7 Steps for Testing if Your Product Will Fail

Jim Semick
Co-founder, Board Member at ProductPlan

Testing if Your Product Will Fail


Recently I spoke to a class at the UCSB Technology Management Program about market validation and failure testing – the process of testing whether customers will buy your product before you build it.

I was part of a startup several years ago that raised millions – we spent about $10 million of it developing and launching a product that no one wanted. It was a mistake that was avoidable.

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Through that failure, I learned how to first validate product concepts before building and scaling them. I’m a believer in the process and have used it successfully for many products and services, including GoToMeeting, GoToMyPC, AppFolio, and ProductPlan.

Here are seven best-practices I outlined in my talk that you can use in your market validation and failure testing efforts.

7 Steps for Testing if Your Product Will Fail

1. Adopt the philosophy of market validation.

“My assumptions may be wrong.” For me, this approach underlies everything about market validation and customer development. Too many entrepreneurs and product managers are too rigid in their belief that they know what’s best for the customer – this only increases the risk of failure.

2. Write a testable hypothesis.

Write a testable hypothesis for the market segment, problem, product, and business model. You can document your hypothesis in several different ways, whether that’s the Business Model Canvas, the Lean Canvas, a simple document, or sticky notes.

3. Focus first on the problem, not the product.

Understand the problem thoroughly by first conducting 10 problem discovery interviews. I find that by focusing on the problem first, the product concept falls into place much more rapidly.

4. Ask open-ended questions.

Make sure you understand your customers and are nailing the real customer pain. I wrote about this in 10 Great Questions Product Managers Should Ask.

5. Pitch your solution to 20 customers after you have nailed the problem.

An ideal pitch tells them their problem and how your solution solves that problem. It also describes what your product won’t do and potentially tests pricing.

6. Iterate your hypothesis as you learn.

In the spirit of agile, you should iterate as you learn. However, unlike many Lean Startups, you are iterating on a concept or prototype rather than an actual product.

7. Track your interviews.

I use a template for tracking customer problems, value propositions for our product, must-have features, objections, probability of buying, and interesting quotes. Keeping good track of interview notes is essential when conducting dozens of interviews. The notes also serve as great customer evidence for justifying product initiatives to stakeholders. I then summarize what I’m hearing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to digest the massive amount of qualitative information I’ve gathered.