Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick. If you are interested in more detailed notes from this book, they are available here.
A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.
“The Mom Test is a quick, practical guide that will save you time, money, and heartbreak.
They say you shouldn’t ask your mom whether your business is a good idea, because she loves you and will lie to you. This is technically true, but it misses the point. You shouldn’t ask anyone if your business is a good idea. It’s a bad question and everyone will lie to you at least a little. As a matter of fact, it’s not their responsibility to tell you the truth. It’s your responsibility to find it and it’s worth doing right.
Talking to customers is one of the foundational skills of both Customer Development and Lean Startup. We all know we’re supposed to do it, but nobody seems willing to admit that it’s easy to screw up and hard to do right. This book is going to show you how customer conversations go wrong and how you can do better.”
What is ‘The Mom Test’ ?
According to the author, the measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customers’ lives and world views. He proposes a simple test to ensure that early customer interviews are naturally driven to facts instead of opinions.
- Talk about their life instead of your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
- Talk less and listen more
While the book is primarily targeted at individuals who are still trying to define their solution to a specific problem, much of the advice in the book can be applied to customer conversations at later stages in the company’s maturity.
Ultimately, the goal is to learn about your customers’ problems, cares, constraints, and goals.
Anchoring on Specifics
One of the items on “The Mom Test” focuses on asking questions about specific actions in the past instead of talking in generalities. The author describes three types of “fluff” that you should avoid by anchoring them back to specifics in the past.
- Generic claims (I usually, I always, I never)
- Hypothetical maybes (I might, I could)
- Future-tense promises (I would, I will)
To redirect the conversation, the author recommends to
- Ask when it last happened or for them to talk you through it
- Ask how they solved it and what else they tried
While it’s great for the customer to describe the situation, ideally, you want the customer to perform the task in front of you so you can see where the problems and inefficiencies are and not rely on the customer’s opinions. Some user researchers recommend having an activity planned during the session to facilitate this type of conversation.
Responding to Feature Requests
Customers will always try to suggest features that they think could solve their problem and should be added to the product. When this happens, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. The author has a couple of follow-up questions to help dig into the underlying motivations behind the feature request.
- Why do you want that?
- What would that let you do?
- How are you coping without it?
- Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature or is it something we could add later?
- How would that fit into your day?
I thought these were pretty handy to have. In an organization with dedicated sales and customer service teams, it’s helpful to give them this list as well so they can provide richer feedback if they get pitched specific features.
I also thought this quote was an interesting perspective on the relationship between the customer and the researcher.
You aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is and in return they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build
Critical Assumption Verification
It’s also important to test the critical assumptions that your business is based on. If these assumptions are wrong, the company could fail. However, if they end up being correct, the company could be a huge success.
It’s important to learn about those assumptions early and often. If you find out you are heading the wrong direction early enough, you may have enough resources to adjust course and recover.
According to the author,
You can tell it’s an important question when its answer could completely change or disprove your business
As the product matures and you begin to add new features or address additional user problems, these assumptions could be more narrowly focused.
Customer Risk and Product Risk
Much of this book, and user research in general, is focused on discovering the customer’s problems, cares, constraints, and goals. Often, products get built that aren’t solving a real problem or the problem isn’t actually that significant to the user. But what about when the challenge isn’t discovering the problem, it’s building the solution?
The risk is in your product, not in the customer. The author defines each as:
- Product risk: Can I build it? Can I grow it?
- Customer/market risk: Do they want it? Will they pay me? Are there lots of them?
There are some implications if your business has more product risk than market risk. Since you’re not going to be able to prove as much of your business through conversations alone, you’ll have to start building product earlier and with less certainty than if you had pure market risk. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to do user research, it just means you’ll rely on other techniques like rapid prototyping to try and mitigate the technical risks associated with the business idea.
This book focuses on engaging customers to better understand their pain points and problems to ensure that the solution will be valued by the end-user. However, different users will associate different levels of importance to the same problem depending on how it impacts their daily workflow. Some customers could have different problems altogether.
In order to focus the product on solving the right problems, the business will need to focus on a subset of potential users. If you are still having trouble finding consistent problems and goals, you likely need to further segment your customers.
The authors describe a Customer-Slicing process to further refine your customer segment. Start with a broad segment and ask:
- Within this group, which type of person would want it most?
- Would everyone within this group buy/use it, or only some?
- Why does that sub-set want it? What is their specific problem?
- Does everyone in the group have that motivation or only some?
- What additional motivations are there?
- Which other types of people have these motivations?
At the end of this process, you will have a set of demographic groups describing your new customer segment (who) and a set of goals and motivations (what).
B2C vs B2B
While the principles of user research are the same for B2B or B2C products, there are some unique aspects to selling a product to another company.
One the user research side, the authors recommend asking, “Where does the money come from?” This is intended to lead to a conversation about how the budget is allocated, whose budget would be used to purchase the product, and who else in the company would need to be involved to approve (or disapprove) the deal.
Since businesses usually require several individuals or departments to approve a purchase, you can judge the success of a meeting based on the companies willingness to engage additional stakeholders. A good sign is if the meeting ends with the company representative saying, “When can you come back to talk to the rest of the team?” This means they are interested enough in the product to put their reputation on the line and include their colleagues in future conversations.