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A well-thought-out survey can help you prove the sustainability of your product idea

July 9, 2018

Validating Your Product Ideas Through Surveys

When I was ten years old, my family and I skied nearly every weekend. As I grew older and ski technology advanced, my parents bought me “buckle up” ski boots. Before that, I had to lace up my boots before leaving the lodge; suffice to say it was a drag. My new “buckle-up ski boots” transformed everything, not only did it feel cool — I thought I was Jean Claude Killy — (if you’re under 50, look him up), but it made getting ready to ski much easier.

I began to think, why wouldn’t they do this for ice skates as well? Lacing up ice skates is terrible and takes forever. I thought to myself, take the laces off the skates, stick on a couple of buckles and “Voilà, you’re Dick Button!” (look him up too). Well, of course at 10 years old, I didn’t have the skills to build such an invention, nor the grit to stick to it, so the idea died there.

Many of us have had cool ideas that we thought would sell and with the ever-increasing advancement in technological achievements and shared skillsets, many of these ideas are attainable. Nearshore development teams such as FullTimeForce and others make software development an affordable reality, 3D printing allows people to create prototypes of new ideas and online eCommerce sites such as Amazon, Alibaba, eBay, Pinterest and others provide the smallest of businesses the ability to market worldwide. But it has to start with that “Great Idea”!


Do They Like Me? Do They Really Like Me?


A survey is an effective tool to gauge the reaction your product idea causes on its audience


So what do you do once you’ve come up with that grand idea? Should you quickly incorporate, launch right into a prototype or hire a development team? The short answer is, “Heck no!” Even though technology has brought down the costs of such initial steps, you don’t know if there’s a market for this product. Business is littered with “Product-central” business ideas introduced by people who had thought, “If I build it, they will come.” Simply put, businesses make money if people value their product; you need to know if people will buy your cool idea. Although you think your idea is great, you need to know if others share your enthusiasm. Don’t think Inside Out about your product (i.e., “This product’s so cool, it’ll make me a bajillion dollars”), think Outside In — what do people want and can this product meet those needs?


Of course, your first step is to bounce the idea off some friends — tell them about your product, who you think it would appeal to and why. Talk about the competitive advantage you have over others, talk about why your product would bring value to your customers, talk about how you would make this product a reality. If they seem to think that the idea is a good one and that it could be a self-sustaining one (i.e. one that’s profitable) then that’s a good sign, but you’re not done. Very often feedback from friends and family is biased; although your idea may be a good one, you’re a friend to them and may feel uncomfortable telling you the honest truth. Furthermore, people tend to hang out with like-minded individuals, so although your idea for a better buggy whip may be very appealing to your friends on the “Buggy Whip Facebook Page”, let’s face it, that’s a pretty narrowly focused customer set. “Group thought” doesn’t really reflect what the general public will buy. So how do you get broad-based, objective feedback from others about your idea? There are several approaches, but as a small business owner (on a limited budget), a great approach is to use a survey.


The Survey


Nowadays, online tools offer a variety of options to create, distribute and summarize surveys


You don’t need a bunch of guys with white lab coats and clipboards to conduct a survey — in fact, that can kind of creep people out. Instead, Survey Monkey or Google Forms can be used to create a polished, well-thought-out survey, that can be distributed to people in a number of ways. Furthermore, Google Forms automatically summarizes the data into interesting reports and the survey data can be saved to Google Sheets (Google’s version of Excel) so your results can be further analyzed using Google Sheets’ filters, grouping, charts, etc.


Which Questions to Ask?


There’s a whole science on survey questions and many believe that the types, verbiage used and sequence of questions can compromise your results. Although much of that is true, as a small business owner myself, I’m a big believer in, “A little bit can go a long way”, so don’t overanalyze it. That said, make sure that every question you ask is designed for a purpose — ask yourself, “Why do I want to know the answer to this and will the answer provide me incremental information as to whether my product or business is worthwhile? Your questions should concentrate on 2 primary areas:


-Personal attributes of your survey taker

Document their gender, age, current location (city, state or country, depending on your company’s target reach) technical aptitude, are they a current consumer of a product such as yours, etc. If you’re selling B2B vs B2C, you’ll want to know:

  • B2B: Type of business/industry they’re in, position within the company (Individual contributor, Manager, Buyer, Owner, etc.), dependence on technologies (related to your product), budget, etc.
  • B2C: Preferred social media sites, married or single, monthly budget for your product, etc. – since my product relates to Family Tree products, I asked them how big their family was when they grew up and how many children they currently have.


-Product perspective

Describe briefly what your competitive advantage is and why your product offers value. Ask which competitor they currently use, do they see your features as benefits, how do they value price vs quality vs terms vs consistency, what price do they currently pay for this product, etc.


Documenting the personal attributes of the survey taker will allow you to see trends; for instance, you may see that “Individual Contributors” seem to like what my product offers, but “Managers” don’t, “20 Somethings” seem to prefer these features, whereas “40+ Year Olds” like these others. These distinctions are important so you know if your product has appeal and to which demographic. These differences are called Market Segmentation and you’ll need to cater your marketing to their demographics (but I’m getting ahead of myself).


Do’s and Dont’s of a Good Survey


There are several points to take into account when preparing questions for your survey


The list of “Do’s and Don’ts” could extend for several pages, but the following are key things to remember.




-Tell people why you’re asking them to take the survey

People need context and a reason to help you out. Without that, they may not answer your questions correctly, or they may simply feel it’s not worth their time. Also, if you can work in an explanation of, “What’s in it for them” to take the survey, they may be more incentivized to participate.


-Keep the questions concise

A question should be asked within one sentence. Don’t ask multiple questions within one question, that’s confusing and your results will be terrible.


-Use multiple choice questions

These will help to ensure you can summarize your results more easily. But be sure the multiple choice answers can provide survey takers the ability to answer the broad spectrum of results (e.g. it’s often useful to include at least one answer that says, “Other…” and allow them to fill something in, or “N/A – this doesn’t apply to me”).


-Consider offering an incentive to participate

Perhaps the survey taker will be entered into a drawing for a $100 gift, or you could offer a $5 Starbucks gift certificate for each survey participant. This isn’t necessary, but it can increase responses. Note that if you do this, the survey will not be anonymous.


-Indicate an end date

Although your survey takers are doing this for your benefit, put a deadline on it and politely indicate you’re hoping to wrap this up within that time frame (roughly one week). We’re all busy and without an “Expiration Date”, it’s easy to put things off.


-Thank your survey takers

This is very important as it sets the stage for others that your new product or new business is aware of the value of their time and assistance. Furthermore, it’s simply the right thing to do.





-Ask every question that comes to mind

People are answering your survey as a favor to you. Keep your survey to no more than 15-20 questions.


-Ask for their email address

If people can remain anonymous, they’ll feel they can be more candid and honest with their responses. I’ve made sure to tell people that the survey is anonymous, but that they can optionally add their email address at the end if they’d like.


-Phrase the questions to lead or guide an answer

I know we all want for others to love our product as much as we do, but questions like, “Price isn’t nearly as important as Customer Service, right?” That type of question can either aggravate a survey taker (“If you already know what I want, why ask me that question?”), or lead the survey taker into an answer they wouldn’t have made. A better question would be, “Relative to Price, how important is Customer Service?” and then offer multiple choice answers.


-Guide your client through the survey verbally

If you’re already in business and you want a client to take a survey, give them the opportunity to take it privately. If you happen to be with them and want to walk them through it with you, they’ll realize their answers have to reflect their “negotiation principles” and may not be as honest with you as they could be. For instance, if a salesman asked you, “Is price more important than Quality”, you may feel compelled to say yes, because you don’t want the salesman to not give you his best price.


Here’s an example of one of my Google Forms surveys (please feel free to fill it in – thank you!!!).


How to Create the Survey


Although there are many online survey tools, the most popular are Google Forms and SurveyMonkey


Survey Monkey is a great option to use to create surveys and thousands of people and businesses use them, however, their free product limits you to 10 questions.


Google Forms is a free and excellent alternative to creating online surveys. This tool (like Survey Monkey) allows for anonymity (a key feature) and presents your business in a professional manner. There are several videos on YouTube describing how to use Google Forms, but this one seems to provide a good overview. The features I found especially useful on Google Forms are the ability to:


  • Preview the survey before sending it
  • Automatically summarize your results
  • Store your data to a spreadsheet (allows for better analysis later)
  • Add photos and branding to your form
  • Separate your survey into different sections
  • Add a progress bar to show survey takers how much they have left to answer


Whichever tool you use, try to ensure the features above are supported.


How to Distribute Your Survey


So now you have a well-worded survey consisting of questions that provide you insight into whether or not your product is valuable to your clients. Now, how do you get it into their hands?


Google Forms allows you to “send” the survey to others via:


  • email (simply enter the email addresses of the recipients)
  • a link which can be pasted to your LinkedIn or other social media site like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • an embedded HTML code (for your own website)


You can choose any or all of the above, depending on where your survey takers reside.


Use the Results Dispassionately and Make a Decision


Once you’ve received your responses, review them honestly and take steps to respond accordingly. Perhaps your product is good as is, perhaps your prospective clients suggest some minor modifications or tweaks, or perhaps they just aren’t into it. The idea is, you’ve chosen their input because they reflect your potential clientele and they represent whether or not customers will value your product (a true Outside In approach). If the results suggest your product has legs, then you can begin to investigate prototypes or nearshoring development teams (like FullTimeForce).


In Conclusion


A survey is an effective tool to gauge your target audience’s thoughts about your potential new product. Inexpensive and time-tested tools like Google Forms or SurveyMonkey exist to allow you to easily create and distribute your survey. It’s important to remember to ask meaningful questions of your target audience, make the questions as clear as possible and act dispassionately on your survey results.

Even if your product idea generates negative survey results, your survey was still a success – at least you didn’t build a product that people wouldn’t buy. Don’t be discouraged – when trying to invent the light bulb, Thomas Edison failed numerous times, yet still maintained, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


Tim Crowley - Guest Blogger

Tim is a PMP certified systems manager with over 20 years experience managing systems teams to create enterprise-wide software on a global scale. He is currently working with us on Our Cards, an innovative online B2C business providing customized playing cards.