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Scott Bolinger



How to Validate Your Product Idea With The Mom Test

I have to admit, my process for validating a product idea is not good. The last product I built went like this…

[Internal monologue] “Man, I really don’t like popup plugins, but it seems to be the best way to get a message across. If I could just make it a little more subtle, that would make me feel better. Surely other people feel the same way? I see people Tweet every day about how much they hate popups. I talked to a couple people and they like the idea. That’s it, I’m building this thing.”

I released the product, and nobody seemed to care. Big surprise.

Part of the problem was that I made the product for myself, and my needs were too specific. I didn’t consider the needs of the wider market. The other problem was asking the wrong questions to validate my idea.

For AppPresser, my validation process was non-existent. I thought it was a super cool idea, and I got lucky that people would pay for it.

It is impossible to know ahead of time if your product will be successful, but you can do better than me. I recently found a simple, practical way to validate a product idea that eliminates blind guessing.

Enter The Mom Test

I recently picked up the book “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick, and it illuminated what was wrong with my product validation technique.

I read most of it in a couple hours, and it is one of the most useful books I’ve read in a long time. If you are looking to validate a product idea, this is a must-read.

The Mom Test is about asking the right questions so you get real, actionable feedback. The way most of us do it is we tell people our idea, then they say “That sounds super cool, I love it! Let me know when it launches.” We hear that from multiple people, and we think, oh man we’re onto something!

The problem is that your friends are lying to you. They don’t actually care about your idea, they are just trying to be encouraging. While this type of feedback is well intentioned, it tells you nothing about whether there is actually a market for your product.

Instead, you need to ask the type of questions even your Mom can’t lie to you about. Here’s an example of questions I should have asked about my popup plugin.

An Example Product Validation Conversation

Me: Do you use a popup plugin on your site?

Them: Ya, I’m not a big fan of popups, but they work so…

Me: Why don’t you like popups?

Them: They are annoying and I think they are kinda sleazy. But I need to collect emails, and I get more emails when the popup is active.

Me: Did you research popup plugins before you added one?

Them: Ya I read some blog posts and got some recommendations.

Me: Why did you end up picking that one?

Them: It had X feature I really needed, and it seems to be the best one…

Me: When you were looking for a popup plugin, was “less sleazy” or “more subtle” a consideration?

Them: No, I don’t think I looked for that. Maybe I should have lol!

Me: Have you ever researched a popup solution that was less “sleazy”?

Them: Not that I can remember.

Me: Ok thanks!

Do you see the takeaway here? It’s a big one.

I confirmed that the problem existed, which is great. They think popups can feel sleazy, just like me. Check that box.

However, this person never actually looked for an alternative. If I hear this from multiple people, this tells me it’s a problem that people complain about, but don’t actually try to fix. That means no one will actually search for this product or buy it, because they don’t care enough about the problem to seek a solution.

How to Ask The Right Questions

The point of your questions is to learn how your customer behaves, not to hear what they think of your idea.

You want to avoid talking too much about you and your product or idea, instead focus on them. What is their process around X? How do they handle it when Y happens? When is the last time they bought a product to solve this problem?

If you do this correctly, you should come away with factual data about how your customer behaves. If you do it incorrectly, you will get compliments and half-hearted commitments to try your product out when it launches.

Here are some questioning tactics from that conversation that come from The Mom Test:

  • Don’t mention your idea at all. This only leads to fake compliments and trying not to hurt your feelings.
  • Instead seek to learn about your customer and their actions and beliefs
  • Don’t ask hypotheticals like “would you buy X?” Instead, ask about what they did in the past. Did you try to Google a solution? Tell me about that.
  • Don’t avoid negative responses, seek them out. You are trying to find the truth, not trying to get people to say what you want to hear. Sometimes apathy is a clearer signal than enthusiasm.

Invalidating your idea is OK

funny product review

When seeking validation for your product, you should also seek invalidation. It sucks, but at least you don’t have to waste your time building a product just to figure out no one wants it.

After I read this book, I wrote out several questions to get a feel for it. The surprising thing was that the process of writing these questions, without asking them to someone, invalidated an idea I had.

The idea was for a notifications widget. I made a mockup in Photoshop and planned out some really cool, innovative features. Next, I wrote out some Mom Test questions like “Tell me about a site you have with multiple types of notifications. How do you handle it?” and “When was the last time you searched for a notifications plugin that does XYZ?”

After thinking over these Mom Test questions, I couldn’t imagine anyone saying “Ya I Googled for a plugin that handles multiple types of notifications and I was not happy with the results.” I just don’t see this as a problem that anyone is actively trying to solve.

Invalidating my idea didn’t feel good, but at least I saved myself the trouble of building yet another product that no one wants. The purpose of the Mom Test is to get the truth, not to get what you want to hear.

Try writing out some questions, then pick 3 that really get to the root of your problem. Have these handy and ready to ask in casual situations like at a conference, or over email.

Finding People To Ask

Once you know the right questions to ask, it’s time to put your introverted tendencies aside and actually talk to people.

Keep things informal as much as possible. You’ll get more data by asking a few questions on the spot instead of trying to setup 45 minute interviews for a later date.

Some of your questions will fit neatly into online survey questions, and you can email or share the link on social media to get some answers. Sometimes, to dig deeper you’ll need to talk to human beings voice to voice.

Here are a few ideas on how to find conversations from The Mom Test.

  • Go to a conference that has your potential audience. Strike up casual conversations in the hallway or the speaker lounge.
  • Setup a landing page and collect emails. Reply to people who sign up and see if you can hop on the phone, or get a few questions answered via email.
  • Release a simple version of your product and talk to early adopters. This is probably the worst way to do it, since you already have sunk costs. If your product is already out there, you can at least figure out the best way to move forward or pivot. Other less creative ideas would be Slack, Twitter DMs, Facebook Groups, emailing existing customers, and emailing a friend. These may not give you the best data, but it’s a start.

The purpose of these conversations is not to hear compliments about your idea. You are trying to dive into your potential customer’s life and learn all you can about them. Even if your first idea is invalidated, you will undoubtedly leave with a better understanding which can be a source of new, better ideas.

Getting Started

Here’s what the whole process looks like:

  • Read The Mom Test
  • Write out 10 questions and pick the best 3
  • Figure out where your potential customers are, and how you will reach them
  • Start scheduling calls, shooting emails, building a landing page, or however you’re going to do it. Ask your questions and take notes to review later.
  • Tweak the process and keep asking better questions
  • You don’t need to stick to your questions like a script, but prepping them in advance will prepare you if an unexpected opportunity arises.

Here’s a cheat sheet for asking good questions:

  • Don’t mention your idea at all, instead ask about their behavior. “Tell me about the last time you…”
  • Don’t fish for compliments. ”Do you think this type of thing would work? Would you sign up for it?”
  • Don’t pitch or get defensive. “I don’t think you understand, what I’m really trying to do is…”
  • Keep it casual, avoid awkward formality. “Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I will ask you a series of questions, I want your honest feedback…”

Signs that you are off track:

  • “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback”
  • “Everyone loves this idea”
  • “A bunch of people told me to let them know when we launch”

Instead you are looking for:

  • “Over 50% of my interviewees said they recently had this problem, and searched for a solution.”
  • “Most of the people who searched for the solution used a private online forum. That is a good place to start our marketing efforts.”
  • “Most of the people I talked to had this problem, but no one actively tried to solve it. This could be a dead end.”
  • “I didn’t get anywhere. People gave me half-assed answers and tried to get off the phone as soon as possible.” (Apathy can be a good sign you are on the wrong track)

Focus on them, talk as little as possible, and deflect compliments.

selling products

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