The BBC televises a fascinating programme called "Dragons' Den" where entrepreneurs present their business ideas to 5 venture capitalists (in the USA the television show "American Inventor" has a similar format). After the entrepreneur has pitched his or her idea, the venture capitalists pose questions about the idea and each one makes a decision on whether to invest.

What I find most interesting about the programme is the type of questions posed by the venture capitalists. These are multi-millionaires with years of experience successfully evaluating products. They collectively invest millions of pounds a year in new product ideas, including many high-tech products. Most have been successful from a frighteningly young age, like Peter Jones who founded a tennis academy at 16, and some have a classic rags-to-riches story, such as Duncan Bannatyn who made money selling ice cream before moving on to nursing homes, health clubs and casinos.

The Dragons' Questions

So what type of questions do these people ask of the entrepreneurs? They almost always focus on questions like, "Do people want what your offering?" or "Do you know who your customers are?" Many of the entrepreneurs react badly to this. They have a grand vision for their product and don't want to answer seemingly prosaic questions.

Entrepreneurs and visionaries might not like mundane questions like these, but answers to them are fundamental in making a product successful. For example, with a web site it's so tempting to get caught up in the technologies of social networking, tagging, blogs, podcasts and wikis that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that you have no customers, or that you don't know who your customers are.

Interestingly, these are the questions that usability professionals pose every day. So why not make like a Dragon, and ask some mundane questions of your new product development? You may not be able to declare, like a Dragon, "I'm out!", but you will at least know where to look to start improving your product's chances of success.

What are your business goals?

  • What is the main business problem you hope to solve by introducing the product?
  • What is your vision for the product?
  • How will the product make money (e.g. one off purchase, monthly rental?)
  • What needs to happen for the product to be considered a success?
  • How will you know when the product is successful?
  • What are the short- and long-term objectives for the product?
  • What brand values should the product communicate?

Who are your customers?

  • Is it mass-market or targeted at a defined customer group?
  • How educated are they?
  • Are they current customers or potential customers?
  • Where do they live?
  • What kinds of jobs do your users do?
  • What is their age range?
  • What is their level of technology know-how?
  • What competitor products do they use the most?
  • How frequently will the typical user use the product (daily, weekly, monthly)?
  • If you were to categorise your users, what labels would you use?

What are the most important user goals that the product should support?

  • What motivates people to use your product?
  • What benefits will your customers get from using your product?
  • What customer need will this product satisfy?
  • What, minimally, does the user need to be able to do with the product?
  • What would a successful customer journey look like?
  • How would users satisfy their goals if your product didn't exist?
  • Are there any tasks that users might expect to complete with your product that are not supported?
  • Which specific tasks should users accomplish with few errors?
  • Which specific tasks should users be able to finish quickly?

How to go about answering these questions

A great method for answering some of these questions is a field study. Drawing on methods from the disciplines of anthropology, psychology and sociology, field studies consist of observing and talking with people in their workplaces and homes while they perform normal activities. Field studies are indispensable when you want to understand your customers better: for example, to learn the different ways they're using your product, or what features would be useful to them in future product versions.

About the author

David Travis

Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.

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