The Gap Between the Product and User Needs

Brian Casel said the following on a recent podcast episode of Bootstrapped Web:

There’s always a gap between what the customer is even able to tell you or demonstrate to you versus what actually truly matters to them once they’re in the product. There are always things that they don’t even know themselves.

Brian was relating his experience with HEY, the new email service from Basecamp. He was sold on the idea, was eager to try it, gave it a spin, and realized there was a gap. There were things he didn’t realize were important to him about an email service.

You hear this type of thing, and you think about your own product, and then you get tempted to do something about that gap.

You think: those users were excited, but now they leave. We have to do something about that.

A Gap to Fill? or a Gap to Ignore?

In a previous article, we’ve covered the risk you take when adding features.

You might think you’re helping your product get more sales by having more features, but those new features might be causing anxiety for your new buyers.

I don’t want to have to learn all those features…

It’s a gamble. Your job is to build a product. Not building, that feels like going backwards.

So how can you decide whether that gap is a gap to fill or a gap to ignore?

Listening Until You Hear Trade-offs

When you get on the phone with a customer, and they tell you that:

  • they were disappointed your product doesn’t have feature X
  • they were hoping the product could do Y
  • they realized that it would important for them to be able to do Z

Those comments should spur you to dig deeper. Not only do you want to avoid building features that might make future buyers feel burdened, but you also have to reduce development costs by building just the right thing.

Digging deeper means you’d be asking questions like this:

  1. “Tell me what you did up until you bought this product.” What you want to understand here is the work-around, the good-enough mish-mash of solutions they’ve been using so far. Odds are that they’ll be going back to that setup, away from your product. If their situation really was good enough, and they signed on because of the novelty or the buzz, then you know you can encourage them to continue with their old setup. Your product was probably not filling a hard struggle. But if their old setup really did cause them to struggle for progress, maybe you could ask:
  2. “What happened when you heard about my product? Tell me about the story behind finding us.” This question uncovers a bit about their purchase story. If you go all the way, you’ll understand the forces at play in their mind and the job for which they “hired” your product. Maybe they hired your product to be in on the cool new thing. That’s not the job you wanted your product to be hired to do, so you agree to part ways. But if they did hire your product for the job it was intended to excel at, then you’re onto something… now to the next question:
  3. “What will you do if I don’t add that feature you’re suggesting? Or if I don’t add it in the next year?” This question will get you a new type of information: the trade-offs they’re willing to do for the new struggle they have in front of them.

Those trade-offs give you information about their current choices. It might be that they wouldn’t even use that new feature there were asking for. It might be that this conversation will show you that they’ll find an interesting work-around that you can share to other people.

Maybe you’ll realize the smallest, most impactful variation of that feature idea that you should be building.

Or maybe you’ll come out of that conversation with new ideas about how to fill that gap.

New Options for Filling the Gap

We recently saw how your product becomes a story point in your buyer’s journey. Your buyers “hire” the product, but then they hit a new struggle as they start using it. The product doesn’t do this one thing. In that article, I suggested the idea of a multi-product, or multi-outcome approach:

When your product creates an obstacle, why not offer a sub-product to help the person get moving on the progress they seek to make?

  • Maybe you can publish a small video showing a nifty work-around.
  • Maybe you can sell a small book on the new process your product is based on solving.
  • Maybe you can sell a small book on how to stay with your competitor’s product. You’ll encourage people who need complexity to be served with a familiar tool, and you’ll get reputation to be surprisingly helpful.

As a product person, it’s tempting to fill every gap, paving a smooth road for all of your buyers. But doing so might wreck your product. “Too many features I don’t want to have to learn!”

Instead of filling gaps, think about digging deeper until you get in the mind of the user, until you understand their trade-offs. Then build the smallest, most useful thing.

Stay Sharp.


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