Hardware Talks

Chris Luomanen on Talking to Your Users

Is there a need for the thing you're making? How do you find out?

If you make a product nobody needs, it won’t sell. So how do you find out if it’ll fit into peoples’ lives? This is the question Highway1 mentor Chris Luomanen of Thing Tank helps our startups answer: he gives a highly informative talk at Highway about a pair of methods he’s come to call design space exploration and experience prototyping, which involve a lot of conversations with potential users. We sat down to learn more about how does what he does.

HWY1: Are there ever any cases where your techniques don’t work at first?
CL: Oh yeah; it doesn’t work a lot of times. There are a couple of reasons why that might be:

  • The person you’re talking to might just not want to have a conversation, but that doesn’t happen very often. If you warm them up a little bit, most people are happy to have a conversation with you.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible to give someone too much leash and they run way outside the bounds of what you want to talk about. A person who can’t be redirected just won’t follow the path you want to set for them.

If you want people to have a connection with you, you have to start building a connection with them even in the microscale of an interview.

This seems to presuppose you need a certain level of people skills; is that true?
I think that’s a fair assumption. The thing is, you don’t have to have a specific set of people skills — just whatever authentic people skills you bring to the equation are usually enough. I have other colleagues who I bring in to tag team with me on interviews, and I try to pick someone who’s a little bit different from me just to have a broader range of skills present, but it’s really about authenticity. If you can actually be authentic in what you’re saying, people will respond well to that.

Is there ever a case where someone is designing a product and doesn’t know exactly who their customers are? Is there a process for discovering them?
It’s the exact same process, actually. The broader your questions are, the less demographics matter: you’re just hunting and poking around, trying to learn something and get some traction, by which I mean you’re attempting to see things from other peoples’ perspective that you’re not seeing yourself — a lot of people are stuck in their preconception of a thing. Something else I encounter, especially with Highway1 teams at first, is that they see investors as their customer instead of their end user. It’s an understandable strategy; everybody at Highway1 is serving many masters, and that’s a tough place to be.

What’s the easiest kind of interview to do?
You want someone who wants to tell you stuff and is honest with you. Everyone puts up that wall where they’re trying to portray themselves in a certain boilerplate way; the person who can pull that veil back sooner is the ideal, the ones who are thoughtful about themselves, who are curious and willing to say “Well, I’m not sure about that.” You want someone who’s really curious about their own behavior because they’re going to dig for you and try to find answers, rather than saying the thing that makes them look good or smart or nice to their kids or whatever.

Is there a product area or space in which it’s easier to conduct these kinds of interviews, or ones that are harder?
The funny thing about this job is that most of the things I work on I’m pretty ignorant of when I start out, so I start in a place that’s similar to where the user is. That ignorance translates into having fewer assumptions about what’s right and true, and that’s what I’m trying to foster in the people we’re talking to — we want people to be thoughtful or curious about their behavior, and it’s easier when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. It’s not the best pitch ever — hire us, we don’t know what we’re doing! — but it actually is an advantage in a lot of ways; it’s interesting what you can learn when you’re just trying to figure it out like everybody else.

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