Arguably, one of the hardest parts of building a product is knowing what to build first. Not just the overall idea, but the individual features, too. To some extent, when you build a product you're making a bet: people will want this thing in this exact form that I'm building it.

Some bets pay off better than others on the first try. The iPhone was technically a bet that people would want a well-made, internet-enabled phone with a novel user interface in their pocket. That was a good bet and an immediate success. Services like Airbnb while ubiquitous today started off as a bit quirky and took some iteration to get right.

Because there can be such a wide-range of success, it helps to pick the "right" idea the first time so you don't commit the dreaded sin of building something that people don't want. While there's no way to guarantee this won't happen, there are some techniques you can use to pick out your idea that will move you closer to success than further away from it.

In this post, we're going to look at a few techniques for finding ideas that are a "safe bet" that you can turn into a product that people want to buy.

Looking at weaknesses of existing players

One of the best places to start looking for an idea to work on is by looking at what's currently available in the market. Start by asking "how do people solve today?" Look at the landscape. How many competitors are there? How well do they solve the problem in question? Really take the time to examine their strategy, considering the following:

  • How well is the product itself built? Is it fast? Does it have any major bugs that haven't or won't be fixed?
  • How easy is it to use? Does it require a bit of training or is it really intuitive and fast to learn?
  • How well is it branded and marketed? Does it look compelling? Is the marketing attractive to folks? Does it make you want it?

Do your homework here. More often than not, existing products struggle in some of these categories. Remember: their struggle is your opportunity. Consider your own skillset and interests and try to figure out if there's something about what they're doing that you can do better.

Better is subjective!

Better can mean a lot of things, so don't get confused. You want to think from your customer's perspective when you ask this. Can you make it better for a specific type of person? For a specific type of job? Don't be intimidated by big teams and big budgets translating to "better." Being small means being fast.

A massive mistake that I see people make constantly is ignoring an idea because it already exists. That's a good thing! If an idea already exists and people are paying for it, that tells you that it's a viable product. There are people actively paying for this thing. If you can build something better and then reach those people with a message that resonates with them, you can win.

Mining for pain and desire "in the wild"

Another way to find an idea to work on is to focus on what's not right or what people feel is "missing" in their life! That may not sound too enjoyable, but getting good at listening to the complaints and desires of others can turn you into a product mastermind. For example, paying attention to when others say things like "this is stressful" or "I would love it if" are often breadcrumbs leading to an idea.

An easy way to do this online is to consider a general topic that you're interested in and then head over to a site like Twitter and do a search. For example, if we type in "buying a house," we can quickly find a seed for an idea:

Pay attention to the language here! This person is using pain words like "stressful" and "how s*it is that." They're obviously disappointed with the house buying experience (and even for another person!). There's a product here! If you understand real estate and buying houses, the question to ask is what might be missing from the tools available to them?

Always be listening!

Here we're using an online example, but don't hesitate to look in the real world, too. Listen to what people are upset about in public or in conversations you have with friends and family. Let it happen organically (don't start a conversation just to find out) and get good at noticing potential opportunities.

For example, here, the house was "sold for 25k under the asking price." It sounds like there were other bidders they didn't know about. An app idea to solve this problem might be a tool for seeing average sale prices for houses in the buyer's area and let them see how many people are looking at the house they're interested in.

The point here isn't necessarily to solve the exact problem, but think about ways that your own product can help to alleviate the pain people are currently experiencing. Bonus points: if a solution already exists and you're aware of it (or the creator of it), you can use this same technique to build your sales skills by being helpful and saying "hey, sorry to here you're stressed out, you should check out this app..."

Watch people's behavioral patterns

One more technique—and a personal favorite—is to get really good at observing people's behavioral patterns. This is similar to listening to what people are complaining about, but more abstract. What you want to do is observe how people complete a certain task or activity today (even yourself).

What's inefficient about their behavior? Are there one too many steps that they're taking? Is there anything in the process that can be automated or done away with entirely? For example, one of Clever Beagle's mentees did exactly this! Nicole observed herself and friends who liked to plan trips having to deal with a mess of spreadsheets that were difficult to manage and a struggle to share with friends.

By observing this inefficiency and pairing it with her own unique skill for organizing travel plans, she was able to create a product! The end result was a unique product that not only helped you plan your trips, but helped to do a lot of the thinking around planning like figuring out when places you wanted to visit were open, how expensive they were, and how close they were to other places.

Do a combination of the above!

Where all of this really starts to take off is by doing some combination of the above. For example, watching people's behavioral patterns around an existing product and spotting an inefficiency or noticing that customers complain about an existing product not having a certain feature.

This is where truly unique, hard to compete with products are born. Combining this sort of thinking with your unique skill set means that you can produce products that other people cannot. Even better news? As you practice these techniques, you get better, meaning you can come up with and get to work on unique product ideas even faster.

Go out into the world and explore. Make a point to listen and observe closely and you're likely to find a product idea staring your right in the face!