What is a Strategic Hypothesis? Steve Blank and Customer Discovery
When people approach me with a request for new research often my first questions to them are “What do you want to learn?”, “What hypothesis do you have you want to validate?”, or “Which of your assumptions would you like to confirm or deny?” People new to requesting research sometimes have trouble thinking in terms of hypotheses or in stating assumptions that are the basis a research questions.
Steve Blank, in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany, provides some helpful guidance for strategic hypotheses. While Steve may not consider his Customer Discovery approach for startups a qualitative research approach, there are many parallels with strategic UX research, especially as it relates to stating and validating hypotheses.
Steve defines Customer Discovery as “finding out who the customers for your product are and whether the problem you believe you are solving is important to them.“ That goal is quite familiar to many UX Researchers.
The hypotheses associated with the goal include:
- This type of customer has problem <x>. (Here <x> is a brief description of a specific problem.)
- Customers would like a solution to problem <x>.
- Our idea (or product or service) solves a serious customer problem.
- Our idea is an improvement over competitive offerings or existing work-around to the problem. (Improvement can be better, faster, cheaper, more secure, more usable, more efficient, etc.)
- The language we use to describe our value proposition is understandable by our target customers.
With hypothesis in hand, a researcher can identify the research method best suited to confirm or deny those hypotheses. Note the difference between a problem and a serious problem in search of a solution. People and companies have many problems, but not all are worth the price of correcting. Solving a problem not considered serious, or a problem the customer has an adequate workaround for is not a firm basis for a new product. It may take several rounds of customer conversations, updating your hypotheses and target customers as you go, to become confident you’ve identified a problem in search of a solution. Then you can work on crafting and refining your product or service.
During Customer Discovery, Steve’s advice is “don’t present, don’t sell, just listen and learn.” This guideline is also quite familiar to UX Researchers. The unique Customer Discover process includes additional hypotheses about market, pricing and delivery. Confirming strategic hypothesis up front can save countless hours of effort and dollars building out what it yet to be proven. There is nothing worse than launching a product only to discover no one wants it! For more details, I encourage you to check out chapter 3 of The Four Steps to the Epiphany.