The Mom Test

The Mom Test

Rob Fitzpatrick


The Mom Test is great if you’re new to conducting user interviews. It explains the hazards of user interviews, and will help you get the most out of yours. There’s an art to asking questions and this is the playbook. There’s enough examples and sample questions to give you confidence. I first read this book in 2015 and I keep coming back to it!

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Key Takeaways

The 20% that gave me 80% of the value.

  • If you talk to customers before understanding the common pitfalls - you’re going to get misleading information and make bad decisions of the back of it
  • The key challenge with user interviews is that you can’t just ask people what they think. People are bad at articulating their rationale. They’re also too nice - which results in false positives
  • Every question can create bias and skew findings - so the art of asking the right questions is important. You can’t ask... “Is my business a good idea?”. Nobody is going to tell you the truth. Ask around your idea to get insights
  • 3 Rules for Good Interviews:
    • Talk about their life not your idea
    • Talk about specifics in the past - not generics in the future
    • Talk less, and listen more (stop pitching)
  • The customer owns the problem - you own the solution. Don’t ask about what you should build - that’s your job not theirs. Instead gather as much information about them as you can.
  • 3 Types of bad data:
    • Compliments
    • Generic Hypotheticals
    • Feature Requests
  • Ask important questions, escape the trivial. What would make your company fail?
  • Don’t zoom in too early, and don’t ignore their indifference. Don’t ask them about the gym if they’re not trying to get/stay healthy
  • 2 Types of risk:
    • Product Risk - Can I build it? Can I grow it? (prototype)
    • Customer and Market Risks - Do they want it? Will they pay for it? (conversations)
  • Only once you’ve learnt about the customer - can you reveal your product or idea
    • Then look for commitment - Give them a clear chance to reject or commit
  • 3 Types of commitment
    • Time (trial, training for colleagues)
    • Cash (letter of intent)
    • Reputation (boss, pilot, introductions)
  • Qualification:
    • People have the problem
    • Know they have the problem
    • Have the budget to solve the problem
    • Have cobbled together a solution
  • Don’t be a learning bottle neck - get the customer data to your team

Deep Summary

Longer form notes, typically condensed, reworded and de-duplicated.


  • Talking to customers can help reduce the risk that we’ll build something...
    • nobody wants
    • nobody wants to buy
    • nobody want to use
  • HOWEVER - Talking to customers is really hard. If you talk to customers before understanding the common pitfalls - you’ll likely make things worse. Doing it wrong is worse than doing nothing.
    • We can’t just ask people what they think - people are bad at articulating their rationale
    • People are generally nice - which results in false positives
    • Every question can create bias and skew findings
  • You need to take responsibility for crafting and asking good questions
    • Navigate through noise and find out what they want

The Basics

  • The social dynamics of sharing an idea aren’t conducive to getting a truthful response
    • What is unsaid: I’m about to expose my ego, please don’t hurt my feelings when I share this with you
    • So you can’t ask... “Is my business a good idea?”. Nobody is going to tell you the truth, it’s your responsibility to find it
  • Example: If you’re researching around the idea of using an iPad for cookbooks?
  • Bad Questions

    Would you ever buy an iPad app for cookbooks?

    • share recipes?
    • Videos?
    • To-Do list?

    Response from Mom: It is cheaper than a hardback will it have pictures?

    Questions like that are self indulgent noise, will likely result in false positives. Generally opinions aren’t worth much.

    Better Questions
    • How is the iPad treating you?
    • What do you usually do on it?
    • What’s the last thing you did on it?
    • Did you use an app for that?
      • Response: I just use google, I didn’t know there was an app what’s it called?
      • Learnt: Won’t discover through the App Store (risk) - needs word of mouth recommendations
    • How did you find out about the other apps you have?
      • App of the week from the news paper
    • Weird question... I saw new cookbooks on the shelf, where did those come from?
      • Got them for Christmas, I don’t need another lasagne recipe at my age
    • Keep digging...What’s the last cookbook you did buy?
      • A vegan one 3 months ago.
      • Learning: Niche segments could be key
  • Instead ask around your idea to get insights

Three Rules

  • Talk about their life not your idea
    • Don’t pitch the idea
    • Don’t even mention it (or wait until the end)
  • Talk about specifics in the past, not generics in the future
    • Would you ever y?When did you last x?
  • Talk less, listen more (stop pitching)
    • Get into a topic
    • Keep them on track
    • Shut up and take good notes

Good and Bad Questions

Every customer conversation is bad by default, your job to fix it with good questions.

Bad Questions
Do you think it’s a good idea?
Opinions are worthless - only the market can tell you
Would you buy a product that did x?
Future looking statements are over-optimistic lies
How much would you pay for x?
People will lie to you if they think it’s want you want to hear
What would your dream product do?
People know their problems - but they don’t know how to solve them
Would you pay x for something that did y?
People stop lying when you ask them for money
Good Questions
Why do you bother to do x?
What are the implications of that?
Product Risk
Talk me through last time that happened
Can I grow it?
What else have you tried?
Customer and Market Risk
How are you dealing with it now? How do you currently solve x? How much do you currently spend solving x?
Will they pay me?
Who controls the budget? Who decides?
You need to know where the money comes from (if B2B research)
Who else should I talk to? What else should I have asked?
End every conversation like this. People want to help you - give them a chance
  • None of the good questions are asking about what you should build
    • Deciding what to build is your job
    • You should humbly and honestly gather as much information about them as you can.
    • Take your own visionary leap to a solution (then confirm its correct and refine it)
    • They own the problem / you own the solution

Avoiding bad data - How these learning conversations go wrong:

  • We want to avoid false negatives and false positives
When do you show your prototype?
  • First do the work to understand their needs and how they solve the problem currently
  • If they have the problem:
    • show them a prototype , ask for another 10 minutes
    • Ignore the compliments - Listen to the problems
  • If they don’t have the problem - end the interview there
  • Types of Bad Data - and how to avoid them
  • Compliments - the fools gold of learning conversations
    • If you ask for feedback - you are really pitching and asking for compliments
    • Deflect compliments - they're probably lying. Even if not, so what, opinions are generally useless.
      • Avoid by not revealing idea
    • Compliments and stalling or expressing interest is a lethal cocktail
    • Notice when you get a compliment
      • Save the conversation → quickly get back to reality
      • How do you solve the problem now? Talk me through the steps.
    Fluff - generic, hypotheticals, opinions about the future
    • 3 types of fluff
      • Generic claims: I usually, I always, I never
      • Future tense promises: I would, I will
      • Hypothetical maybes: I might, I could
    • Terrible fluff generating questions that result in low value responses
      • Don’t ask hypothetical question questions
        • Would you ever?
        • Do you think you?
        • Might you?
    • Turn fluffy questions into concrete ones ...
      • When did it happen last?
      • How did you try to solve it? How did you deal with it?
      • Talk me through it? What they did step by step?
      • Why didn’t they do it a different way?
      • Example: How many emails are in your inbox right now?
    • Push them to a decision - Why not try that solution now? If they don't want to - is it that bad?
      • Often people complain - you highlight a solution and they ... aww its not a big problem for me
    • Be skeptical
    Ideas, suggestions, feature requests

    Feature requests should be understood, not obeyed

    • Reject generic claims, anchor them back to their life and their actions
      • Potential Customer: Are you going to add sync to excel?
      • Respond with: why do you want to do that?
        • If they’ve got a shitty costly workaround (it’s interesting)
    • Why do they want the feature? how will it change their lives? Do we need to delay the launch for that? How would that fit into your day?
      • Nudge them to elaborate
    • Don’t mention the product - but give them a vague space.
    • Talk less! Don't interrupt them (even if they've misunderstood or launch into objections)
  • Don’t invite the bad data by asking the wrong questions
  • Do not expose your ego or your product
How conversations go off track
  • You find yourself pitching
  • You revealed your idea in advance
  • You both end up in hypothetical la la land

Asking important questions

  • Don't ask trivial things
  • Find the best questions
    • What would make the company fail?
    • What would have to be true for the company to succeed?
    • If I had a free researcher - what would you get them to look at?
  • Look for questions and answers that could completely change or disprove your business idea
    • If they can’t - they might not be good questions
  • Ask unpleasant questions you might be dreading
  • Learn to love bad news, it is getting you closer to the truth
  • The premature zoom is a big source of false positives
    • Don’t zoom in on unimportant problems
    • Don't ignore their indifference - Don't ask them about the gym - if they’re not trying to get/stay healthy
    • What are you big problems in life?
      • if they answer work, job, house, family (thats a red flag for your fitness app)
      • Save it by asking ... Is getting healthier on that list?
  • You can assume they care only if the need is obvious (you can assume a small business wants more business)
  • Risk Types:
  • Type
    Product Risk
    Can I build it? Can I grow it?
    Customer and Market Risk
    Do they want it? Will they pay me?
    Customer Conversations
  • You need both. If your product risk is high - make sure you have a prototype
  • Prepare a list of 3 big learning goals for each type of person you’ll speak to
    • {Customers, investors, industry experts, key hires}
    • Update them as you learn more
    • Helps you take advantage of bumping into customers
  • Decide on the tough questions with your team

Keep it casual

  • Separate your meeting types - know what one you are in
    • Learning about your customer and their problem (keep casual)
    • Learning about how your product performs
    • Selling your product to a new prospect
  • Avoid premature zoom. could be too much work
  • Friendly first contacts are a good place to start
  • Learning customer problems is best done in a quick and less formal chat
    • Conversations can be fast (5 minutes to find out if there’s a problem)
    • Keep it casual
  • Meetings have a formality and time overhead
  • If you get bad news doesn’t mean you have to give up, just find a new way

Commitment and advancement

  • Once you’ve learnt about the customer - you can reveal idea and show the product
  • Moving to the next step in sales is advancement
  • You can end up with zombie leads that go nowhere, lots of meetings but no progress
  • You don’t want to be rejected, so it goes nowhere
  • You need to get to a clear point, give them a chance to reject or commit
    • You have to pop the question
  • Don’t try to convince everyone, try to find the people who get what you’re doing
  • If you leave without certainty, you’re probably falling into one of these traps:
    • Asking their opinion / fishing for compliments
    • Failing to ask for a commitment or next step
  • Getting rejected by a customer is not a negative thing, it’s learning
  • The currencies of commitment, giving up something they value
    • Cash (letter of intent)
    • Time (trial, training for colleagues)
    • Reputation (testimonial, boss, pilot, introduction)
  • Compliments aren’t data - they’re a red flag
  • You are looking for:
    • People who have the problem
    • Know they have the problem
    • Have the budget to solve the problem
    • Have already cobbled together a makeshift solution

Getting in front of your potential customers

Immerse yourself in where they are
  • Find the community
  • If you want to talk to speakers - get into a conference speakers lounge
  • Get people’s email from your landing page - follow up - get them onto Zoom
Bring them to you
  • Separate yourself from the crowd - make yourself a desirable person to talk to
  • Help them find you
    • organise meet-ups (gets you credibility)
    • speak or teach
    • blog - slow burn but powerful in the long run
    • break all the rules and get clever (organise a conference call to exchange knowledge, said the other 2 would be joining, to 3 top schools)
  • Take an interest in people’s problem, find a good excuse to talk to them
Creating warm intros
  • So much easier if you’ve been introduced by a mutual friends
  • Everybody knows somebody, you just have to ask
  • Kevin bacon second degrees of connection
  • Build an advisory board (I’m looking for people in this industry doing this thing)
  • Sometimes you can find early advisors that are pretty good
  • Investors and professors are pretty good for connecting people
  • What would the dream introduction be
  • Cash in all the favours
  • It’s hard from cold leads - get off cold calling and into warm introductions as soon as possible
    • 98% rejection on cold calls is normal
Asking for and framing the meeting
  • the purpose can be unclear
  • If you don’t make it clear, every meeting becomes a sales meeting by default
  • They’ll clam up, you’re not ready
  • Don’t make it like a formal interview
  • Don’t make it seem like you want their opinion
  • Challenge is to make it sound like it’s not a waste of their time
  • Recommended format:
    • Vision: Mention you’re an entrepreneur trying to solve a problem (education)
    • Framing: Let them know what stage you’re at, say you’re not going to sell them anything if you’re not at that stage
    • Weakness: I don’t know much about x
    • Pedestal: You are good at y
    • Ask: do you have any time, 15 minutes, I’ll come to you
  • It’s hard to turn a friendly chat into a sales meeting → so focus on learning something
  • Claim to be a PHD or that you’re doing research
  • Face to face better than a call - likely to get more nuance, better conversation and more likely to build a relationship.
    • If B2B do as many as possible. You are learning, quickly and generating sales leads.
    • If B2C these are less likely to be your customers, how many is enough? Keep talking to people until you hear you’ve heard everything before.
      • Or set a goal/cap: x hours a week talking to customers about your product, listening to feature requests / bugs. Those hours are going to save you time

Choosing your customers

  • Startups don’t starve they drown in ideas
  • Choose a customer segment. If you don’t and you stay too wide you’re going to...
    • Get mixed feedback: some love it, some hate it
    • Be overwhelmed by options: don’t know where to start
    • You can’t prove yourself wrong as there’s always more people to talk to
  • If the customer segment is too broad, you’ll struggle to serve everyone
  • People only ask to add features - they don’t ask for them to be removed
    • The more people you talk to, the harder it gets (a sign segment is too broad)
  • You want to have 10 conversations with the same same type of customer. Not 1 conversation with 10 different types of customer
    • If this happens - create a taxonomy and segment
Customer slicing
  • Keep slicing off people, until you have a sense of who you’re going to talk to and where you can find them
  • Which type of person in the group would want it? Which subsets would and wouldn’t want it? Why? What problem do they have?
  • Find the subgroup who want it most
  • Customer segment isn’t that useful if you don’t know where to get in touch with them
  • Try and find customers you like
Ask: Am I talking to the wrong people?
  • Am I aiming too broad?
  • Am I missing a segment?
  • Am I Talking to the wrong person → find the decision maker (B2B)

Have the right process

  • Do the work before and after your conversations to make them successful
  • Don’t be a learning bottle neck - get the customer data to your team
  • 1) Prepare
    • Identify your big questions
    • Avoid stuff that could be found out with desk research
    • Do due diligence on their business.
    2) Review
    • Review notes
    • Update beliefs
    • Update questions
    • Get raw data out of your head and into something you can share with the team
    • Key quotes and raw data.
    3) Take good notes
    • exact quotes, summaries, add emotions, background
  • Meetings go best with 2 people, one talks one takes notes
  • Get involved - you can’t outsource customer learning
  • You likely won’t believe it, you’ll end up doing it again anyway
  • Feature requests, barriers, people, next steps, tasks
  • Write it down quick and easy to assess
    • Spreadsheets are good, sortable and filterable
  • Take notes on a computer, sit at a 45 degree angle, keep eye contact
  • Notes are useless if you don’t look at them afterwards
  • Staying on Track
  • Beforehand
    • choose a focused findable customer segment, slice thin
    • Talk about learning goals with the team
    • Decide on next steps for customers
    • Who I can talk to, where I can find them
    • Try to answer questions other ways first - before scheduling conversations. Desk research, MVP
    In the conversation
    • Frame it so they know it’s not about sales
    • Vision → Framing → Weakness → Pedestal → Ask
    • So they know it’s about learning and that they can help you
    • Keep the conversation casual
    • Ask good questions which pass the mom test
    • Every question might not be perfect
    • Always try to bring it back
    • Deflect the compliments and the fluff
    • Dig beneath signals
    • Get emotional about anything, will ask you more
    • Take good notes
    • Give the chance to accept or reject a commitment / next step
    After the conversations
    • Sit down with team and go through notes, put notes in storage somewhere
    • Update beliefs, plan and questions
    • New questions
    • Plan for next week
    • Max 2 meetings, prep on Monday, download on Friday
    • Spread learning throughout team as quick as you can

Get Going Quickly

  • Spend an hour then go talk to people.
  • Don’t spend months only doing customer conversations - you can’t remove all risk and get to 100% security
  • Customer conversations are a tool, when appropriate open up big learnings.
  • Biggest mistake is to be too formal.