Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying

This post originally appeared on Greenhorn Connect here; I’m housing posts on my blog here as well for easy reference.

Whether you interview customers regularly, watch support requests on HelpScout or use a GetSatisfaction or UserVoice – like tool, your startup is inundated with feature requests from your customers.  It’s great to have them engaging, but can lead to the dreaded “feature creep” that leads to a bloated, unusable product. What’s a startup to do? The answer may surprise you in its simplicity: use the 5 Why’s.

Don’t build that feature! How to use the 5 Why’s to learn what your customer really is saying

In case you’re not familiar, the concept of 5 Why’s is that by asking a person a series of “why” questions, you can get to the real root cause of an issue. Commonly, the issue can be used to do analysis of technical failures as outlined in a great post by Eric Ries found here. However, this can be just as powerful when you apply it to discussions with customers about features.  The power comes from saving you from building things customers actually don’t want or need and surfacing what is really important.

This concept really crystallized for me when I had an experience talking to Chris Keller, the founder of email reminder tool, Followup.cc. I was an active user, but Chris hadn’t decided how to monetize yet. I told him I’d pay for Followup if he provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.

There’s just one problem – despite the fact that Chris built that feature not long after our discussion, I’ve never used the calendar even though I am a paying customer because of the core product.

Chris could have avoided building the feature if he had used the 5 Why’s. Here’s how it may have gone.

Me: I’d pay for Followup if you provided a calendar to see all my Followup reminders.

WHY #1: Chris: Why would that make you pay for it?

Me: Because I could then see all the Reminders I’ve set up.

WHY #2: Chris: Why do you want to see all the reminders you’ve set up?

Me: So that I know when I have reminders coming up.

WHY #3: Chris: Why do you want to know when you have reminders coming up?

Me: So I’m sure I know when I should expect a bunch of reminders.

WHY #4: Chris: Why do you need to know when you should expect reminders?

Me: (long pause) …So I’m sure I get all my reminders.

WHY #5: Chris: Why wouldn’t you get all your reminders?

Me: Good question. I guess I’m worried about it not always working.

Chris: Don’t worry. I’ve built Followup to be robust and reliable. Are you sure you need that calendar?

Me: Maybe not.

Your results may vary, but the point is, customers are terrible at coming up with solutions. What they are good at is sharing their problems, which you can solve. The key is to interact with them in a methodical way to get to the heart of what they really need.  Next time you hear from a customer that you need to build a new feature…ask them the 5 Why’s first!

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  1. Pingback: Product development - Market-fit - Meeting a need | Pearltrees

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