Ask-learn-evaluate cycle

What’s the best way to go about building a new product, service or solution? Many will say that it is Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle. I don’t disagree that it makes sense testing assumptions and getting early feedback, but I believe that there’s a process that precedes it. I’d argue that build-measure-learn is the second step of the journey, after the ask-learn-evaluate cycle.



None of us is short of ideas, right? There is no chance of us undertaking all of the ideas or opportunities that we are faced with in the relatively small amount of time we have. So how do we decide what to take forwards and what to leave? In short, we ask people about the area that interests us to evaluate whether we should spend any time at all on the idea. We learn about the problem we think exists before we even talk about any ideas we’ve had for solutions.

But there’s a skill in doing this. It’s not about talking to the right people; it’s about talking to people in the right way.

What I’m about to tell you isn’t my wisdom. It’s not even new. Much of it seems like common sense. But most of it is bypassed by people when they are ‘validating’ their ideas. In fact, their process isn’t validating anything; it’s just a process of getting people to agree that their solution is pure genius and that they are doing the right thing investing their time and resources in it. It is the business equivalent of a 4-year old child taking a picture home from school and asking their mum if they think it is good. “Oh darling, that’s beautiful. Aren’t you clever. Let’s put it up on the fridge door”.

Image courtesy of (

The following is based on a good little book by Rob Fitzpatrick called The Mom Test (in reference to avoiding the response the 4-year old above received). The basics are simple:

The 3 basic rules

  1. Talk about their life instead of your idea
  2. Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
  3. Talk less and listen more


Rules of thumb

The book is packed with wisdom, but here are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when speaking to people:

  • Learning about a customer and their problems works better as a quick and casual chat than a long, formal meeting. If it feels like they’re doing you a favour by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.
  • Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and worthless. People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear. If you’ve mentioned your idea, then people will try to protect your feelings. You’ll make progress a lot faster if you’re able to leave your idea out of it for as long as possible: give as little information as possible about your idea while still nudging the discussion in a useful direction. A compliment is a warning flag that the person you’re talking to is trying to get rid of you.
  • Ask about how the situation already is. Learn through people’s actions, not opinions (ie get people to tell you a real-life story about what they’ve done in the past). Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
  • If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours. If you’ve identified a real problem, the customer will jump at the chance to be an early adopter. You’re shooting blind until you understand their goals.
  • There’s more reliable information in a lukewarm response than a “wow” because you can’t build a business on a lukewarm response
  • You aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem; you own the solution. Idea and feature requests should be understood but not obeyed. A person’s opinion does not matter (they have no idea if the business is going to work); only the market knows.
  • Look for a commitment you can ask for today (e.g. an introduction to their boss or budget-holder, to be an alpha user and to act as a case study). Find something to ask for that they will think twice about giving. People stop lying when you ask them for money.
  • The more you’re talking, the worse you are doing.
  • Good customer segmentation is important. If start too generic, everything is watered down. If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t have a specific enough customer segment. Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff. It could take as few as 3-5 conversations if you have a relatively simple industry and focused customer segment. More than 10 and still getting results all over the map suggests customer segment too fuzzy.
  • Don’t go into discussions looking for customers: think of it as looking for advisors instead.

And the most important one to remember which is offered ignored: some problems don’t actually matter! Let them go. As Peter Drucker said, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all”.


Example questions

Theory is all very good, but we are about practical application so here are a few example questions I use frequently. You will see that nearly all of them are asking the person to tell me about their past experiences, not some whimsical future.

  • What are you using now / How do you currently do it / How are you dealing with it now?
  • Why do you bother?
  • What would happen if you stopped doing it? What are the cost implications for not doing it?
  • How much time does it take?
  • Which parts do you love / hate?
  • What else have you tried? How have you tried to fix it? Have you tried searching for solutions and found them wanting? (if they haven’t even Googled it then they probably don’t need it/care)
  • Are you actively searching for a replacement? If so, what’s the sticking point? If not, why not?
  • When was the last time X happened?
  • Talk me through the last time that happened.
  • How much are you currently paying for it?
  • Where does the money come from (ie whose budget pays for it)? Who signs it off?
  • Will you pay me now for the product / will you enter your information into the system now?
  • Who else should I talk to?
  • Is there anything else I should have asked?

There are many, many more suggestions in the book, but that should give you a feel for the difference in approach than you may have used before: it’s not about how would you do XYZ; it’s about how are you currently doing XYZ. It’s only the first step in testing the water, but it’s an efficient way to discard ideas that will waste time. If it passes the Mom test, then you can move on to more rigorous validated learning with sketches and prototypes.


“The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you” by Rob Fitzpatrick is available on Amazon for £18.00

1 thought on “Ask-learn-evaluate cycle”

  1. Interesting post. I’m always interested to hear other ways of approaching similar problems. Thank you for writing this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.