As product professionals, we all know that data should inform our product decisions. Too often, though, we look at data too late in the product development process. After all, what good is A/B testing a landing page if both pages being tested are marketed to the wrong group?
Problem and market definition—which happens much earlier in the product development process—is critical to get right. If you aren’t laser-focused on using data to refine your product’s positioning, you’re risking failure later in the process. The good news is, there are steps you can take early on to make sure you’re on the right track.
A Clear Hypothesis About Your Market
Technically, obtaining a clear hypothesis about your market may be the easiest thing to do, but it often gets overlooked. Most product people have a very good idea of the market that their product best serves—or, at least, they think they do. However, they don’t treat their assumed market as a hypothesis that they’ll test later; rather, they treat it as fact.
There are very few facts at the beginning of the product development process. Product people are quick to assume that their product will need to iterate. But sometimes iterating the same product to a different market can be just as useful.
Create a Clear Positioning Statement
Create a clear positioning statement for the market you believe your product serves best. You might use the traditional, mad lib-style positioning statements that look something like:
For (target market) our (offering) is a (market category), which provides (benefit) unlike (competitor).
But, as April Dunford, CEO of Ambient Strategy and author of Obviously Awesome, points out, this method may be past its prime or, worse, completely outdated. The exercise is simple, but the order of the fields is irrelevant, and it forces an awkward statement that says “all of the things” but doesn’t have much depth.
Instead, Dunford suggests a framework that asks you to answer the following
- What is your product?
- What is the market that your product competes in?
- What is your primary differentiation? (i.e., what is the one thing that sets you apart?)
- What is your target segment in the short term?
- What are the competitive alternatives? (i.e., if customers don’t use your product, what will they do?)
- What is the key benefit that your target market will get out of your product?
Consider this an iterative process. Having a defined positioning statement from the beginning of the product development process will allow you and your team to have more clarity on who your product serves and why it will benefit that specific market.
Let Your Product Live in the Market
Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done before your product goes to market. Once the product is in the market, it’s important to let it live in the market for at least some time before testing those early hypotheses. Just how long you let it live depends on the product and market but, generally, once you’ve had customers actively using your product for 90 days, you should be at a place where you can start collecting real insights.
Interview Your Users
After 90 days of using your product, there is likely a lot to be learned from your customers and users. But there’s one critical question to ask at this stage to discover whether your product is positioned in the right market:
If we stopped offering this product, how disappointed would you be? Not disappointed, somewhat disappointed or very disappointed?
Superhuman CEO Rahul Vohra has shared that this is his favorite question to ask customers; it’s how he measures and optimizes product-market-fit. If you have 40% or more of customers saying they would be very disappointed, it’s a sign that your product might be on its way to product-market-fit.
And this question is useful beyond trying to ascertain whether your product has reached product-market-fit. If you cluster the groups of customers who you’ve asked this question into different market segments, patterns may emerge.
As an example, say you have an inter-organizational chat app that you’re developing—perhaps like Slack—and you hypothesize that your target market is academic institutions. If you survey the group and find that only 20% would be very disappointed if you stopped offering your product, you could be disheartened. But try segmenting your users into liberal arts colleges, research institutions, public universities and others. You may find that public universities responded resoundingly that they would be very disappointed if they lost your product.
Determine Where to Iterate
Now you have some choices. Perhaps the data shows that when you segment into a more defined niche, your product resonates with certain customers. If this is the case, dive deeper with those customers and understand why it’s resonating. This can help you further define your positioning statements—but it also may lead you to a slice of the market that could become your biggest advocates.
Or, perhaps the information you gather will suggest that none of these segments are finding your product to be useful. If that’s the case, try to understand why. You may need to iterate your product. But you also may simply need to widen the markets you’re testing your products with. In tangential markets, your product may resonate.
It’s Up to You
Some of these strategies may give you hints about where to go but, in the end, no one knows your product better than you. So which path is best? It’s up to you to listen and decide. But information and data from your customers will certainly help you find that path more efficiently.