Willem Maas

10 Tips For Finding Your Product Concept’s Target Customer

Finding, screening, and then scheduling interviews with your new product’s target customers is the linchpin of validating a new product concept.

In this article, I offer 10 tips for improving this process, often called participant recruiting. Use the first five tips to guide your thinking about who you want to recruit, and the second five tips for how to find and schedule them.

Are you experienced?

Make relevant, recent experience one of your top criteria for selecting interview participants. Someone who has, or recently had, the problems your product solves can give you input based on real experience, rather than hypotheticals. I find a useful way to frame this question is the competitive set for your product. Choose people who’ve recently evaluated, bought, or used these alternatives, which may include homegrown or DIY approaches in addition to commercial products.

Test widely and then dig deep

Often, the technology enabling a new product concept can be used to solve several similar problems for different target customers. I test the potential for each of these scenarios, or high-level user stories, by recruiting a baseline number of target customers to interview in each. I typically set my baseline at five participants each across the multiple scenarios, and then recruit more participants to further test the most promising ones.

The hydra-headed target customer

Enterprise product purchases usually involve multiple individuals, occupying informal roles like end user, influencer, recommender, economic buyer, decision maker, and saboteur. Even for a free open source product, the decision to use it will likely be informally influenced by others. Interviewing all roles for each scenario would double your project’s size, or more. For a first pass at validating a scenario, I interview a small number of roles who are both critical to the purchase decision and have experienced the same problems. Then, for those scenarios that appear most promising, I test them with roles I omitted in the first round.

Friends and foes

Be sure to identify the characteristics of interview participants who are biased for or against you, so you can screen them out when recruiting. A Customer Advisory Board can be valuable in many ways, but because the CAB’s members have likely become friendly with your company and less objective, I wouldn’t recruit them for these sessions. Similarly, you shouldn’t recruit your friends to participate, but their contacts and friends should be welcome. Your competitors’ employees and “professional” participants are two types of foes to screen out.

Today’s customers

Validating a new product with customers of your current product can be challenging. Their experience with your company and current products may frame or bias their feedback. Further, members of your sales team may seek to limit or restrict access to “their” customers. Nevertheless, you’ll need to interview current customers if you’re seeking to up-sell or cross-sell the new product to them. While recruiting them independently allows you to keep the company sponsor anonymous and avoids stepping on the toes of sales, it may be necessary to reach them through a company contact if the number of customers is small.

Do it yourself recruiting

The ways to find interview participants yourself are limited only by your imagination. Here are a few to consider: network outreach (eg, email, LinkedIn, Twitter); special interest groups like those on LinkedIn and Reddit; and live intercepts (eg, conference booth, sidewalk, or visitors to your website with ethn.io). Doing your own recruiting will likely cost less and allow you to ensure participants meet your criteria. But recruiting, and the logistics of scheduling and follow-ups that go with it, can be very time consuming.

Do it for me recruiting

Recruiters specializing in technology product research form a niche in the large market research industry. While recruiters are often affiliated with an interview facility (eg, focus groups, usability research) or work in-house for one (large) company, you can readily find specialists through word of mouth and directories like Quirk’s. I look for recruiters who have experience finding the participants I’m targeting, and take a collaborative and iterative approach. That is, as the recruiter begins contacting and screening potential participants, we review the results and revise the screener and process as necessary.

Use a screener

A screener is an essential tool, both internally for stakeholder communication and consensus, and externally to ensure you select participants who fit your criteria. As an example, see the elaborate screener Steve Portigal shared in his book “Interviewing Users” which you can find here. I put my most restrictive criteria at the top of the screener to avoid wasting both parties’ time. Also, I’ve found it handy to collect non-screening information about participants’ experience or demographics by applying the CONTINUE convention to all answer fields for those questions.

Financial incentives

Interview participants typically receive a financial incentive for participation. Higher quality participants will require larger incentives, as will people who are more senior or in a niche occupation. For a 40 minute videotaped interview at a recent trade conference, heart surgeons were paid $200 each. In some situations, however, you may need an alternative. For example, it may be uncomfortable to give a financial incentive to your company’s customers. And for incentives over $50, reporting may be required for employees of the government and some large corporations.

Be ready

Whoever’s doing the recruiting, when you find the perfect participant, you’ll want to be ready to schedule the interview and describe next steps. To ensure there is time available, I block out a few two- or three-hour spans during the week of my interviews. When you agree on a day and time, send the participant a calendar invite and make judicious use of the reminder settings. I’ve had better success phoning participants rather than sending them dialing information, so I note in the calendar invite that I will be phoning the participant.


PS: Do you have your own tips? Tell me what’s worked for you with a comment below.