Question Mark

The One Question All Start-Ups Must Answer

5 minute read
Debbie Levitt avatar
The best question a startup can ask itself is: Does this product solve real problems for real customers?

Too often start-ups make the mistake of skimping on UX research or trying to do it themselves, which can lead to biased and flawed information. This in turn can herald a start-up’s doom.

The Best Question to Ask

The best question a start-up can ask itself (and hopefully answer with honesty and self-awareness) is: Does our product solve real problems for real customers? The question points the way to the three elements a start-up needs in place if it wants to succeed: 

  • Real customers: Knowing your target audience because you have interviewed them and gotten to know their motivations, habits, frustrations, needs and lifestyles.
  • Real problems: Good UX research will tell us where people currently have a problem, pain point or frustration in how they accomplish this task now.
  • Solutions: If you are not solving these real problems in ways that “just work” and feel natural for real customers, your start-up can still fail.

Related Article: Poor or Flawed UX Research Contributes to Start-Up Failure

Are These Real Customers?

I once worked with a start-up that declared its target audience as, “promiscuous men who wanted to get tested for social diseases but were too embarrassed to see their doctor and wouldn’t use a free clinic.” The company believed these men would pay cash for laboratory testing because they would not want to speak to their doctor or use their insurance. The start-up had an online system that recommended disease tests, would sell them via a credit card payment, and then would direct you to a partner lab.

This wasn’t a realistic target audience. Who would have insurance and not use it? Who wouldn’t go to free clinics and get free testing? Are these men really embarrassed and not talking to their doctors? This start-up hadn’t done any research. But they were backed by insurance companies, who were probably hoping there was such an audience, looking to pay cash for lab tests and not use their insurance.

Ultimately, when the project undertook moderated user testing with eight separate participants, although each participant was there to test the updated website, each volunteered that they would never use a service like this. They would go to their doctor or use a free clinic. They would use their insurance. And why would they trust a stranger with this very personal information about them and their health?

This company imagined a target audience that just wasn’t real. They retrofitted what their investors hoped existed and ultimately failed.

Related Article: Why Focusing on Pure Customer Acquisition Can Tank Your Start-Up

What Are Customers’ Real Problems?

We previously looked at the example of a start-up creating an app to help after-work drinking buddies find a new bar to try out. With good UX research, we might find that people are not having a problem finding a bar (thanks to Yelp, Google Maps, friend recommendations, etc.) or coordinating going drinking (thanks to WhatsApp, SMS texting and a pile of other messenger apps).

UX research is better-suited than marketing research or “just asking questions” to learn about customers and where the opportunities are for a new product or competitor to join the landscape. We must ensure that our new business idea is tuned directly into customers realities vs. imagining or assuming what they like, do, need or believe.

Related Article: How Design Thinking Can Help Improve Your Organization's Customer Experience

What Is Your Solution?

Identifying the opportunities the market might have for your target customers is only part of the battle. How you choose to solve your real customers’ real problems can also make or break your start-up. Not all solutions will find traction, adoption or paying customers.

Learning Opportunities

We can see such differences when comparing Walt Disney World and Sea World, both in the Orlando area of Florida. Both look to solve entertainment and vacation “problems” for customers. Both appeal to very similar target audiences. But Disney World is succeeding far more than Sea World. Why?

Perhaps they are doing different types or amounts of customer research, leading each to have different intelligence on what their guests love now or would love in the future, and leading to different opportunities presenting themselves to each company. Perhaps they imagine they have similar “solutions” in that they both offer hotels, parks, characters, rides, food and experiences. Yet those who have visited both would say that that execution of ideas is quite different between Disney World and Sea World.

Your concept, solution or design is only as good as the execution. It must have fantastic UX, as close to flawless as possible, and the code must be stable and as close to bug-free as possible. Your customers have high expectations and need that real problem solved. They will only put up with a stripped-down MVP or buggy site or app for so long. The solution must be so solid that customers will drop however they previously solved their problem to now use your system.

Related Article: Do You Need a Short Order Cook or an Interface Scientist?

Facing the Music

If your start-up finds one or more of these three elements is broken, you'll face a difficult choice: pivot or close. There's no reason to continue building something that doesn’t relate to real problems users might have. And if the solution is a poor one, you haven’t really solved anyone’s problems, have you?

The start-up would have to go in a new direction. But it’s better to know this before burning more time and money on a product that doesn’t have a great chance at success. There is never a wrong time for a start-up to invest in UX research and ensure it’s on the path to becoming one of the few with staying power.

About the author

Debbie Levitt

Debbie Levitt, CEO of Delta CX, has been a CX and UX strategist, designer, and trainer since the 1990s. As a “serial contractor” who lived in the Bay Area for most of the 2010's, Debbie has influenced interfaces at Sony, Wells Fargo, Constant Contact,, Oracle, and a variety of Silicon Valley startups. Her new book, "Delta CX," burns down what's hurting the UX industry and builds up what we must do instead to prioritize quality in every area.