Software development is an expensive process, and annual costs are continuing to rise—they reached more than $232 billion in 2019. Your best defense against mounting costs is proactively validating every new iteration of your product to understand which features add the most value for your end-users.
Continuous product validation is the key to developing the right product for your market and making sure your features are adopted by your users. Engaging in product validation early on in the development process means you direct your company’s time and funds strategically to create the best end product possible.
Product validation is a process that checks whether or not a product feature addresses the needs and pain points of current and potential customers. It’s a scientific approach to achieving and maintaining a product-market fit and a scalable way to conduct research faster and more efficiently.
In the same way a scientist tests a hypothesis, product validation lets you test whether your internal stakeholders’ assumptions about your product hold true in the real world. It relies on data gathered from your customers, market research, and the interests and needs of your target market.
Validation is not a one-time event. It’s an ongoing process that will last the full lifecycle of your product. Each time you set out to update or add a new feature, validate whether or not there is a market demand and if those changes meet the most urgent, high-impact need of your customer base.
Failure is a real risk in product development (an estimated 95% of new products fail). Every successful product needs to solve a problem for customers—and validation acts as an external check on whether or not your product features do that effectively. If the answer is “no,” it’s much better to get that information as early in the development process as possible. That will save you from sinking a lot of time and resources into an unviable product feature.
The product validation process also points you toward features with a higher potential to provide value. In other words, validation doesn’t just test whether a feature is viable; it looks at whether your target audience is more or less likely to find this update valuable compared to others. Because the process tests your assumptions against real data, it takes some of the guesswork out of product development and reduces your risk.
As a best practice, start product validation as early as possible in the feature development process. Create a clear plan from the beginning that sets specific parameters for your research. Be as detailed as you can in your planning—this will keep you focused on gathering relevant, actionable data for your product development team.
First, determine the scope of your research. This means planning:
Taking this step is crucial for sticking to your larger development schedule. It also keeps product research from becoming a drawn-out, overly complicated process.
As you determine your sample size and timeline, keep your company’s size and needs in mind. Sampling more customers will take longer, but a larger sample size may mean more robust informative results. Surveying fewer customers will gather less information, but the process will move more quickly. While large companies can take the time to sample hundreds of customers, smaller companies and startups can often work with data from as few as 15 to 20. If you’re not sure which sample size is right for your company, start small. Consistent results are valuable even if they come from a small number of customer inputs.
After you’ve determined the scope of your product validation process, it’s time to collect data from customers. Their feedback checks your company’s assumptions about your product—this data is the heart of product validation.
Surveys are an efficient way to gather data from existing and potential users because they collect a large number of subjective opinions your team can analyze and quantify. They’re also simple for your team to design and familiar to customers.
While surveys are a great way to collect customer data, they aren’t your only option. Your customer success department may already have customer feedback on requested features, suggestions, or common problems. They may have noticed a trend among churned customers who were all looking for a certain feature or functionality. If collecting and organizing feedback is part of your company’s customer success process, you can share that information cross-departmentally to make sure that everyone on your team understands your customers’ needs.
As you develop your data gathering process, ensure it’s organized and streamlined from the beginning. Your team should be able to get an overview of your customers’ overall feedback while also having the option to drill down into specifics for more context if needed.
After you’ve collected data, it’s time to analyze what you’ve found and tie it into your product development process.
Based on the results of your survey and other sources of data, some trends should emerge. The findings you uncover depend wholly on the questions you ask (which is why it’s so important to be purposeful when you plan your research process), but you may learn:
Product validation can feel more streamlined if you think of it as a collaborative process with your customers. That means taking steps to reduce barriers that might keep them from participating. You’ll get better buy-in (and better data) by making the product validation process as simple as possible for your end-users.
You want your customers to participate in your research, so make it easy and intuitive for them to do so. When you’re creating your surveys, take extra steps to avoid some common mistakes and follow best practices, like:
Finally, check to be sure your survey questions ask for actionable information from your customers. If you’re interested in checking whether a new feature has a high potential for adoption, for example, ask customers how often they’ll use it (not just how they feel about it).
No matter how well you craft your surveys, customers will occasionally need room to add more context. Add comment boxes where people can share more of their thoughts about your proposed features or the survey itself.
This data can provide extra insights into your proposed product features. Customer comments may also alert you to problems with your survey questions—if users feel they need to add a lot of extra nuances to get their true opinion across, you may need to rework your survey or add more questions.
When you’re asking about different product features, describe them in a way that’s understandable to someone outside of your company. Avoid using overly technical terms your customers may not understand, but don’t lean too hard on flowery language either.
Instead, keep it brief: offer a short description of the benefit your feature provides to your customers and include one or two points describing what they can use it to do and how it will solve their problem. You want to present your features in a neutral but informative way, leaving enough room for customers to generate their own opinions.
The first time you validate a feature, keep detailed track of how the process went. Make a note of how long each step took your team, any hiccups you encountered along the way, and what you learned from your customers. Streamline where you can, and use that process as a general template next time you consider a new feature for your product.
Making the product validation process part of your standard development methodology will prevent you from assuming you understand customer needs, ensuring instead that you’re always able to iterate and keep on solving problems no matter how they change over time. It’s an important part of product development, regardless of whether you’re in an early stage or working with a final product.