This week (and month) we’re diving into customer interviews with the book The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.
If you’re in product management, you’ve probably heard this book title come up. When I first heard of it, I assumed it was about explaining your product and technology simply enough that your mom could understand it (sorry, mom).
That’s not the mom test the book is talking about.
The Mom Test
The mom test is about understanding users and customers, not explaining to them. In fact, if you explain your idea in this context, and your mom loves it, you’ve failed the mom test.
Why is that?
Because, according to Fitzpatrick, your mom will love all of your ideas because she is your mom. So even if you have a bad idea for a business, a product, or a feature, if you explain it to your mom seeking validation, she will give it to you. And you will assume you have a good idea. And then you may build an inferior product and wonder why no one else likes it.
In the book, Fitzpatrick gave the example of a cookbook app. Maybe you come up with the idea for a new cookbook app. As you explain it to your mom, she may not feel like she needs a cookbook app, but in order to support you, she’ll tell you it’s a great idea and she’d definitely download it and use it. You go away thinking you’ve found your target audience and validated your idea.
This happens not only with your mom, but with many users, customers, and potential customers. We all seek validation and give validation. It’s awkward not to. But it’s often a lie! When it comes to meaningful feedback and actual commitment, that’s when the rubber meets the road and we find out who cares and who doesn’t
So how can we get meaningful feedback and really understand if our ideas are good?
The book is filled with many useful anecdotes and nuggets of information. For entrepreneurs and product people, there are a couple of key takeaways I found most important and that I use most frequently in my work:
Keep it Casual
One overarching theme of the book is to keep customer and user conversations casual. Not everything has to be a formal meeting and interview. The more conversations you can have, the better.
The focus of the book is on entrepreneurs with big business ideas. But this translates just as well to product people. Having conversations early and often about product ideas, features, and generally about how customers and users are not only using your product, but solving their problems day-to-day and doing their work is critical for you. Maybe it won’t directly relate to your work, or maybe it will give you the insight you need for the next big thing.
The key is to keep it casual as often as possible. In the book, Fitzpatrick gave the example of an entrepreneur who was struggling to get customer interviews with cafe owners. He was trying to set up formal conversations and was getting nowhere. So while they were sitting in a cafe, Fitzpatrick simply asked to talk with the owner or manager of the cafe and they had a simple chat right there. No pitch, just information gathering and friendly conversation.
I’ve found this tactic to be incredibly useful. In my conversations with customers, I set the tone right at the beginning that I’m not there to sell anything; I don’t have a pitch, and I just want to chat about their problems. It’s amazing how much more open they get when they know it’s about them and not about you.
Make it Concrete
Another major theme of the book (and one I agree wholeheartedly with) is making your conversations concrete.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of “would you buy this if”. Or “what do you think you’d do in this situation?” We can all hypothesize about the future, but we’ll be wrong. We’ll probably guess about our best selves too. Yes, we would definitely buy a gym membership in the future.
The antidote to this is to make our questions concrete. Rather than ask about the future, ask for examples in the past. “When have you bought a gym membership in the past?” “Why did you do that?” These concrete examples will help us understand our users for more than conjectures about the future.
As you make the abstract concrete, you’ll notice this problem more and more. We were just having a meeting recently where this was a major problem. Someone kept throwing around terms like “always” and “never” and “biggest issue” without ever being able to quantify it or give concrete examples. When we pushed on it and asked for more concrete information, the arguments started to crumble. They will do the same in customer interviews. So make the abstract (things like “always” and “never”) more concrete with examples and data.
We should also make next steps and commitments concrete. This isn’t just excellent advice for product people or entrepreneurs, but for everyone. It’s easy to walk out of meetings without concrete plans. But if we can make the next steps actionable, we can actually make progress.
Know what you Need
In the book, Fitzpatrick suggests keeping an updated list of three key questions you are trying to answer about your product or business. As you answer those questions in your interviews, go back and figure out what are the next questions you need to answer.
The key is knowing what you need from user interviews. You should plan ahead for discussions so you can get a few key insights from each discussion. And it should often make you uncomfortable. If your discussions aren’t affecting your business or product in some way, you’re not asking deep enough questions.
Everything in The Mom Test is great for talking to customers. If you are an entrepreneur or product person, you should talk to your users and customers frequently. You should keep the conversations casual, focus on the important questions, and not seek validation, but seek to disprove your ideas or at least understand your users.
That said, I had a few things that left me wanting with the book overall:
It’s not a How-To guide. You won’t get some sort of step-by-step guide to talking with customers. That’s definitely not what Fitzpatrick was going for and it isn’t what you get. For many young product managers and entrepreneurs, I could see that being really beneficial. Having a few key steps to getting out there and doing interviews and managing this skill.
It’s messy. It feels like the overall book is almost a stream of consciousness. It has a lot of great information and anecdotes, but lacks some good organization. Fitzpatrick wants you to be casual in your interviews, and this book has a very casual feel to it. Like you sat down to have a conversation about customer interviews. That can be good or bad depending on your taste.
Understanding our users and our customers is critical for the success of our businesses and products. The best way to do this is to actually talk to them. Not to pitch them or sell them, but to understand their problems and needs and how they are trying to solve these things. Once we develop this understanding and empathy, we can create the best products and experiences. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick is a delightful book that dives into how we can better talk to customers and users. It’s easy to do it wrong, as Fitzpatrick points out. But with a few tips, we can all improve. And that will make our products better, and the lives of our users better.
Other Good Links
Bobiverse Series (books) - I just finished reading Heaven’s River, the fourth book in the Bobiverse Series. If you haven’t read the first three, I can’t recommend them enough. They were a ton of fun. The fourth picks up after the culmination of a whole series of events that I won’t spoil, so it is good, but not as good as the first three. If you stopped at three, I think you’d be in good shape, which is what I was wondering. But, I don’t mind reading an extra book in an excellent series.
Is Going To The Office A Broken Way of Working? (article) - “The office-as-factory model is not fundamental, but was instead a temporary solution to support collaboration and information access in a pre-digital world dominated by management ideas from industrial manufacturing. The remote-first alternative has been technologically possible for a while now but has been held back by the difficulties of reorienting organizational culture away from the office. Once expertise in these new kinds of arrangements emerges in the world of tech startups, it might spark the spread of this model with sudden speed across the knowledge economy.”