Designing successful products: Speaking to industry experts

Frances Brown

Birds Eye View Of Road In Romania

Photo by Silviu S on Unsplash

We recently hosted a webinar about how design research can minimise risk and maximise success. While it was particularly targeted at startups, it's relevant for anyone looking to develop great new products that users love.

One thing we spoke about in the webinar was how common it is for startup founders to create products for industries that they are familiar with, but don’t always have extensive experience in. Equally, established companies often break into new markets that are relatively unknown to the existing team. 

Creating new products can solve a long-standing problem or fill a seemingly obvious gap in the market. However, the danger is that a lack of in-depth industry knowledge may mean that, even though the idea is great and the product is innovative, it simply doesn’t fit the way that particular industry operates.

A simple and low-cost way to understand whether your product or service has a future in an industry is to speak to people in the know - experts who have worked in that area for a long time. Even if you are very familiar with the industry, it’s still worth talking to other knowledgeable people, to seek their experience and opinion.

Speaking to industry experts vs speaking to users

Speaking to experts requires a different approach to speaking to users. It also has a different purpose and outcome. Users can comment on their own lives and experiences and on the functioning and attractiveness of a product. Experts have a birds-eye view of the world and the market that you are interested in and can give you a much broader insight.

They can tell you about how the industry works - the culture, the attitudes, the accepted ideas - and they can also give you vital insight into whether your users are likely to engage with your product. For example, if you’re developing an enterprise product for a particular type of company, they can tell you which departments might be interested in the product and how procurement in those departments typically works. They can also tell you the products they have come across in the past and hopefully give you a detailed understanding of why those products did or didn’t work.

Who to approach

In any particular industry, there will be well-known names as well as people with a long-standing history of success that are less visible. Social media is a good place to look for people who express opinions or post articles on a particular issue or idea. Speakers at conferences are happy to be approached to chat after a talk.

Examine what the expert writes or says - do they have the sort of experience you need? If not, could they point you in the direction of someone who does? Generally, three experts covering different aspects of the industry you are interested in will give you a very good overview of what you need to know. 

How to approach

Be polite and clear. Show that you are aware of what their area of expertise is - relate what you are asking to an article, talk or book of theirs - and let them know what it is you would like to talk to them about. Emphasise that you’re not trying to sell anything but that you’d just like to learn from their experience. Ask if you can record the interview (people will usually be fine with this). Most people will be happy to be asked for their expert input, but it is polite to offer at least a nominal amount of money in return for the person’s expertise and time. 

What to ask

Think carefully about what sort of information would be useful to you. Don’t focus entirely on talking about your own concepts or products - the aim is to get a wider understanding of an industry rather than to validate your ideas. The key is to allow the expert to speak - listen to what they’re saying, ask follow-up questions and delve as deeply as you can into the issues that affect you and your product. 

You will need to adapt your questions to your specific needs but some areas you could explore are:

  • The history of the industry - how it has developed
  • The future of the industry - how things are changing and why
  • Common, long-standing problems that the industry faces and their impact
  • The culture and politics of the industry - how companies tend to be structured and how they operate, particularly when it comes to your area of focus
  • How the industry approaches and deals with the area you’re focusing on - how is it spoken about? What issues and problems are highlighted? 
  • Solutions that exist already and how successful they have been.

Only after a more general exploration of the industry should you introduce your concept and ask for feedback on it. Don’t be defensive if the expert has concerns or criticisms - negative feedback can be extremely valuable for indicating changes and improvements that need to be made. 

What do next

Make a transcript of the recording if you can. 

Read back carefully over what the expert has said:

  • Are there unexpected insights? 
  • Did anything surprise or worry you? 
  • What implications are there for your business and product? 
  • Discuss the results with your team. 
  • Pull out what you’ve learned and list the things you’re not sure about.

Chances are the discussions will raise further questions and point to gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled with further research.

The Nightingale team regularly carries out this sort of research for clients. If you think we can help you, get in touch.