12 Steps to Break Out of Product Indecision

How to stop thinking, start learning, and get back to work.

You’re spinning in circles.

“Should I change my product? Shut it down? Stay the course? Pivot? If I go this way, then what might happen? And if I go that way, what will be different?”

Product indecision.

It’s kinda like a bad cold or stomach virus. Your year is chugging along just fine, but then—seemingly out of nowhere—you’re hit with this bug.

Self doubt sets in. All progress comes to a halt. You’re stuck.

You know that in order to break out this rut, you’ll need to change… something.

But what?

I’ve been through this product indecision cycle enough times to know that:

A) It can be incredibly frustrating, slow and unproductive.

And B) It doesn’t have to be!

I learned that, like most things, there is a process you can follow to break out of product indecision.  There is path to get you back to pushing forward toward your goals, with a sense of clarity and confidence.

There are a series of steps and actions you can take. Things to do when you’re feeling paralyzed, not knowing what to do next.

Think of this as a follow-up post to the one I wrote over a year ago, about validating a new product idea.  This one tackles validating iterations on an existing product or Productized Service (a lot of the same concepts apply).

By the way — Talking to customers and running customer research surveys obviously plays a crucial role in this process.  Take a look at a recent customer research survey I ran to my audience to see how I crafted questions that would give me the insights I needed.

12 Steps to Breaking out of Product Indecision

Here are my go-to actions when I find myself questioning my way forward on one of my products.

The key is to get moving on taking these actions as soon as possible. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll uncover the insights you need, the sooner you’ll get your clear, confident, roadmap.

But if you delay, and stay isolated, stewing on your own ideas and questions, you’ll just dig yourself deeper into that hole of uncertainty.

So let’s get to it.

Step 1:  Lay out your (brutally honest) metrics.

I always like to start with a simple, emotion-free, and brutally honest snapshot of where things are at right now.  This is my starting point.  The problems I’m setting out to fix in my work ahead.

Jot down the following metrics:

  • How long have you been working on this product?
  • What is the total revenue today?
  • How many unique paying customers are there?
  • How many cancellations have there been?
  • How many new leads have shown interest in the product?
  • How much traffic has your product received, and where is that traffic coming from?

Step 2:  What have you noticed?

Before doing a deep dive into the data, you’ve probably noticed or felt some trends—probably negative trends—with your product recently, right?

I mean, that’s probably what prompted this rut of uncertainty you’re in.

Maybe you’ve noticed an up-tick in cancellations, or a slow down in new leads, or a drop in conversions.

Maybe you seem to be hearing a lot of people express a similar reason for cancelling.

Maybe you sense that a certain feature isn’t being used as much as you thought it would be.

For now, jot down those rough observations—the things that spring to mind when you’re asked to describe how are things going with your product?

This step is about assessing your gut feel.  As important as hard data-driven decisions are (and we’ll get to that data in just a moment), I believe there’s a lot of value and insight to be gained from your personal gut instinct.  This step is about capturing what your gut is telling you and getting that down on paper.

Step 3:  Verify what has actually been happening

Now it’s time to validate your gut instincts.

I’m always amazed at how off-the-mark my assumptions are sometimes!  It’s crucial that you go through any and all data that you have to confirm or disprove your assumptions.

Check your analytics logs, read your customer support messages, customer’s cancellation reasons, watch screen recordings of your app usage, etc.

What did you find out?  Write down your data points.

Step 4:  Talk to your best customers (round 1)

Hopefully you have a small group of customers who’ve been your most engaged, and most responsive since the early days of your product.  It may not be a formal beta testing group, but perhaps a few names that spring to mind when you want to reach out to a few people who follow your stuff.

Shoot an email over to these folks (even if it’s just 1 or 2 people, but I try to aim for 5-10 people).  Tell them you’re working out some new plans for your product and you could really use their feedback.  Ask for a 15-minute phone call.

On the call—Yes, ideally a call, not just email—You want to get an understanding of:

  • What they’re most focused on right now?
  • What has been working for them (even if it’s not your product)?
  • What hasn’t been working for them (even if it’s not your product)?
  • Which parts of your product have worked for them?
  • Where are the gaps or areas they still need to somehow improve?

Step 5:  Talk to your advisors

Now that you have a bit of data along with a few gut instincts, now is a good time to bring your situation and some questions to your advisors.

I bring this stuff to my mastermind group along with a few friends I turn to for 1-on-1 advising.  Perhaps a private community you’re in could serve as a good place to turn to for situation-specific advice.

I usually approach getting specific advice in the following way:

  • Briefly sum up my dilemma
  • Briefly sum up the data points I’ve gathered
  • Lay out what my gut instinct about what I should do next is (perhaps an “Option A” and “Option B”)
  • Ask advisors to poke holes in my logic
  • Ask advisors whether they think my plan for next steps is sound, or which of the options they think makes more sense.

Note:  I don’t typically ask my advisors to tell me what to do or give me their plan of action (but if they offer this I’m happy to listen).  I find that A) they’re busy with their own businesses, so it’s not right to ask them to run yours for you.  And B) You’re more capable of making a plan for your own business than anyone else.  The value advisors bring is to let you know if what you’re planning seems sound or needs course correction.

Step 6:  Create a customer research survey

At this point, you should have some data, observations, gut instincts, and feedback from advisors.  But all of that is probably creating more questions than answers!

So now is a good time to craft a customer research survey.  Include carefully crafted questions that are designed to get people talking and giving insights into what they truly need and want—not what you think they need and want.

I wish I could provide a one-size fits all survey questions template for you here (and I’m sure you can find generic ones around the web), but having run so many surveys, I found that each time, my line of questioning is different.

I try to steer clear of saying “Here’s my product idea.  Would you buy this?” — Most people don’t answer this honestly until they’re asked to actually pay.  And selling isn’t your goal here.  You already know you’re not selling enough.  Your goal is to understand why, and to understand what their underlying needs truly are.

I also try and include plenty of free-form text answer boxes, and I try to avoid pre-baking my desired answers into my questions.

For example, this is a bad question:  “Is the reason you’ve had trouble hiring the fact that your business lacks systems and processes?”

A better version of that question would be:  “What would you say has held you back from hiring?”

For more insight into how I craft questions in my customer research surveys, you can take a look at a recent survey I ran here:

Bonus: See my questions for a recent customer research survey

Before sending it out, I suggest running the survey by your advisors or mastermind to get their feedback on survey questions and phrasing.

Step 7:  Send your customer research survey

Now you’re ready to send your survey.  It’s a good idea to send it to various segments and channels:

  • Paying customers
  • Cancelled customers
  • Leads who didn’t convert
  • Newsletter subscribers
  • Twitter followers
  • Etc.

It’s also a good idea to record the group each survey response is in.  You could send a few different versions, or use a fancy tagging system or something for this.  I use Gravity Forms and URL variables that write to hidden fields in my survey to record which channel it was sent to.

Step 8:  Read & normalize responses

Hopefully you’re getting a lot of responses.  Now it’s time to read them all.

Yes, read every single one.

This will take a lot of time.

But keep reading.

You want to read every single word, and really think about why each person wrote what they wrote.  This information is gold if you truly use it to empathize with where each person is coming from.

As you go, you can start to “normalize” responses.  Meaning, put them into groups of similar sentiments or data points.

Step 9:  Talk to people who’ve responded (round 2)

Now that you have survey responses, you can reach out directly to 10-20 of the most engaged people who filled out the survey to ask them if they’d hop on a brief follow-up call with you.

This is your second round of customer research calls.

Here you can ask more specific questions, tailored to things they wrote in the survey.  You’re looking for underlying struggles, goals, frustrations, gaps… Anything that might point you toward a specific pain point that you can dial in on solving with your product.

Again — You’re not asking them what they think about your product.  You’re asking them questions that get them talking about (or implying) things they need and want.

Step 10:  Find strangers to talk to

Up until now you’ve talked to and examined data from people who are already in your orbit.  A smart move at this point is to supplement this with data and insights from complete strangers who don’t know you or your product.

There are a few channels I look to here:

  • Twitter search
  • Private forums that I (and my target customers) are members of
  • Private Facebook groups
  • Quora threads

I search these places for key words or phrases that imply someone is asking about something related to the problem(s) my product solves.  Sometimes I search by the brand name of my competitors.

I spend time reading into the questions and responses people are asking.  When I find someone who is expressing frustration with the problem, I send a cold outreach (Tweet, Facebook message, forum DM, etc.), reference their comment, and ask if I can ask a question or two about that.  From there, we either chat via email or direct message, or in some cases I’ll get them to agree to a brief phone chat, if possible.

Your response rate will obviously be lower when doing outreach to strangers like this.  But it’s still well worth the effort.  This in itself is a good datapoint to see how “reachable” your target customers are online.

Step 11:  Document what you’ve learned

Throughout this process, I suggest you write down what you learned.

I keep a business journal to jot down this sort of stuff.  I find it helps to get things out of my head and into a note so I can fully process what I learned and draw connections with other data points I’m collecting.

After writing it down, spend another day doing more calls, thinking through it all, then re-read your notes to see if you’ve changed opinions or drawn new conclusions.

Step 12:  Stop & make a decision

This is your most important step.

At a certain point you have to force yourself to STOP.  Give yourself a deadline.  This is the point at which you must decide which direction you’re going to go, one way or the other.

I wish I could tell you that by this point you’ll have absolutely certainty of what the correct path is.

You won’t.

You probably never will.

All you go on is the information you have at hand in this moment.  You have to trust that you’ve done as much as you can do to learn as much as you can from your customer research.  Waiting and delaying will not produce more information at this point.

The best thing you can do is use the info you’ve gathered to inform yourself, so you can make a gut decision.

Then commit to that plan and focus on execution.  A few months from now, if things aren’t going how you’d like, then you’ll end up where you are now, and you can follow this process again.  That’s normal.

That’s how this works.

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