People who have an idea for a new product have two ways of finding out if potential customers want it: they either launch a landing page or ask people if they want it.
A landing page usually includes key benefits and a screenshot of the product. Data collected includes email addresses of people who are interested. If conversion rates of people giving their email address divided by landing page visits are high enough, a decision is made to develop the product.
Asking potential customers if they want the product, feature, or service is considered as a healthy process in many organizations. A common practice includes sending a team with a new product idea to the organization’s top customers. The team then passionately describes the idea and asks for feedback. Would you use it? Would you pay for it? How much? What features do you want? If 10–15 customers show interest, the organization goes ahead and develops the product.
These two activities are seductive to startups and huge corporations alike. They feel science-y and data-ish. An entrepreneur or product manager having a customer tell her he wants her product is inherently validating during a time when the entrepreneur or product manager is vastly insecure about what she’s building and is desperate for someone to compliment the product. It’s innately human.
Don’t be tricked. This kind of “research” will mislead you and waste your time, as it’s profoundly wrong, unreliable, and invalid. Startups tend to launch a landing page, thinking it’s the right way to learn if people need their product. The problem is that the only question landing pages answer is “Are people interested enough to give us their email address?” They learn nothing about what people want or need. Humans have no idea what they need and will almost always be nice to people who ask them. It doesn’t cost them much to be nice and say it’s a great idea.
That said, not everything is black and white when you ask “Will you use this?” Some people do actually know — for example, specialists (like doctors) in fields with atrocious user experiences where there are obvious design opportunities.
Fake it ‘till you make it
A Fake Doors experiment is a minimum viable product where you pretend to provide a product, feature, or service to Web page or app visitors. Without developing anything just yet, you communicate to visitors that the thing exists and ask them to act on it. If they do, you know they want it, and it’s time for you to start working on developing it.
For example, imagine a grocery store website. If the store is thinking about developing a grocery shopping app and wants to know whether customers are interested or not, a call-to-action button could be added to the website. The button might be labeled as “Download our shopping app.” The store would have a powerful decision-making tool at hand if it saw a large ratio of people who clicked the button and divided that by those who were exposed to it.
The Fake Doors technique is a powerful, quick, waste-reducing way to find out if people want a product, feature, or service. The following are three ways to design a Fake Doors experiment.
Launch a landing page that attempts to prove some kind of commitment on behalf of its visitors. This commitment could be asking them to pay for a product that doesn’t exist yet. Starting an crowdfunding project is a variation of evaluating such a commitment. Be aware, though, that crowdfunding attracts very specific types of audiences that might not overlap with yours. The key thing to remember is asking for payment now, before the product exists.
The button to nowhere
When you want to evaluate if people need a certain feature within an existing product, add a button or link or tap target to your product indicating that a certain capability or feature exists behind it. When users press, click, or tap it, show an indication that the feature doesn’t exist yet — a “coming soon” note or an “in progress” banner. Obviously, this technique requires you to have a product and enough visitor traffic.
Launch an advertising campaign, for example, with Google Adwords or Facebook Ads. (A word of warning: advertising involves brand, imagery, tone of the messaging, targeting, and more. If you are a beginner in online advertising, be aware that if done poorly, it can be a huge barrier to attracting people that would really benefit from the experience.) Ads included in the campaign lead to a 404 error page. You don’t need to develop anything. Your only goal is evaluating if people are interested in the product based on the ads. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend using a 404 page. I think it’s nasty. You can decide for yourself.
Would Google do it?
As a former Googler, I get asked a lot about whether or not Google does any of those Fake Doors, button to nowhere, or 404 testing. To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no. For a good reason, in my opinion. In a world where thousands of news articles and social media posts burst into the air worldwide after Google moves one letter in its logo one pixel to the right, you can only imagine what would happen if Google implemented a 404 test.
My point is simple: if you work for or founded an organization that is willing to experiment and does not have half the world watching every step you make, go for it and use Fake Doors studies. Just do yourself a favor and don’t be nasty. Never intentionally lead to a 404 page only because you want to learn. Have the courtesy to admit it and apologize for not having the product available. Be open about it. Thank the people who help you learn, and if you can, give them a small gift as a gesture.
Determine a Fake Doors threshold
There is one piece of data coming out of a Fake Doors experiment that helps you get an answer to the “Do people want my product?” question: the ratio between how many people showed interest in the product/feature and the number of people who got exposed to the message about it. “Showed interest” means they either paid to buy the product, funded it, clicked the button to nowhere, or clicked through an ad.
When you decide in advance what the ratio (or dollar value) is that will make you want to develop the product or feature, you have a powerful research tool that drives decisions at hand.
When the threshold you’ve set in advance is crossed, meaning people are so enthusiastic about your offering that they’re willing to pay for it even in its pre-existence status, these are all great signals that potential customers recognize the value of your product, feature, or service and that they want it. This serves as validation, and you can go ahead to make progress with developing a product prototype.
In most cases, though, you will find that your assumptions are invalidated. You learn that your idea has failed. Potential customers don’t provide any clear signal they want your product. This is where a lot of entrepreneurs, product managers, and startup founders make bad decisions. In my research for my book, I discovered that many of them decide to ignore what they learned and still chase their passion for making a product out of their idea.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that after you learn people don’t want your product you should stop chasing your dream and vision. Not at all. I am calling you to pivot, to make informed decisions that will help you change your idea (or your communication about it) a little bit so that it appeals to your intended audience.
Why Fake Doors work?
- Great for finding how potential customers perceive the value of an offering.
- Good for evaluating single, very small features through very specific services to entire product suites.
- Reduces the risk of wasting time on expensive product development.
- Keeps you from delivering features, products, and services your customers don’t really want.
- Forces you to start speaking the language that resonates with customers, practice, and perfect it.
Tomer Sharon is the author of Validating Product Ideas Through Lean User Research. Get a 20% discount when you purchase the book directly at Rosenfeld Media while using the code tomernews.
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