They say that every great business addresses a real customer need. If expressing your customer need has ever felt slippery, this is for you.
As Steve Jobs said: you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. Jobs understood that when you try to reverse-engineer the need statement from the product, it’s too easy to lose touch with reality.
After six months of intense product development, this is exactly what happened to me. My product was my baby and I wanted to talk about it with everybody.
But when I didn’t lead with the need, it was often greeted with confused looks. I was giving people the ‘answer’ without asking them the ‘question’, like a weird game of Jeopardy.
Even when I did start with the need, I only afforded it a sentence or two. I’d describe it to perfectly frame my product. In other words, I did the exact opposite to Steve Jobs. And when the confused looks continued, I’d get defensive.
‘Trust me,’ I’d say. ‘It’s a problem — okay?’
Dedicating one or two sentences to the problem statement is often a false economy. For startups, the need is all that really matters. It’s the foundation of your entire business. It’s how you position your product. It’s the ‘why’. And it can trigger powerful emotions, like empathy, and disgust, on command.
Every need is contextual. It’s felt by a particular person, at a particular time, in pursuit of a particular end-goal. It has a functional side — e.g., ‘I need to make this picture look beautiful’ — and an emotional side — e.g., ‘I need attention from my friend’. And needs find a way of getting themselves met . . . with your product or without it.
I wanted to find a way to express my customer need that:
That’s when I came up with the ‘need narrative’.
The need narrative outlines a thesis on how to make people’s lives better. A clear need narrative helps you prioritise features, communicate the product effectively, and hone in on the most important niche. Every field in your need narrative is testable from day one.
For ___[target audience], it’s a constant challenge to ___[general problem]. Every ___[time period], these people ___[perform a key activity] in order to ___[achieve a primary goal]. This is especially true if you’re a [niche].
The main problem they face is ___[primary functional problem relating to activity] which leads to ___[bad/worst case outcomes]. Today, their best option is ___[substitutes], but of course, they ___[the most common complaints of each substitute]. With ___[key trend], the problem will only get worse over time.
If only there was a easier/better/cheaper way to ___[perform a key activity], then customers could ___[quantifiable impact on their primary goal] which would lead to ___[positive outcomes / emotions]. With ___[number of potential customers], there is a clear opportunity to meaningfully impact a huge number of people.
Here are some questions to help you fill in the blanks for your company:
Note on B2B startups: Ultimately, you want to show how helping certain employees perform their roles better will have a positive outcome on the business as a whole.
To bring the message to life, use specific language and vivid metaphors. Adjust the formula to make it work for you. And try it out on both potential customers and lay people, to check that it’s accurate and easy to understand. Your aim is that anyone who hears it should be able to put themselves in your customer’s shoes.
When potential customers hear it, they should self-identify with every point.Once they validate the need, try asking them to guess what your product does to address it. Not only might they come up with good ideas, but they might also expect far less from you than you originally thought.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.