The 1 Question to Ask Customers to Develop Great Products 

No one can have everything. The question, then, isn’t whether or not you have to make tradeoffs. To design and build a truly great product, you have to be able what tradeoffs are your customers willing to make?

You probably already know that you can’t design and build a product without making tradeoffs. Everyone makes tradeoffs to make progress: “I’m willing to give up this so I can get that.”… writes Bob Moesta.

No one can have everything.

The question, then, isn’t whether or not you have to make tradeoffs.

The question is what tradeoffs should you make?

To design and build a truly great product, you have to be able to answer that question.

To do that, though, you have to take a step back and consider another crucial question: what tradeoffs are your customers willing to make?

Reflect Your Customers’ Values

To get to the bottom of what tradeoffs your customer is willing to make, you need to consider what’s most important (and least important) to them. You need to be able to reflect their values and their tradeoffs in the way you make your product.

For example, I worked on a project designing dish soap for a company operating out of a developing country. The company had been developing the soap for about a year, and they were stuck; every time they got a status update from the chemists, they’d hear the same thing: “We’re almost there, just one more thing to fix.” And each time they’d fix the problem, something else would break.

To create a great dish soap, we had to consider things from the customer perspective. Namely, how does the customer know it’s working? I quickly realized that the soap needed to create foam. Without foam, the customer wouldn’t get the feedback that it’s doing its job.

You can actually make dish soap without foam that does an excellent job of cleaning, but people won’t realize it’s cleaning and keep adding more and more soap. I might be able to make it clean, but if it doesn’t foam, customers will think it’s not working. I have to optimize between the foam that they see and the ability to clean.

To do this, I have to understand the tradeoffs between the two things. Ultimately, knowing how the customer is going to use it and what they are going to use it for helps me decide how much money to put into the foaming system versus the cleaning system.

The questions to ask your customer to develop a great product starts with identifying their tradeoffs first

For the customer, tradeoffs happen at the point that they ultimately decide what they want. This is where priorities are set and values are determined. It’s a triangle between time, cost, and quality. No one can have it all! People set their expectations here and will base their satisfaction on the criteria they set.

It’s important that you identify the tradeoffs consumers are willing to make first. Don’t talk features, benefits, and cost because people are willing to make tradeoffs.

What makes your product or service kick ass?
Where do you say no?
Basically, you have to choose what to suck at.

To illustrate my point, let me share a story. Recently, a friend came to me and asked if I could help her get a family member unstuck during the decision-making process for buying a new condo. John had recently lost his wife and was consolidating from two homes to one. He and his wife spent half the year up north and the other half in Palm Beach, Florida. John wanted to move to Florida full-time. His children, however, worried that he didn’t have any family in Palm Beach and wanted him to relocate closer to family that already lived in Florida.

Eager, John jumped into home hunting from afar, while he was still settling the New York property. His family in Florida started to preview properties on his behalf via video conferencing. Immediately, John saw a condo that he loved and made an offer. But as he waited for the seller’s response, he got nervous and started to overanalyze the property: the building was too close to the one next door, and parking was too limited. When sellers tried to negotiate price, John haggled with his objections in mind and lost the sale.

Address the Constraints

Just a week later, John saw another condo that looked perfect and sent his family to go look. Again, John made an offer almost immediately, but this time, his offer was accepted. Again, he started to stress over the details: closeness to the street, security system, recycling, and pool maintenance. When the sellers refused to fix an issue with the air conditioning, John pulled out of the deal.

When he finally arrived in Florida to look in person, John saw nothing he liked; everything had at least one or two little details out of place. At this point, he’d looked with my friend at over 30 properties, and none were acceptable.

“What is he afraid of?” I asked. Often when people can’t make a choice, it’s because they are afraid of something. I suspected that there was some anxiety force that was manifesting through objections. “You need to take him out to lunch and ask what he’s really afraid of,” I told her. “Maybe he’s unsure about relocating. You’ve got to attack the habit of the old.”

Then I told her if it were me, I’d play a game with him: “Imagine that there are only three condos left, and these are the three condos. Which one would you pick, and why?” It would force him to make a choice, at least in a hypothetical scenario, and it would help determine what’s really important to him.

Help People Move Forward

Once I had done that, I would take him out to view a wider range of condos, including condos he wouldn’t consider buying because they were either above or below his price range. I’d let him see what it would cost to get the security features, pool maintenance, distance from the street, etc. He needed to see the tradeoff he’d make on price to get those amenities.

Finally, I would apply a time wall. It’s one of the most valuable tools for framing tradeoffs. I’d tell him that he needed to make a decision by a certain date, December 1, because otherwise, he’d run into the holidays. Then, I’d tell him that if he couldn’t decide by then, he should take a few months off and start again in the spring when the inventory would be high. Imposing a time wall would force him to either make the decision or not make the decision.

Just like John, consumers need help to make tradeoffs. That’s why you need to consider things from their perspective, you need to ask customers that one question to develop a great product: what tradeoffs should you make.

Doing so — identifying what tradeoffs they’re willing to make so you can reflect their values in your product — is a very effective way to help people move forward and make progress, and a great way to make sure the product you’re designing contains the right features and benefits.

You don’t need to sell your product; you need to help people buy it. Learn how to and reframe the sales process within your business.

For more advice on how to design a truly great product, you can find Learning to Build on Amazon.