or value?

You see, there is no single “right way” to design something. There are thousands of different features you could add to your product, and only the preferences and pains of your current and potential users can help you figure out what is right for you.

Should I Build an App or a Website or Something Else?

Another thing that people ask me a lot is whether they should be building an iPhone app, an iPad app, an Android app, a website, an installed desktop app, or some other thing.

That’s an excellent do a little research on. After all, what platform you choose should have nothing to do with what’s popular or stylish or the most fun to design for. It should be entirely based on what works best for your product and market.

And don’t just go with the stereotypes. Just because it’s for teens doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got to be mobile, although that’s certainly something you should be considering. It matters where the product is most likely to be used and what sort of devices your market is most likely to have now and in the near future. It also depends on the complexity of your product. For example, I personally don’t want Photoshop on my phone, and I don’t want a check-in app on my computer.

Talk to your users and find out what sort of products they use and where they use them.

Are You Noticing a Pattern?

Experts are not oracles. You can’t use outside people as a shortcut to learning about your own product or your users. You need to go to the source for those things.

If you find yourself asking somebody for advice, first ask yourself if you’re asking the right question, and then ask yourself if you’re asking the right person.

And if anybody ever tells you definitively what you need to change about your product without first asking what your business goals are, who your users are, and what their needs are, you can bet that they’re probably wrong.

Hey, you got to the end! Now you should follow me on Twitter.