It's nice to have friends who are brutally honest with you. Say, for example, you abuptly switch from Banana Republic outfits to cowboy boots, a leather bomber jacket, and skull rings. Your friends should be first in line to intervene and let you know that it's not working.

That kind of honesty is what you want in product feedback at the very early stages of a company. Most of us go out to "friendlies" who, not wanting to offend, tell you what you want to hear about your product ("I could see how comparing my cat's personaliy to other cats in my area would be quite useful"). But that misdirected kindness will only cause wasted effort over the long run.

Whether you call it product ideation, discovering your minimum viable product, or market research, the point is to get out and talk to as many potential customers as possible to figure out the right product or service, and to boost your understanding of the domain in every conversation. This is not for late-stage product polishing, but making sure you get it right in the first place.

Steve Blank has done some invaluable work in this area, and it's worth buying his books if you haven't already. What I'm sharing is my street-tested learnings on how to get good feedback, not the theory. Hopefully you're already sold on the theory. Caveat: My focus has been on selling to businesses, but there are some parallels to draw with regard to consumer companies.

I stumbled through the process with my last company multiple times (each time with better results), and I'm doing it again right now at my new company. I've learned that the key is to get those prospects chattering like a gossipy schoolkid, but with enough guardrails that they don't go off in useless directions.

The Process

You first want interviewees to set the stage by talking about their role and environment. You then get them to talk at a high level about the relevant problem space ("how do you feel about the accounts payable process today? What's painful about it?"). That stream-of-consciousness thinking can lead to gold nuggets of insight, which you may want to follow for awhile.

Next I would describe your idea at a high level so they are grounded in the larger concept but aren't boxed in by any features or functions. I wouldn't do a presentation or demo until after you get their answers, if at all. At that point you'll know where to focus based on their answers.

  1. Does the overall vision for this product make sense? What did you like about it? (This will put them in a situation where they have to be clear about the value received--if they are not, then something didn't hit the mark.)
  2. How would you describe this product to your team or boss and what pain points would you say it relieves? (Or to your friends, if a consumer product.)
  3. How are you trying to relieve those pains today?
  4. What other products would you compare it to, and where do they fall short?
  5. Is it a must-have or a nice-to-have product? (Can rank from 1-10.)
  6. Who on your team would love it and who would not?
  7. What features would be must-haves?
  8. How would you imagine trying before buying and what would prevent you from trying it in the first place?
  9. Who would need to be involved in the decision to buy it?
  10. What would make it a dream product for you? What features would change your life? (This to me has always been one of the most revealing and important questions. Make sure you get to this one.)

Again, the key is to frame the questions in ways where they will share a lot, but not be too nice, too vague, or go off on a tangent. Even their tone of voice and body language in response to these questions can be a key signal.

You'll need to stay nimble and go where the conversation goes at times, but I've found these work pretty well. Do this enough times and you'll start getting the confidence you need about launching the right product. Then go celebrate by buying skull rings for your team.