The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick

A quick, practical guide to interviewing customers during the early stages of a new product idea.

I expected basic advice about how you shouldn’t ask customers leading questions, but Fitzpatrick goes much more in-depth. The book made me recognize weaknesses in my approach to interviewing users and provided interesting perspectives about obtaining unbiased, actionable feedback from customers.

What I Liked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Provides a practical, well-reasoned methodology for interviewing customers
    • Lots of examples of good questions, bad questions, and the rationale behind them
  • Beyond what to say to customers, the book recommends a process for arranging those conversations and maximizing what you learn from them
  • A quick read โ€” at only 118 pages, you can finish it in two or three sittings
  • I appreciated the guidance about requesting interviews from customers in a way that’s sincere and offers value to the interviewee
  • The focus is on casual conversations, and the book has the tone of a friend giving you advice

What I Disliked ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • At a time when inclusiveness in tech is front-of-mind, this book feels tone-deaf when it comes to gender.
    • The book’s title relies on stereotypes about mothers being too kind to give their children honest, critical feedback.
    • There are 60+ people mentioned in this book between real-life business leaders (e.g., Elon Musk, Steve Blank), hypothetical customers, fictional entrepreneurs, and associates from the author’s personal history. Of these, only four are women:
      1. The titular fictional mom, who is featured heavily in example conversations in the first chapter
      2. A woman the author met at a party (she speaks half a sentence)
      3. A non-speaking entrepreneur character who sells nutritional supplements
      4. A non-speaking waitress who appears only so that the author can order her to summon her (male) manager
    • In every example conversation, the author refers to the speakers as either “he” or “they,” never “she.”
  • There feels like a gap between the author’s ban on pitching your product and the author’s recommendation that you end meetings by demanding a commitment.
    • How can customers commit if you never pitched your idea?
  • Some of the techniques feel awkward to put into practice when working with real customers.
    • To be fair, sales sometimes feels uncomfortable and unnatural to me, so maybe I’m reacting to that.
  • Feels a bit Silicon Valley-centric in that it assumes it’s easy to meet your customers in person or serendipitously encounter them during your daily routine
  • Recommends arranging customer interviews under false pretenses, such as pretending that you’re writing a book or Ph.D. thesis

Key Takeaways ๐Ÿ”—︎

The Mom Test elicits honest feedback ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Problem: When asked to evaluate a founder’s business idea, people lie to spare the founder’s feelings.
  • The Mom Test
    • Rules for asking constructive questions during customer interviews so that potential customers give you useful information instead of trying to please you.
    • Named “The Mom Test” because these questions elicit useful information even from an overprotective mother who wants to shield her child from hurt feelings.
    • Rules for passing The Mom Test:
      1. Talk about their life instead of your idea.
      2. Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future.
      3. Talk less and listen more.

Focus on past experience, not hypotheticals ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Don’t ask the customer whether they’d hypothetically use your product.
  • Do ask how they currently address the problem your product solves.
  • Do ask what alternative solutions they’ve investigated.

    If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.

  • People are often overly optimistic about paying for a product when it’s hypothetical.
    • In practice, they’re less likely to follow through.
  • Don’t ask the customer how much they’d pay for a product that solves problem X.
    • Do ask how much problem X currently costs them.
  • Other good questions:
    • Who else should I talk to?
    • Is there anything else I should have asked?

Compliments from the customer are a bad sign ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Compliments cost nothing, so it’s a cheap way for the customer to make the founder feel good without making any real commitment.
  • Even sincere compliments are undesirable because the focus should be on the customer’s workflow and not your product idea.

    Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless.

Avoid fluff ๐Ÿ”—︎

Fluff comes in 3 cuddly shapes:

  • Generic claims (“I usually”, “I always”, “I never”)
  • Future-tense promises (“I would”, “I will”)
  • Hypothetical maybes (“I might”, “I could”)
  • When customers drift into fluff, anchor the conversation to concrete details, such as a specific time they solved the problem in question.

Dig deeper into feature requests ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Don’t accept customer ideas and feature requests at face value.
  • Do probe to understand the motivation behind their suggestion.
  • Example
    • Author built a product for a large enterprise customer.
    • The customer asked for analytics, so the author built a flexible analytics dashboard.
    • Then, customer asked for a CSV export, then PDFs of the dashboard.
    • It turned out that the customer just wanted pretty charts to show their own clients each week and they didn’t need the customizable dashboard at all.

Avoid pitching your product during customer interviews ๐Ÿ”—︎

Once you start talking about your idea, they stop talking about their problems.

  • Focus on asking questions that give you the most information about how to proceed.

If you get an unexpected answer to a question and it doesn’t affect what you’re doing, it probably wasn’t a terribly important question to begin with.

Negative feedback is valuable ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Negative feedback protects you from investing too deeply in a product that customers are not excited about.

Don’t make assumptions about what customers value ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Example: Customer says they never go to the gym
    • If you begin asking them what hinders their ability to work out, the customer will contrive reasons, but the deeper issue might just be that the customer doesn’t care about going to the gym.
  • Before diving into the details of a problem, first establish whether the customer cares about solving it.

“Product risk” vs. “customer risk” ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Product risk: your business may fail due to an inability to deliver the product you promised
    • e.g., you want to sell a solar-powered electric car but find you’re unable to build one
  • Customer risk: even if you successfully build your product, customers may not be interested in buying
  • The more product risk your idea has, the less you’ll be able to validate it entirely through customer conversations.

Desired outcome: commitment and advancement ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Outcome of customer meetings should be commitment and advancement

    Commitment โ€” they are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as time, reputation, or money.

    Advancement โ€” They are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer [to] purchasing.

    The more they’re giving up, the more seriously you can take what they’re saying.

  • Types of commitment

    • Time
      • Clear next meeting with known goals
      • Sitting down to give feedback on wireframes
      • Using a trial of the product for a non-trivial period
    • Reputation
      • Intro to peers or team
      • Intro to a decision-maker (boss, spouse, lawyer)
      • Giving a public testimonial or case study
    • Financial
  • If you asked for a commitment and were rejected, it’s still good information.

  • The only way to fail is by not asking for any commitment from the customer.

    If you don’t know what happens next after a product or sales meeting, the meeting was pointless.

Framing a meeting to the customer ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Bad examples
    • “Can I interview you?” -> Sounds boring
    • “Can I get your opinion on what we’re doing?” -> Sounds needy
    • “Do you have time for a quick chat?” -> Provides no information, sounds like you’ll waste their time.
  • Proper framing has five components
    1. Vision: You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve a problem (don’t mention your idea).
    2. Framing: Disclose where you are in the process of building your product.
    3. Weakness: Show how they can help with a specific question.
    4. Pedestal: Flatter them by explaining how they’re uniquely qualified to help.
    5. Ask: Explicitly ask for help.

Prefer in-person meetings to Skype or phone meetings ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Phone calls hide too many subtle social cues.
  • In-person meetings over coffee tend to be less time-constrained than a 30-minute calendar slot for a phone call.

…nobody becomes friends over the phone.

  • Adopt the mindset of seeking advisors
    • If you go into the meeting thinking of it as an almost sales meeting, you’ll learn less.
    • Instead, privately maintain the mindset that you’re looking for an advisor with industry-specific expertise, not a customer.
  • How many meetings to conduct?
    • Keep meeting with customers until you stop learning new things.
    • Sometimes three to five meetings are enough.
    • If 10 customers all say totally different things, you probably have to focus on a more narrow customer segment.
  • Don’t create “customer feedback bottlenecks.”
    • Common anti-pattern: the founding team’s “businessperson” does 100% of the customer interviews and reports the takeaways to the team.
      • This creates an imbalance of power because the businessperson can win any product argument by saying, “it’s what the customer wants.”
      • Customer conversations are subject to interpretation, so it’s undesirable to have a single person interpreting everything for the team.

Prepping for a customer interview ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Decide with your founding team what your top three questions are.
  • Decide what commitments you want from the customer.
  • Eliminate any questions that you can answer yourself with desk research.
  • Read through interviewee’s profile on LinkedIn

Who should participate in customer interviews? ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Everyone involved in big decisions should attend at least some customer interviews
    • Ideal is to have two people from your company at each meeting. One acts as a lead, while the other acts as a notetaker.
      • The lead focuses on asking questions.
      • The notetaker records important details and acts as a backup if the lead misses important questions.
      • Three or more interviewers is overwhelming.
    • Write notes in a paper notebook or on notecards.
      • Typing during a meeting can come across as rude.
      • Capture exact quotes when possible.

Kicking off the meeting ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Take control of the meeting from the beginning.
    • Otherwise, the customer may begin asking about your idea instead of focusing on their problem.
  • Reiterate what you said in your pre-meeting email, then move into the first question.

Post-interview review ๐Ÿ”—︎

  • Transfer the meeting notes to a place where everyone on the founding team can read them (e.g., Google Docs, internal wiki).
  • Talk through the key quotes and takeaways with your team.
  • Review conversations at the meta-level.
    • Which questions worked?
    • How can we improve interviews in the future?