How to Find Product-Market Fit Before You Design Anything

Hannah Alvarez by

Product-market fit doesn’t happen by magic.

Too many companies make the mistake of coming up with a brilliant idea for a product, investing huge amounts of time and money in designing and developing it, and then (maybe) getting some user feedback on it right before launching.

They design solutions, and then they try to build demand for them in the market.

But just because you’ve designed a solution doesn’t mean there was ever a problem to begin with.

If you don’t do user research before starting to design a product, you’re running the risk of building something no one actually needs. A product your market will think of as unnecessary, and maybe use once, if at all. A round product in a square market. That kind of product is going to be really hard to grow and scale.

Arjun Sethi, Senior Director of Product Management, Growth, and Emerging Products at Yahoo, says, “You can’t grow a consumer product that hasn’t reached product market fit.”

To create a product that people will actually use more than once (and recommend to their friends), you need to solve for the need that’s already there.

Find the need. Then design the solution. In that order.

In this article, we’re going to focus on identifying that need by doing some exploratory research. This is your first step in understanding your users and achieving product-market fit. It involves talking to your ideal customer—whether through in-person interviews, focus groups, or remote user testing.

Exploring the Problem and Preparing for Your Research

The first step in your exploratory research is to consider the problem you expect your idea will solve. Before you begin your research, think through this:

What’s the problem?

If there isn’t a clear problem that you’re aiming to solve, you run the risk of developing a product that’s nice to have, but no one needs. It’ll be harder to get people to invest their money or their time in using it.

Try phrasing the problem from your user’s perspective:

  • “It takes so long to sort through all my email.”
  • “I’m not sure where to find the best pad thai.”
  • “I don’t know anyone else who’s interested in trail running.”
  • “It’s too hard to understand all of these legal forms.”
  • “I need to look over these complex spreadsheets before noon, but I only have my phone on me.”

If you can state the problem simply, briefly, and without referring to your own product idea, then you’re on the right track.

Who’s experiencing the problem?

Are they of a certain age? Do they work in a certain industry? Have a particular skill set? That’s your target market. Be sure to include these folks in your research. Your product is for them, so their needs should be your top priority.

3 Questions to Answer Through Exploratory Research

Once you’ve found your target user, it’s time to follow along as they try to solve the problem. Your goal is to see how they approach the problem, where they get hung up, what barriers you can remove, and how you can help them.

Alex Turnbull, CEO and Founder of Groove, thinks the one thing most companies don’t do enough is listen. He recommends, “Ask your customers a lot of open-ended questions. Learn about their needs and challenges, their fears and hopes… And then—but not before—carefully consider and act on what you learn.”

1. How are users currently attempting to solve the problem?

In your interview, focus group, or user test, ask your participants to complete the problematic tasks as they naturally would.

Observe how they approach the problem and what other tools they use.

  • Do they start with a Google search?
  • Do they turn to social media to see their friends’ recommendations?
  • Do they have a favorite website or app that helps them do what they need to do?
  • Do they need to use physical items to complete their objective?
  • Do they spend a lot of time doing a boring or repetitive action?

Why are we asking this? This question helps you find out whether the problem is really a problem, and it’ll help you determine whether your solution is viable. If people are hacking together their own solutions, or wasting time repeating the same tasks over and over again, then it’s clear that the problem is real.

People are resistant to change. If their current process is good enough, they’ll be less likely to adopt an unfamiliar new piece of technology. On the other hand, if their current process is difficult or frustrating, they’ll be much more open to your solution.

Find the important processes that are really painful for your customers right now. If people are currently tolerating the pain because they have to complete the task, then you’ve found a perfect opportunity to come in with a better solution.

2. What frustrates them about their current process?

It’s very helpful to hear users describe in their own words what they don’t like. Make note of anything they complain about: the amount of time it takes, the number of options they have, any roadblocks or unwieldy interface elements.

Ask your users, “If you had a magic wand, how would you improve this experience?”

Ask whether or not they were able to successfully complete their task, and how easy or difficult it was. Watch for any places where they sigh, groan, or hesitate. Sometimes your users won’t immediately identify exactly what’s frustrating them; they’ll just know that they’re having a hard time. It’s up to you to pay attention and figure out what’s causing the bad experience—and how you can do better.

Why are we asking this? You’ll get a ton of great new ideas for fixing what’s broken in the current system. Your users probably have complaints you haven’t even thought of yet. Plus, you’ll find out what pitfalls to avoid in your new design.

3. What other activities go hand-in-hand with this problem?

Ask your users, “What would you do next? Do that thing now.” If the users have been trying to find a cross-country flight, their next steps might include booking a rental car, making a hotel reservation, and adding their travel dates to their calendar. But you might also learn less-obvious things. For example, maybe your users like to forward their travel information to their family immediately after booking the ticket, or set up their out-of-office memo on their email right away before they forget.

Why are we asking this? You’ll uncover opportunities to save your users time by completing multiple activities at once or leading them intuitively onto the next action.

Of course, your product doesn’t need to do everything, but collecting this information will help you understand the user’s mindset and the path they take to solve their problem. You’ll get the context your users are operating in. You’ll be able to design with empathy.

Achieving Product-Market Fit

Doing your research up front will save you from designing something that no one needs. You’ll find opportunities for your product to solve problems—and maybe in ways you hadn’t originally imagined. You won’t have to go back to the drawing board months into development.

If your product can solve a real need, and it can do it easier, faster, cheaper, or better than the alternatives, then you’re on track for product-market fit.

Once you can answer the three questions above, it’s time to start prototyping your solution. But that’s not the end of your conversation with your users. Keep getting feedback and testing throughout the development process. Keep designing with empathy for the user’s needs. If you solve real problems and remove pain points, you’ll build a scalable product that users love.

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