Let me answer that question for you. Unless you are an outlier, the answer is no. Almost every startup I’ve helped, talked to, or participated in didn’t talk to users enough.
That’s totally understandable. Talking to your target users is hard. It can be boring to find them. It’s more fun to build something, and isn’t building something what Go Code Colorado is all about? However, without talking to your potential users, you will very likely build the wrong thing. Your requirements will be made up.
By talking to your users, you are testing your assumptions. When I was working at a startup a few years ago, we were positive a beautiful UX would be important. But when we showed users a functional app that was definitely not beautiful, the app was so helpful that they were willing to pay us to use it. If, instead of talking to our users, we’d spent time building that “required” beautiful UX, that would have been a premature, costly, effort.
Where can you find these users? You may know some that you can ask for thirty minutes. You can also Google for the data you are using or the problem you are solving and find out where people are talking about it. This could be Reddit, on Twitter, or a specialized online forum.
Search Facebook Groups as well, many interesting discussions happen there, outside of Google’s reach. Finally, you can ask the Colorado government department or bureau that produces the data if they can share the names of any users of the data or provide pointers to where these folks discuss it.
When you find these places, spend some time reading what your potential users are writing. What words and phrases are they using? What difficulties come up again and again? What solutions are they using right now? All this knowledge can be gained passively, without talking to a single user.
But, at some point, you’ll want to reach out. Maybe someone posted a particularly insightful comment, or talks about the data in such a way that they are the exact user you want to help. Ask if you can talk to them; often the phrase “I’m looking to learn more about how you are working on problem XXX” will be enough. They are living with the problem you are interested in solving and will often be happy to talk about their experience.
Topics to cover with potential users include:
- What problems are you trying to solve with this data?
- What are you doing to solve them right now? Excel analysis? Manual cross-referencing?
- If you have a prototype to show them, ask them what they think. This can be as simple as a napkin sketch or click through powerpoint. (You can meet them in person or use a screen sharing tool like Google Hangouts.)
Avoid asking these potential users how they’d solve the problem in an ideal world. Customers are acutely aware of their pain and how they solve it, but are not typically experts in building applications or software solutions. Also, you want to get user feedback in aggregate–don’t change plans based on one or two pieces of feedback. (This also means that even if you are a potential user, you want to talk to others, too.)
If you continually hear phrases like “We use Excel and download a bunch of files” or “we re-enter the data in a GIS system” or “wow, I’d really love to use what you’re building”, congrats, you’re on to something. On the other hand, if you hear phrases like “I’m just experimenting with this data” or “I was just curious”, then you probably haven’t found the users that care enough to use your solution; keep looking. Pay attention if they mention ancillary problems: “wow, it’s nice that you’re doing XXX, but my real problem is YYY”. These offhand comments can help shift your focus from a supposed problem to a real one.
Contact users throughout your Go Code Colorado journey–especially if they are enthusiastic when you first talk. People start to feel some sense of ownership if you consult them regularly or show them progress. User insight can influence your efforts while you are building your solution too. For example, that startup I was with eventually invested in a smoother user experience to reach a larger set of UX valuing customers. We found that out by chatting with them.
Find your users. Talk to them.
Dan Moore, Principal at Moore Consulting, and Former Go Code Colorado Mentor