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Listening Time: 5 Tips for Super-Charging User Interivews

Let’s say you’ve developed a Microvertical hypothesis, and you’re starting to recruit people who fit that description.  Now your job is to write and conduct Screening Interviews, and learn more about who these people are, and  how they react to your core value prop.

At this stage, the questions you ask – and how you react to and followup their answers – will determine the quality of insight you gather. Here are 5 tips to help super-change your interviews with actionable insights.

Do a pre-interview Screening Survey to collect basic data 
Don’t waste precious interview time collecting simple-to-answer basic info. Instead, create a pre-interview Screening Survey to learn basic data upfront about your potential subjects. For best results, embed this survey into your recruiting efforts. Include questions about their age, occupation, tech habits, favorite media sources, etc in this survey – along with any qualifying questions that will help you filter their need and readiness for your product. For specific tips and tools for conducting screening surveys, check out this excellent Kissmetrics blog post.

Ask  questions that illuminate habits, needs, pain points, and triggers
A good interview script asks question that illuminate the habits, emotions and triggers embedded in people’s daly lives. What is their day like? What activities do they do regularly – and at what time?  Who do they interact with and care about? What do they long for – what’s missing in their lives? What’s causing them friction and frustration? What are they tired of and eager to change? What elicits a strong emotional reaction? For example, during Screening Interviews for the driving app, our questions centered around understanding people’s daily commute, including their pre-commute rituals, their actions and tech use  while driving, and post-commute activities like clocking mileage or texting on arrival. We also asked about related apps and services they were currently using, and uncovered a wealth of frustration and confusion ripe for disruption.

Tweak your interview script to focus on useful and revealing questions
This is guerrilla-style customer development, not a controlled scientific experiment. If you do 15 screening interviews, after the first few you’ll likely  notice patterns, and start learning which questions are working and which are not. Go ahead and edit your script between interviews to remove questions that aren’t yielding good info, expand on ones that are, and add new questions to drill down on emerging themes. Don’t be afraid to iterate; these interviews can be as agile as the rest of your practices. Identify emerging patterns early and formulate as mini-hypotheses. For example, in the driving app we  tweaked our questions to drill down on the frustrations and hidden desires around existing driving apps, which led to some key feature ideas and a mini-pivot.

Keep an eye out for existing habits to piggyback on
Creating brand new habits is tough. Really tough. It’s so much easier to piggyback on an existing habit – which is a core premise of B.J. Foggs  Tiny Habits program. For that reason, as you’re conducting your interviews, listen closely for existing habits that might serve as “hooks” for your offering. For example, during interviews for the driving app, we found that commuters generally check traffic and weather shortly before heading out, which gave us a clear existing habit to hook into. We also discovered that drivers often text the person they’re meeting with an ETA  – especially when they’ll be late – another common habit we could hook into and improve.

Keep calm, unbiased and dispassionate during the interviews
One of the hardest things for a passionate product creator to do is watch people react to their product and challenge their core beliefs. That’s why you need someone who’s not emotionally invested in the product to conduct the interviews – ideally a trained researcher, but in practice anyone who listens well and can record what they see and hear without influencing the results.   The interviewer’s demeanor needs be calm, unbiased and dispassionate – and sometimes that means handing over the reins.  During a recent redesign project, I was dying to get our Microvertical in front of a prototype and watch them use it – but because I was emotionally invested in the design, I stepped back and let the in-house staff conduct the interviews and do the user-testing without me in the room. It was hard. Really hard.  But getting unbiased results was worth it.

How to Mobilize your Microvertical

tempRecently I wrote about the connection between successful innovation and a strong MicroVertical. Today I’ll outline a 5-step plan for finding articulate, qualified early adopters who can help you bring your project to life. I  affectionately call this  Operation Find & Delight.

Step 1: clarify your product/business goals and constraints

Take a look at your product vision, business focus, revenue model and team skillset. What audience or demographic are you best setup to serve? What are the technical and/or access requirements for using your product – especially early on?  Who do you NOT want to serve for regulation, liability or revenue reasons?

As you answer these questions, potential Microverticals that fit your product, business, and team strengths will start to emerge. You’ll also gain focus by ruling out  people that you DO NOT want to target. For example, I have a client who’s building a digital service around the science of happiness. The techniques embedded in this service are proven, powerful and potentially life-changing, so of course we wanted EVERYONE to have access. When we sat down to identify our intial Microvertical, we decided to focus our early research and play-testing on tech-savvy parents (mostly women, some men) who were mentally healthy, accustomed to spending money on self-help programs, and eager for a happiness boost.  For liability and outcome reasons, we decided NOT to target clinically depressed people at this stage – even though we felt our service could be very helpful for them,

Focus is a beautiful thing – especially for startups doing innovative work.

Step 2: Create a testable Microvertical Hypothesis

Once you’ve clarified your goals, ruled out certain audiences and broadly focused on who you’re serving, it’s time get specific. Given the market space, tech platform and audience you’re targeting, ask yourself: who NEEDS your product the most and is likely and able to use it?  Who’s already doing something similar – or using similar products? Who would find it life-changing in a meaningful way?

Remember, you don’t have to KNOW the answers at this stage – you’re creating a hypothesis that’s specific enough to test and learn from. Your job is to create a description of a PERSON OR GROUP OF PEOPLE who you think are likely to be valuable early  enthusiasts.  In this description, include details that are relevant to when and how they’ll use your product, such as technology platform, behavior patterns, use of existing services,, etc.

A great way to frame your Hypothesis – and cut to the chase – is to write a recruiting ad for people that fit those characteristics. For example, here’s an early recruiting ad for the happiness service mentioned above.

We’re looking for tech-savvy parents 25-55 who own a smartphone, have purchased self-help books or programs in the past, and are eager to learn and practice daily habits that are proven to boost your happiness . 

Based on early interviews, we decided to target people who’d already invested time and money on self-help programs, because we wanted to set the expectation of a paid service right from the start. We also recruited a broader age range than we’d initially planned, because we wanted to understand how our core value prop reasonated with different age groups.

Here’s a different ad – this one recruiting for an app that turns your iPhone into a smart driving assistant.

We’re looking for drivers 25-45  who own a iPhone, commute  to work on weekdays, live in the SF Bay Area, and have used Google Maps, Waze, or other driving apps to get traffic info while on the road.

For this app, we recruited in a particular location  because in-person meetings were necessary. For technical reasons having to do with building a quick MVP, we also targeted regular commuters rather than freelancers with flexible schedules. 

 Step 3:  Test and refine your Hypothesis with customer research 

Now that you’ve generated your Microvertical Hypothesis, it’s time to recruit people who fit that profile and test your value prop with subjective research methods like surveys, interviews, and field studies.

If you’re short on time (and who isn’t?), you can kickstart this process by doing Screening Interviews, a guerilla-style research technique that can quickly and iteratively help you identify  your Microvertical. Heres how it works in a nutshell:

  • Use your MicroVertical Hypothesis to recruit 15-20 subjects for paid research (which come at a later stage)
  • Conduct 15-minute screening interviews to learn about their lifestyle, habits and attitudes relating to your product (I’ll write a separate post about how to construct effective screening interview questions)
  • Summarize the patterns you’re seeing, and how those patterns support or challenge your hypothesis
  • After you’ve completed the screening interviews, select a subset for paid research, based on feedback quality and  “fit” with your value prop, business model, and schedule.

Step 4:  Update and circulate your validated Hypothesis within the team

The purpose of Customer Development is to focus the entire team on building things that people actually want. It’s important to keep your  team in the loop as you’re doing  early research – but people are busy, and realistically only a subset of your team will be doing hands-on research. 

This is where you get a big payoff from having a concrete Microvertical Hypothesis. You can inform the team about your intial Hypothesis, collect their input, do  Customer Development research, and then cycle back with the team and communicate the research results as a set of changes and/or confirmations to your Hypothesis.

Doing this will generate powerful customer insights – but beware, it’s not always easy to digest the results. For example, my driving app client wanted to target daily commuters – but our initial research strongly showed that freelancers have a  more acute need for the core value prop than commuters do. That left the team in a tough place, because for technical reasons we couldn’t  build out the feature set  to address freelancer needs in a reasonable time frame. (We ended up looking at the problem from a totally different angle, but I’ll leave that story for another post)

Step 5: Build an ongoing Microvertical feedback loop and private community

As a product creator, one of the most powerful resources you can develop is a network of pre-qualified players who can give you early feedback on new features & systems. Recruiting and vetting people takes time and effort upfront – so once you’ve identified them, it’s smart to  keep that relationship alive and reap the benefits of play-testing with known players throughout your MVP process and beyond.

There are many ways to create a Microvertical communit (AKA Player Advisory Group): you can setup a private mailing list, forum, FB group, G+ Community, or whatever communication platform works for you. The key is to have a space where you can communicate with your early adopters, and they can  communicate with EACH OTHER too. The connections built within your Microvertical will help those people stick around and stay interested in your project.

You can kickstart this community with the paid-research subset you identified from the screening interviews. Do some user-testing: walk them through a prototype, first playable, or even concept mockups, and get their feedback. Make sure you reward them for their time – it doesn’t have to be a lot, but it counts for building credibility. Then invite them into a private community  where they can connect with other early adopters,  stay in touch with the product creators, and continue to contribute to the project via user-testing and ongoing discussions.

A connected community of early adopters can dramatically increase your chance of successfully launching innovation.

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Jargon Smackdown: Prosumer vs Microvertical

Yesterday I wrote about the connection between successful innovation and a strong MicroVertical. I got some great feedback – including @dantobias complaining about the word MicroVertical itself 🙂

He has a good point. Why introduce new jargon? Simple: Useful Shorthand for framing a problem. Microvertical is shorthand for  “enthusiastic early adopters who WANT and NEED your product or service,  and have the means, access and available time to get involved and give you feedback and early sales.” This is a meaningful description; it invites you to think about your early adopters as the people you co-create your project with – the people who help you bring it to life.

In some circles Prosumer means generally the same thing. I tried using that word – but in practice, I’ve found that MicroVertical leads to better discussions because it frames the early adopters as a discrete Vertical (or set of Verticals) that we could target and seek to understand.

What do you think? Do  you prefer Prosumer or MicroVertical? Or something else entirely? Got a better idea?  Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Find and Delight Your Microvertical

Many innovative products and services will be launched this year – yet only a handful will survive and thrive. Why is that? Why do most  fail, while others go on to mainstream success? What do teams who manage to create successful innovative products and services have in common?

It’s a complex equation, of course – but one key variable is the ability to attract, maintain and leverage a strong MircroVertical – AKA early-adopter enthusiasts who LOVE and NEED your product or service and help you shape it.  Without that early, energetic kickstart and feedback loop,  it’s almost impossible to cross the chasm into mainstream use. When you get it right, your chances of success go WAY up.

I first learned this lesson in the trenches of game development, where successful games have long been prototyped into existence. I’ve worked on a variety of  multiplayer games and gaming platforms that had  varying degrees of success. I noticed that the successful ones attracted and embraced an early following of enthusiasts – avid gamers, curious students, wanna-be devs, military wives, SAHMs, IT guys on the midnight shift – people who wanted to “lean in” and feel like part of the development team.

I noticed the same pattern when I worked at eBay during their growth from 30 to 300 employees. Right from the start, Pierre Omidyar setup a feedback loop with avid early customers – and that customer-listening habit permeated eBay’s early product development culture. We  had an ongoing conversation with avid early adopters – and their input had a major impact on eBay’s core social features and systems. 

Around that same time, another client of mine developed and launched an innovative, high-profile Alternate Reality Game targeted at mainstream consumers. One small problem: the avid early adopters got in first (as they always do), chewed through the content quicker than expected, gleefully shared “secrets” about the game on their favorite geeky forums, and generally ruined the party for everyone. That ambitious game never reached its intended audience – in part because the team decided to skip over the early adopters in their development process.

It takes smarts, focus and humility to proactively find and connect with your MicroVertical – and the payoff is huge. These people will be happy to playtest your early versions and populate your Beta program. They’ll give you exhaustive, opinionated feedback about features, system balance, and UX. As long as you’re setup to filter and contextualize their feedback (KEY issue – I’ll write more about that soon), these early enthusiasts are invaluable in getting an innovative game, product or service off the ground.

So if your product is mainstream-friendly and easy to understand, go ahead and target the masses. But if you’re building something innovative, the mainstream consumer won’t be able understand or value your creation – or give you the feedback you need to evolve. We re-learned this lesson painfully with a recent client who built a fantastic, innovative educational gaming system and healthy, agile product development culture – but didn’t find that early enthusiast market, went broad to lackluster sales, and ultimately failed.

Curious? Want more details about HOW to make this work for your project? In my next post,  I’ll share my 5 Step Plan for Mobilizing Your Microvertical.

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