By Jaryd Hermann, Learner, Optimist, Founder and CEO of

Founders and product managers, including me with my first company, often come up with an idea that they think is fantastic and start building it without any validated learning. They end up shipping a product in search of a solution.

This is the "if I build it, they will come" mentality. But, far too many founders find themselves in a position of having a working product but no customers, and the need to start iterating with limited time and runway. 

Speaking to users is necessary to learn what the customer needs so you can build the right product. 

1. Your Hypothesis

Before speaking to users, write down your assumptions, or what you believe to be true in order for your business to work. This comes from the customer behavior you can predict.

Once you have your assumptions written down, it's useful to put them in a table with two other variables: risk and complexity. Risk outlines how important it is for this assumption to be true for your business to work. High risk means it is fundamental to the idea. Complexity means how hard it is to test and validate.

Once you have this table, start forming your hypothesis in this format: We believe that (target user) will (predicted action) because (reason). Then, test the ones that are high risk and easy complexity first.

2. The Right Users

A great way to start testing your hypothesis is by running user interviews. You should speak to customers during both validation and iteration.

  • Validation: Your goal is to see if your product solves a real problem. Selling your idea here is a waste of time. You won't gather any useful data and can easily be falsely convinced that your idea is great. 
  • Iteration: During this phase, you're improving your product and speaking to actual customers to see if they are enjoying your product, who's getting the most value from it, and what features should be cut or added.

3. Two Types of Interviews 

User interviews are the most useful way to gather qualitative data and are vital during the early stage of your startup. Here are two types of interviews to run before you have a product:

  • Exploratory Interviews: The goal here is to work out if your target user experiences the problem you assume exists and if they'd be open to a solution. Ask open-ended questions, and listen as much as possible. The more they speak, the more data they reveal, and the more insight you get about them as a customer. For example, "Tell me about the last time you traveled and what could have made your trip better."
  • Validating Interviews: Once you have your hypothesis, you can use this type of interview to test your theories following the scientific method. These interviews are naturally subject to a lot of bias because founders often tell users the idea and ask questions such as, "Does this seem like a good idea?" Avoid bias by listening more. Only at the end of the interview should you explain your idea, as objectively as possible. 

This is the time to make any necessary changes, so avoid protecting your ego. A tactic I've found useful to help me avoid selling an idea, and to help the user feel more comfortable being honest, is to be candid. Let the user know that the purpose is to understand their problem and see how you can solve it for them.

4. Good and Bad Questions

  • Open-Ended Questions: Give users as much flexibility as you can to talk openly about their problems. Open-ended questions make this easier. Ask "what" and "how" questions that allow the user to answer expansively. Don't be afraid of awkward silence, either. Just nod to show you're listening.
  • Leading Questions: Avoid asking questions that essentially include the answer you want. The last thing you want to do is influence the user's answer and ruin your interview. Only honest answers lead to useful data.
  • Binary Questions: Try not to ask questions that only have two possible answers. The goal is for the user to do 90 percent of the talking, and these questions lead to short and generally useless answers. Questions like, "Do you like my idea?" can lead to a dishonest or unhelpful answer.

5. Qualitative and Quantitative Data

Speaking to customers is vital to gather qualitative data and be in sync with your customers' ever-changing needs. However, as a founder, it should be only one item on your data diet, not the whole thing. 

Once you have a working product, measure hard numbers related to growth, engagement and retention -- this is where quantitative research comes in. Combining quantitative and qualitative data is key in helping you make the best decisions around iteration and optimization until you achieve product-market fit.