3 little known (but effective) tools for understanding your user

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If you’re like me, you’ve always been fascinated by startups but not sure how to go about actually starting one up. At the beginning of this year I noticed a gap in the online market and started working on filling it by creating an online novel-writing programme for people who really want to write a novel, but don’t know how to start it.

I’ve been working for a large corporate in South Africa and in the Netherlands, so it’s been fairly eye opening having to do things myself (not having a team of people to execute on things for me), as well as focusing on the user for requirements — not strategy that needs to be approved high-up and may not be particularly appropriate for the challenge at hand.

I have been trying to follow the lean startup and customer discovery methodology. In addition, I have been chatting to many people smarter than me, and spending an inordinate amount of time on startup blogs. In chatting to people I received three very useful processes that I didn’t see mentioned anywhere else, and I thought it would be good to share with you, so that you can ensure you’re building a product that your users want, rather than what you think is a cool solution.

1. Questionnaire design

We had an online questionnaire that we got people to fill in and I also conducted many in-person discussions with aspiring writers to try and understand what their problems were. Some of the most useful questions were things like:

“What are the most frustrating aspects of…”

“What is the process you go through today in order to…”

“Why is … frustrating?”

“If you had a magic wand to help you, what would it do?”

“How much would this magic wand cost?”

A great way to start is to ask people a question about the beginnings of their passion for this particular topic (e.g. When did you first start writing was our question). This loosens them up and makes them less skittish before you start asking them further questions.

2. Dump n’ sort

Once you have all of the answers above you’ll have a large amount of issues that people have with your topic. Individually look at these and write what you think their problems are on individual pieces of paper. I used post-its. Sit down in a team and then group them into sections. Isolate which are the most important/biggest problems that the users have. Then look at the features that support the solution of that problem. This gives you a small great nugget of a product (or MVP in the words of the Lean Startup).

3. Customer verification

Now you’ve been through the first two steps and you need to know if you’re on the right track. Write down (in the first person), what you believe the user’s challenge is. Then, write down what their desire is around this, and finally you put down your solution. Our summarised version looked like this:


Writing a novel is one of those bucket list things for me, I have to write a book before I die. It’s just really hard to find the time to get it done. Life is real busy, and finding writing time is difficult – especially with a project as big as this.


What I’d like is someone to hold my hand through the writing process. Help me find and finesse my idea, show me what structure I need and help keep me motivated throughout the process.


The Now Novel is an online novel writing course that helps you finally write your novel. It gives you the structure to find your idea, finesse the plot, character and setting and the motivation and guidance to write it.

Finally, sit down with your potential users and ask them to go through your document. They need to highlight what they agree and disagree with, and leave blank what they feel ambivalent about. This will then give you an idea of how you’re progressing relative to people’s desires and where you need to put more effort in. Then its back to the drawing board to begin the loop again if you have too many disagreements.

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