The Busy Sidewalk Test

One of the toughest challenges in customer development is diagnosing why no target customers want to talk to you.  Is it a sign that no one cares about solving this problem? Does it mean that you’re targeting the wrong type of customer?

Or is it something easier to fix? I’ve often been surprised by how small tweaks to length, word choice, or format can impact how likely people are to respond to you.

The easiest thing to test – fast, and doesn’t require anyone else’s help – is the busy sidewalk test.

  1. Send a copy of your interview outreach email to yourself.
  2. Grab your phone and head outside and start walking (preferably down a street with traffic whizzing nearby and other people walking past).
  3. Open your interview outreach email and glance at the text that appears onscreen without you needing to scroll. Does that snippet of text grab your curiosity? If no, your email opening is too boring.
  4. Scroll down one thumb-swipe. Are you at the end of your message? If no, your email is too long.
  5. You’ve scanned your entire email as you’re walking. Do you think ‘I’ll deal with this when I get back to my desk (away from outdoor distractions)?’ If yes, your email is too complicated.

When I wrote Lean Customer Development, around 40% of emails were viewed on mobile first. Now, in 2015, it’s over 50%.

Not every person is triaging emails on their phones, but many are.  Even if you catch someone sitting at their desk in front of a nice giant crystal-clear monitor, it’s almost a certainty that other people, tasks, noises, or worries are distracting them.

An email that isn’t short, crisp, and clear will get buried under the weight of good intentions in an unread inbox.  Your email needs to pass the busy sidewalk test. Even if that person desperately needs to solve the problem that you’re working on.

Is that the BIGGEST problem?

Lean talks a lot about the problem of “building something no one wants.”

That happens — and it’s totally avoidable for teams who invest in 10-20 hours of customer development — but it’s not actually the BIGGEST problem facing most teams.

The problem isn’t that we build something no one wants. It’s not that we solve non-existent problems.

It’s that our brains respond really eagerly to problems that:

  • are very visible
  • have a clear and obvious cause
  • we already have a proposed solution to
  • we have seen in other environments before
  • we can predict when they’ll happen
  • we can make the fastest visible progress on

Sometimes these are THE most important problems we could be tackling. More often, we get sidetracked by these vitamin problems while our antibiotic problems languish.

How do we fix this?

Make a habit of pausing a conversation to say, “wait, is this the BIGGEST problem we could be solving?”

Encourage everyone who works for you to do the same.

When someone on your team calls you out on wasting time on a not-that-important problem, praise them (and stop wasting time on that thing and re-focus).