What is water: Avoiding a common pitfall to customer discovery

I've been doing customer discovery for a new venture that I'm investigating. That means going out there and talking to dozens of people in my target audience. The goal is to understand their needs and identify their pain points. I start the conversation with two questions: "what do you do?" and "what are the most painful parts about your work?" I learn something new every time I ask these questions. But there's a caveat to these customer interviews. For a person that has been immersed in their problems day in and day out, asking them to describe their problems is like asking a fish to describe water.


We fell into this trap for our first product at Spokepoint. My co-founder spoke to almost a hundred target customers. Everybody said they had that problem and would pay for it when it is ready. We spent a few weeks developing a prototype to get user feedback. We made improvements. We then tried to sell it ... Nobody bought. "But if only you had these more features..." We pivoted away from that product soon afterward.

The obvious solution is to dig into the real, underlying problems that people really have versus the problems that they think they have. Unfortunately, I don't have a magical 3-step guide to read between the lines and know what people really want to say. This comes down to a matter of communication skills, experience, and hard work. We cannot solve this fundamental problem, but we did find ways to mitigate this.

One of the best methods that we had found useful, and with credits to our lean startup mentor, Spike, are a couple simple follow-up questions to screen out problems that don't really matter to people.

When people tell you they have a problem, ask them what is
their current solution and when was the last time they looked
for a better solution.

Like I don't enjoy having to think about what to make for dinner. My current solution is to make permutations of the same things. I never bothered to find a better solution because I don't really think about it anymore. It has become my water. More often than not, people will say that they haven't looked for another solution. Some even are not doing anything about it at all! Look for the itch that people are actually scratching. Don't ask people to describe water.