Extracting Meaning from Ambiguity
The previous article discussed transferring ambiguous ideas into written form. Your commitment to your idea will now be tested by reading what you have written. Several times.
Read your stream of consciousness to identify the who, what and why details of your idea. Be careful to avoid specifying the how; we must first define the What based on its benefits to a prospective customer, not the technical aspects of How the product will operate.
Identify the types of people who will benefit from your product, as well as others who come into contact with it. Use specific terms for these individuals, avoiding the generic nouns user, customer or actor (which is a technical term to describe the first two). Use nouns such as Expert, Parent, Visitor, Subscriber, and so on.
Identify systems, groups or organizations that come in contact with your product, too. For example, a real estate venture will interface with a Multiple Listing Service while a social networking venture will likely interface with Twitter or Facebook.
You may discover that the individual who pays for your service is not the same one who benefits from it. That is a tricky business model to implement; but, as toy manufacturers demonstrate, it can be done. You may identify a multi-sided market, where buyers and sellers must both use your service in order to make it viable. That type of business model is hard to boot strap; but, as eBay demonstrates, it creates durable "network effect" advantages against which even Amazon could not compete.
Identifying your customer will be the most important thing you can learn. Once you know this, you can describe your idea in terms of the benefits it delivers to that individual. My multi-sided IT automation marketplace SOFIns, for example, can be described succinctly as, "a service that allows technical experts to provide computer support to remote businesses faster and at lower cost than making onsite visits."
What activities or actions do people perform with your service? These actions define the workflows your system must support. In this first refinement of your idea, outline the experiences that an individual would have in using your product.
Many activities are common to all services or ventures. Focus your attention on the unique or valuable activities done by or with your envisioned product. For instance, Registration and Login activities are well understood and be left undefined. However, a Parent viewing test scores for a Student using an online Course Tracker merits further explanation such as, a Parent opens a status page to quickly see his Child's academic progress by seeing a graph of historical test scores. We don't want to explain the technical How this will be done, only the basic steps an individual would take.
You must understand the motivation, fears and concerns of your customer before answering the Why question. This requires observation and questioning skills. The answer to the Why question is rarely apparent.
For example, why did people buy the Apple iPad when it was first released in 2010? I had been using tablets for several years and found them to be very useful for my work. But people were buying Apple's tablets for personal use. Was it because of the product? Maybe, but they could also use laptops to do everything better than this first-generation product. Was it because of the price point? My business tablet cost over $3,000 while Apple's less-capable version was in the hundreds of dollars; probably, but the price was still high to require justification.
The real reason explaining why people purchased the iPad may be because it was an affordable technological gadget that allowed them to feel (or appear) technologically advanced. We should not underestimate ego, social acceptance and insecurity as the motivations explaining why someone would buy an iPad or disclose personal (and embarrassing) information on Facebook. There is always a Why behind someone's actions, but it is rarely what it first appears to be.
You should avoid answering the Why question based on your personal interests. For example when I was a new venture manager at Lucent Bell Laboratories, I was assigned a venture idea coming from a senior and well-published chemist who wanted to create opera videos that overlaid Luciano Pavarotti's voice on Enrico Caruso's historical videos.
Yes, this person was a chemist and I was just starting out in my career and was the most-junior person in the group. My first question to him was, "Why would someone want that?" His response, "if it is something I want, then other people will like it too" had me running out the door. Looking back, I could have handled that better. At my yearly performance review, I was criticized for "alienating" a distinguished member of the technical staff at the Labs.
Enumerating the reasons Why someone would use our product or perform an action will demonstrate how well you know your customer. Such a list also identifies your assumptions. That is important because assumptions can be tested and proven right or wrong. This assumption testing is the basis for the Customer Discover process.