Laura Klein

Design-led growth hacking & customer development

Laura Klein a customer development ninja. She runs the “Users Know” website, and wrote UX for Lean Startups. In this episode, we explore design-led growth hacking, ninja user research techniques, and how to turn your hot idea into a high-learning MVP. Find out how to create better products with Laura’s special blend of Lean UX with smart customer research.
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More on Laura Klein

Laura’s Website: Users Know

Laura’s Book: UX for Lean Startups

Laura’s Upcoming Book: Build Better Products

Connect: LinkedIn @lauraklein

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Laura, for those who don’t know you, start by telling us a little bit about your background, academic background, but your work background, that led you to the expertise in the projects that you’re doing today.

[Laura Klein] Sure. I graduated back in the early ’90s with a degree in Political Science, which I have proceeded to never use. I actually started in tech at a place called Interval Research, which was a wonderful place, actually, to start in tech, because I ended up on a team where our whole goal was to talk to users and understand how users felt about technology, how they felt about the future of technology, how they use technology. I got to learn a tremendous amount about good research and how to understand people, how to do contextual inquiry, how to do ethnography, how to learn from humans, which is a wonderful thing to know.

Following the tradition of learning something and then not doing anything with it, I then turned around and became an engineer for several years at startups. What I realized a few years later was that the part of engineering that I really liked was making things that people could use. I wanted to make things that were easier for people to use and that people wanted to use, so I got into user experience design, which, in a weird way, combined the research and the engineering and I learned the design part of it. I’ve been doing that ever since.

The next really big change for me came when I worked at IMVU with Eric Ries and I got to learn how to incorporate metrics into my design process, which was an absolute revelation, honestly. It always sounds so dramatic, but it was tremendous because it was the first time that I really got to see, not just the impact that my design work had on users, I could always have that by doing good qualitative research, but I got to see the impacts that it had on the company by looking at, how did it effect churn? How did it effect acquisition? How did it effect engagement? That was amazing, because I think that that really, that was the next step in my just becoming a much, much, much better designer because I could get this feedback on how what I was doing actually made an impact. I’ve been helping companies do that ever since.

Awesome. Well, I know you’ve helped a lot of companies and you’ve also helped a lot of people through your book, and certainly through your videos. Things that you’ve shared on webcasts and at conferences. One of the things I think is fairly unique about you is the variety of clients you’ve had. You’ve got your niche, but as a consultant, you’ve had a lot of different experiences. What are some of the most common mistakes that you see first time entrepreneurs make when they’re interviewing potential customers and they’re starting in on customer discovery?

The single biggest mistake that people make is that they pitch. It’s so hard when you’re an entrepreneur because you spend all this time making your pitch deck, and pitching to investors, and telling people how great your idea is, and getting money for it, and selling and marketing and all of these wonderful things that you probably have to do in order to sell your idea, but when you talk to users, or potential users, when you’re looking for product market fit, you have to change gears entirely and that is so hard. It is so hard. I get it. It’s hard for a bunch of different reasons.

It’s mostly hard because you’re just not used to it. You’re used to demoing, you’re used to explaining to people why they desperately need this thing. You need to stop selling and you need to start listening. It may be the only time in your career as a CEO that you’re not trying to sell somebody something, you’re trying to learn from them. It’s doubly hard because you’re going to hear bad stuff. Right? Somebody’s going to tell you that your baby is ugly and you’re going to be sad. That’s just the thing that you have to do because if you want if you to make your baby prettier than you have to face the hard truth about what your baby looks like. This analogy has gotten terrible.

It’s a great analogy and it reminds me of, I think it was Frank Lloyd Wright said, you can use a pencil on your drawings or a sledgehammer on the work site.

Yeah. Exactly! Exactly. You want to find out as early as possible that people hate what you’re building. If you find out before you’ve done anything that people hate it, then you have just saved yourself a tremendous amount of time and you have time to then build something that they’re going to love. If you don’t find out until you try to sell it to them and they all say, “No!”, then you may not have as much runway to change what you’re building. You only get so many shots and it’s good to maximize the number of shots that you get to take.

Yup. Loops through the Build-Measure-Learn loop.

Yes, exactly.

I think Eric Ries, also, I was re-watching one of his videos and he said, “He who learns the fastest wins.”


It’s a good aphorism. Really, what you’re saying.

Yeah, absolutely. The sooner that you find out that something isn’t working, the sooner you can fix it. Things get geometrically more expensive to fix as they get closer and closer to done. It’s very easy to fix things at the idea stage. It’s a little harder to fix it at the design stage. Once all the visuals are done, it’s a little harder to fix. Once it’s actually in code, it’s a little harder to fix. It just gets harder, and harder to fix as you get closer and closer to having built the real thing. Man, once you’ve invested a year of your time building something, to find out then that it’s the wrong thing and that you could have made it the right thing 9 months ago by talking to somebody, that is just, that is the most painful thing you can go through, I think, as a founder.

Yup, and expensive.

Yes, yes, and expensive.

Laura, you mentioned contextual inquiry. For those who aren’t familiar, what is that and how does that relate to this dynamic you’re talking about?

Contextual inquiry is a, it’s a research method that we use an awful lot. It tends to be a very open-ended, qualitative, observational research method. I always like to compare it to that movie Gorillas in the Mist where you go and you live amongst the gorillas and you study their behavior. It’s not quite that intensive, but it is very much about going and studying your user in the context in which they are going to be using your product, so that you understand things like how do they use this technology? Are they using it on a mobile device? Are they using it on a desktop? What is their environment look like? What is their context? What is the context of use? It can be incredibly powerful. It takes a while to do well, but, it really, really helps you learn a tremendous amount about your user. I’m a big fan of it.

Yup, I’ve done this for years and not necessarily called it contextual inquiry, but it’s all, it’s a form of ethnography.

It is. Intuit calls it Follow-Me-Homes, which I love, but always sounds just a tiny bit creepy. Everybody calls it something different. I like contextual inquiry because it sounds impressive.

Have you experimented much with doing contextual inquiry remotely? Say, if you want to understand what someone’s doing in their home you can have Skype call with them.

You know, it’s interesting, over the last several years as video and remote technology has gotten better, I do more and more of my research remotely, and I don’t think that you get 100 percent of what you would in a contextual inquiry. However, what you do get is a tremendous savings of time and money, so it’s a trade off, like anything else is. You might get 80 percent of the information that you would get from actually being in the room with the person. That’s not as much, obviously, as you would get if you were in the room with a person, but you might get to talk to people all over the world, which, can be tremendously helpful.

I remember one time I was doing some user research and it was funny because I started off, I would talk to somebody in Australia, and then I believe I talked to somebody in Switzerland, and then I believe I talked to somebody in Florida. I did that all in one day. The fact that I got to talk to these 3 entirely different users in entirely different cultural contexts made up for the fact that I wasn’t in the room with each of them. It just would have been cost prohibitive to have flown me all over to do that.

Again, like anything, it can be a trade off. I think you get really, really, really good information doing things remotely. Some things, even beyond just talking to people in different places, you get other stuff remotely. Sometimes if you’re doing screen shares, you get to see your user’s desktop. You get to see, they’re using their actual hardware, their actual computer to do the things that you’re asking them to do. Mobile can be challenging when doing remote studies, but I’m hoping that that will get better. The early user research stuff where you’re talking to people and trying to find problems and all that, oh my God, do that remotely. Save so much time and money and you get so much good information.

That’s what I’ve found and that’s what I coach people to do specifically. It is so quick and if you do it that way I think it also can be easier to identify patterns. It was so funny when you say that, I was doing some remote research for a client a few years ago that was a toy rental service. We were trying to find out some things about how the kids use the computers whether they see videos on YouTube. The mom is sitting there, we’re talking to her, her kid is walking through the house, so we could see their house. She says, “Oh no, my kid never goes on YouTube by himself. He doesn’t know how to do that.” Kid walks over, pulls the mouse from her hand, clicks, gets into YouTube, starts watching a video, with this, like, I’m 7, but inside, I’m really a teenager look.


That moment, was like, I was like, okay, payoff for remote research.

Well, and that’s what you get whenever you’re observing people in general as opposed to just talking. I’m also a big fan of, you can do some of the stuff by phone if you’re just looking for problems. Understanding the context of use and being able to observe behavior is tremendous. Like I said, the screen sharing and the video is getting so much better and so much easier to use that it’s a totally valid alternative. I think that the benefits completely outweigh any possible negatives.

That’s a great tip! Especially for first-time entrepreneurs who want to do fast, smart, cheap, high-value customer research. What are some of your other top tips, Laura, for everybody, but in particular, for entrepreneurs who want to do those, find those shortcuts? Those things that get you 80 percent of the way there in 20 percent of the effort. Maybe also, if you think of it, certain things to absolutely not do. Like, you mentioned pitching earlier.

Doing the right kind of research for what you want to learn is going to save you a tremendous amount of time. Finding your ideal customer or your persona, the exact person that you think is going to be your buyer or your user, those things are going to save you so much time.

I talked to somebody who say, “I’ve talked to, God, 2, 3 hundred people!”

I’m like, “Whoa! Really? Like, 2 or 3 hundred people, that’s a lot to have talked to just one right after another. Are you seeing patterns?”

Like, “Well, not really.”

I say, “Well, okay, maybe you’re talking to the wrong people or you’re talking to them in the wrong way or you’re asking them the wrong things.” I think a lot of people to accosting people in coffee shops, which can be a valid form of research if you want to learn a very specific thing, but what it will never tell you is whether a specific type of person is likely to buy your product. You’re not going to get to product/market-fit by going and hanging out Starbucks and doing guerilla usability testing. Pick the right people to talk to. If you’re building a product for astronauts, don’t waste your time talking to people who aren’t astronauts. It’s not worth it. You’re not going to get any good feedback. In fact, you might get entirely the wrong feedback. You might get feedback that sends you in exactly the wrong direction.

Don’t build a product “for moms.” Moms are not a valid persona. There are too many of them and they are too dissimilar from each other and it’s impossible to build something that every single one of them will like. Start small. Pick a very specific group of people that you can actually talk to and start seeing patterns. If there is a product that you come up with that you could go out and recruit any 10 random moms and they would all be really excited about buying that product, then I would love to know what that product is. That doesn’t tend to be what actually happens. You want to start with a very specific group of people and you want to do the right kind of research. That will save you so much time.

I think sometimes people try to save time by doing things like running surveys, or running focus groups, or like I said, doing guerilla usability. If that’s not the right methodology for learning what you want to learn, you’re not saving any time. You’re just getting bad feedback.

Doing usability before you’ve really tested your core value prop can distract everybody.

Oh, God, yeah!

Beautiful user interface, people tell you it’s beautiful.

“Let’s make it really easy to do this thing that nobody wants to do.”

Well, there you go! One of the things we talk about a lot in our Getting2Alpha program is defining your pilot project. That version, and this is really getting into your experiences with crafting MVPs, which is actually, it’s hard, what the right MVP should be. Right? It’s not an easy thing, even for an expert.

It’s funny because you say I’m an expert, and yet, I will tell you right now that when I’m doing it, I will call in other people to help me, because, not only is it hard to do, but even knowing everything that you and I know, when you get into the weeds of it and it’s your thing, it can be so easy to miss assumptions that you’re making. It can be so hard to separate out what you know about the product that you’re building versus what your customers might know. It can be so hard to look at it with fresh eyes. It can be, you can fall in love with things that you should not have fallen in love with. “But of course it must have this feature that I’m in love with and want to build!” Nope. Not necessarily. That is an assumption and you need to test it. So, just really being very, very, very strict about unpacking your assumptions. Getting somebody that sometimes help with that to figure out what your assumptions are and to point things out that you’re assuming that you don’t know. It is incredibly hard to do.

Which is a lot of why I create models and frameworks and things like the core loop to help iterate, iterate, iterate, iterate toward something where everybody goes, “Yeah, we all understand why that’s the MVP.”


What are some of your favorite techniques for really accelerating toward that MVP. You mentioned it’s so important to pick the right technique for what you’re trying to do. Again, I think you’re one of the people who has a breadth of experience with different techniques. Could you give us a crash course in, say, the 3, 4, 5 variety of techniques that you would pull out most often that folks might not necessarily be clear on which to use right up front?

Sure, sure. This is beyond just talking to people and trying to understand the problem. That’s, of course, the first thing, right? You need to identify the problem that you think you’re solving. I actually have a video on this with more information on the site. It’s called Beyond Landing Pages: How to Find Out if Your Idea is Stupid. It talks about these different methodologies. Some of my favorites are things like concierge testing, which, a lot of people don’t, they won’t even identify this as an MVP, but it is absolutely, 100 percent an MVP!
It is this idea that whatever it is, whatever problem you think you’re solving for people, you’re going to go out and find some people who have that problem and then solve it for them by hand. You’re not going to automate anything, you’re not going to make it software. You’re just going to act as a concierge and solve it.

For example, if you want to do a marketplace where people could buy and sell toys, you’re going to go out and you’re going to find people who have toys to sell and you’re going to go out and you’re going to find people who have toys to buy, who have toys they want to buy and you’re going to make some deals. If you can’t do that yourself, completely hands-on, the chances that you can do that in software are vanishingly small. I like doing that a lot. That’s one of my favorites.

I really like audience building. Audience building is a way to prove that you can build up a community of people who are interested in the thing that you are interested in and that you are going to build a product about. This is particularly good for products that are in spaces where there’s a lot of information that people need or that people want. The example that everybody always uses is the Mint blog. Mint started out by giving away free financial information on their blog. A bunch of other companies do that now, often in the financial space, because finance is something that people are constantly searching for content on, and if they come to trust you as a trusted expert about this particular topic, they are far more likely to continue coming to you when you, then, have an offering to give them to help them manage their money or to help them do something in the financial space. There are other areas like this as well.

This is the giving away of content in order to make a connection with your audience and to give them something of value so that they become better at their jobs or at their lives or whatever it is so that they then want to buy products from you. I’m a big fan of that one.

The most important thing is, design the test first. Figure out what it is that you need to validate and then figure out what it would take, actually, to invalidate that. What could happen that would prove to you that this assumption that you have is untrue? Then, try to make it untrue. Honestly challenge your ideas. If you can’t get somebody to buy something and somebody to sell something and if you can’t make that connection, like I said, that might not be the right product for you. Those are important things to be able to do. I think that a lot of times we want to jump right to the building of things or the building of prototypes, which, again, super helpful, can be a really great thing to do, but isn’t always, for me, the thing that helps you get to product market fit. You got to figure out if the product is something people need.

There’s many ways to get there. The reality is, most of the hits didn’t necessarily follow this pattern. There’s many ways to get to…Pattern in terms of they didn’t necessarily have these conversations, et cetera.

Yeah. Absolutely.

There are many ways to get there. I think for engineers, and that’s where a million startups came from, is an engineer’s experience building prototypes versus planning, waterfall style and developing complex products and then releasing them, is a big a-ha. Building the most stripped down prototype which would even be a landing page, which is not going to ignite any engineer’s excitement, technically, but that’s definitely a builder/engineer approach. Your expertise is all around design and research and that sort of thing, all together. So, you have these other tools. I think the punchline is even engineers and builders can pretty quickly adopt and learn some of these tools from research and design that can speed up your whole team. Even if you’re planning and you’ve got your people working on your prototype. Which, many teams, you know, they parallelize what they’re doing. You can have another team doing this kind of early research, really influencing that early prototype simultaneous. You don’t have to wait to build a prototype to start the learning stuff.

Oh, no, absolutely not. You should be constantly building things to give people something to react to. To get feedback, to learn from. Don’t just go out and build the final thing based on a lot of assumptions. You need to build things in order to validate those assumptions. At some point, it’s absolutely going to be a prototype. If you have anything with any sort of complicated interactions, yes, you absolutely need to build a prototype. You need to build a prototype for a lot of reasons. For usability reasons, for understand-ability reasons, for, like I said, giving people something to react to reasons. Yes, absolutely prototype. Yes, absolutely make landing pages. Yes, absolutely do concierge. Do all of these things, but understand why you’re doing each of them and use them for the correct thing.

Something that you’ve talked a lot about, and I think is just great insight that not everybody realizes, is even before you build your prototype and people react to it, you can run tests and get people to react to your competitor’s products. Tell us what that is and then maybe give us 2, 3 tips for people that want to try it that will just get them on the right track. Some common mistakes to avoid.

When you think about competitors, a lot of people, when I say test your competitor’s stuff, they’ll say, “Oh we don’t have any competitors, we’re in an innovative market.”

I’m like, “Good for you. Somebody is trying to solve the problem that you think you’re solving in some way. They’re struggling with something. Maybe they’re solving it with Post-It notes. Maybe they’re solving it with Excel. Everybody’s always solving everything with Excel. That’s great. Figure out how people are dealing with the problem that you are solving right now and go watch them do it. Watch what’s important to them about their solution to this problem. Watch how they think about the problem. Ask them how they got the idea to solve it and how they decided on the method that they’re solving.”

If you really do have actual competitors if you’re in the food delivery space or something, there are actual competitors of yours that you could go out and you could just, you could run a usability test on your competitor’s software right now. It’s fantastic. You won’t make any of the same mistakes that they’ve made, because, trust me, they are making some mistakes. I know that because products are fundamentally hard to use for most people most of the time. So, you won’t make any of those same mistakes because you’re going to have run a usability test on somebody and figure out all the things that people hate about their software and you won’t do any of those things. You’ll make new, more interesting mistakes.

Figure out how people are solving the problem that you think they have right now and then understand how they came to that solution, what works for them about it, what doesn’t work for them about it, what’s the most important thing about it. It will help you develop your messaging, it will help you figure out the channels through which you’re going to recruit people. It will help you to just build really the core thing that solves the one problem that you want to solve. That’s the most important thing about it, honestly, because, once you’ve done that, then you can actually start iterating and making sure that you’ve got the right problem.

You, again, you’ve worked on a variety of different things. We’ve had this conversation before and every time you have slightly different answer, which I love. What is your super power as a designer and researcher? Where do you feel most at home where you feel like it’s really what you were put on Earth to do?

I do always have a different answer to this and I’ve explained that I don’t think it’s because I have a lot of superpowers, I think it’s just because I’m incredibly forgetful. I think I am pretty good at spotting patterns. That’s important, to be able to spot patterns quickly in user research and in things that people tell you and in observations. It’s important to be able to spot them and then it’s important to be able to verify them and to validate them without, again, falling in love with them. A pattern is not when you see 2 people do something necessarily, but, once you can spot those patterns and the problems that people are having, that really helps you figure out what to build next. What problems you want to solve for people.

Honestly, we’ve had this conversation, I don’t think it’s a superpower. I think it’s a skill learned over 20 years of talking to users. All that you have to do to develop this superpower is go out and talk to users for 20 years and then you’ll totally be able to do it. You do, you start to see patterns much more quickly and you start to know how to talk to people in order to get better feedback and information from them.

Awesome. What’s next for you, Laura? What’s on the horizon? What’s exciting to you right now?

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about how to apply all of this UX stuff that we know so much about, how to apply it to other things. Recently, I was talking to some people about customer training and customer success. They’re talking about finding your ideal customer and understanding their problems and I’m like, “Oh this all sounds extremely familiar!”

I’m also, I’ve been talking to a lot of people about growth and growth hacking and marketing and they’re all talking about, “Well, you got to really understand your user, and you have to understand what motivates them and you have to be able to experiment and run quantitative tests and come up with hypotheses and then validate or invalidate them really quickly.” I’m like, “That sounds really familiar!”

I’m beginning to realize that it’s all the same stuff. I had a dance teacher, at one point, who said that at the higher levels of dance, it’s no longer ballet or salsa or lindy or any, it’s all just dancing. I feel that way about product at this point. It’s all just product. How you get users, who they are, understanding who they are, how you get them to do the things that you want them to do, how you understand their problems, how you make them happy. It’s all just product. I think that that’s important to look at how the things that we know as user experience designers can help inform some of the newer things like growth hacking and customer success and all of these things that are coming out and how we can help make those better and what we can learn from them.

Absolutely. That is a really interesting point. I do think it’s all the same at the deeper level, which is the level you’re talking about. I think in the details, there’s a lot of differences.

Oh yeah.

In particular, there’s a lot of, what you could call, growth hacks, that were viral tricks. There’s also an approach to designing habits and engagement that’s pretty straight forward operative conditioning behavior mod that I would consider very different from game design, for example. I think at the deeper level, game design is lean design, is good UX design, is really smart growth hacking, which is about laser focusing on who your customer really is and what they want and what moves them, which you get to with a combination of metrics and vision.

I would say that everything you mentioned there, the tactics are sometimes different and some tactics are better than others. Unsurprisingly, some tactics in growth hacking are, frankly, unethical and some of them are bad for users. Some of them are wonderful and some of them are great for users. The same thing in user experience design, the same thing in encouraging virality or encouraging engagement. The tactics differ, but the strategy of, yeah, let’s identify a business need, let’s identify a user need that goes along with that business need. Let’s figure out what we can do for the user to make them want to do the things that are good for the business. Let’s figure out how we can solve their problems so that they also solve our problems and so that everybody comes out happier and better. How can we make them better at what they need to be better at?

Thank you so much, Laura, for being part of this.

Oh, thank you for having me.