This could be the nerdiest sentence I’ve written this year, but whatever: I love Excel.

Excel has been around for so long and is so pervasive that even most product managers rarely stop and admire it anymore. With the exception of amiable nerds like these sharing their favorite Excel keyboard shorts (mine is ALT+H+V+S+V to paste values), it’s a utility to most people. As a product, Excel has achieved the rare status of being simultaneously dominant, boring, and all but irreplaceable to most.

Also – it can also show you opportunities your target customers can’t articulate for themselves yet.

We’ve said before that the market tells you what hurts rather than what the solution is – but that’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes the pebble has been in your target user’s shoe for so long they don’t notice the pain anymore. That’s why when you’re doing research interviews, you need to drill into every little step in whatever process you’re trying to understand. Find out how long each step takes, who gets sent the deliverable, what format that’s in, what happens after, and everything else.

And zoom in on anything involving spreadsheets, because that’s a good bet for your next new product or feature.

The Spreadsheet Test for New Product Ideas

Any business process your target user manages via spreadsheet is a potential opportunity for you to insert your product or a new one, for two simple reasons:

  1. Before a company buys a dedicated tool for something, spreadsheets usually are the tool
  2. Managing processes via spreadsheets is error-prone and often annoying

Most business processes can be handled via spreadsheets in a pinch, even if it’s painful. Think of all the things companies do with spreadsheets before they scale up.

Exel Graphic

Most business processes are managed by spreadsheets either (a) before they hit a certain scale, or (b) before a good tool exists for it.

Any job that can be done with spreadsheets will be by some of the market. So whenever you stumble across a proess being managed via spreadsheets, your task is figuring out if: (a) they’re using spreadsheets as a stop-gap before they graduate to more sophisticated tools, (b) existing solutions aren’t economical for them at their scale, or (c) no good tool exists for what they’re trying to do.

If I could only ask one question in a research interview with a potential customer, I’d ask what the #1 challenge they have right now is. But if I had a second, I’d ask them to show me all the spreadsheets they create to get work done.

There’s no substitute for talking to your market to learn what challenges they face. But if you’re not sure where to start the conversation, you could do a lot worse than those two questions to kick things off.

Start talking to your target users and buyers – We’ll find them for you!