I know almost nothing about the world immediately around me.

That was proven to me earlier this week when I went to vote. After choosing a congressional candidate, the candidates for city council, school board and mayor were complete strangers to me. I know more about the search for water on Mars than about the people running the town where I live.

Calling someone “far-sighted” almost sounds complimentary until you remember that it means that they can’t see things right in front of them clearly. I’m obviously guilty of that as a citizen. I try very hard not to do that as a founder, because it can be a death sentence for your product.

Test Your Customer Assumptions

After the Great Recession hit, Harley-Davidson decided it was finally time to start doing consumer research. Chief Operating Officer (and Harley rider) Michelle Kumbier told Bloomberg Businessweek, “We thought we knew our existing customer base and what they wanted.” That had led to a number glaring oversights, such as not designing a motorcycles used 70% of the time by couples to be comfortable for two people.

As the article put it, “Harley was supposed to be the master of touring bikes. If it could improve them that drastically, what else was it doing wrong?”

Let that quote sink in for a moment. Odds are your product hasn’t achieved anywhere near the clout Harley has in its industry. What might you be getting wrong about your users?

There’s an exercise I’d recommend you do as soon as you have time:

  1. Write down all of the first principles you can for your target user (or buyer).¬†For instance, a first principle for truck drivers might be, “Our primary user spends most of their time seated behind the wheel of their truck.”
  2. For each principle, note whether it is 100% undeniably true, or based on assumptions
  3. For all of the principles based on assumptions, ask what data or evidence exists to back it up

Do this thoughtfully, and you’ll likely realize how many things you believe about your target users aren’t validated by user research. It’s easy for assumptions like, “Our users are strapped for time,” to become conventional wisdom without any validation whatsoever.

Assumptions about your users don’t have to wrong to be dangerous. All it takes to make a bad product decision is for you to think something is a bit more or less important than it actually is.

Brilliant insights are often subtle: Mark Zuckerberg realized college kids like social networks that feel exclusive. Elon Musk realized that conspicuous consumption and conspicuous eco-consciousness could happily coexist in an electric sports car. When you stop using your gut and start validating user assumptions is when you come across insights that can really accelerate your product.

Small Insights Can Lead to Big Wins

The other day, I asked a friend for a restaurant recommendation. I expected him to send me a few names, but instead he sent me a Google Map of Washington D.C. with a bunch of colored pins showing the ones he’d been to which were good, which weren’t, and and which he wants to try.


Reviews are helpful, but there are so many reviews out there now that having the recommendation from a friend with good taste overlaid on a map was more useful. I’m surprised this kind of social feature isn’t part of Yelp, TripAdvisor or OpenTable yet. If someone creates an app like this, I’ll be your first download.

From a distance, the emergence of new products is usually surprising. I keep going back to Slack, the chat tool now valued at more than $7B as one that really surprised me.

There were plenty of chat apps already when Slack emerged, from Skype, to Chatter, to Cisco Spark, to Yammer, to HipChat to Lync (remember Lync??) to Gchat and many others. But Slack was simple (at first at least), and it let users pull in data from other enterprise apps without leaving the chat client.

Users didn’t have to switch tabs as often and liked it. Other helpful features followed, and Slack kept doubling and tripling down on success. Their “simple” product grew fast in a crowded market where success mandated very fast growth.

When a killer insight becomes a killer feature you’ve got a winner on your hands. Just don’t get all far-sighted once things take off.

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