In our last post, we spotlighted the idea of building products and services for the smallest group of people. Facebook began as a free service for college students, not as a social media platform for two billion users. PayPal first found its footing with digital auctioneers, not as one of the world’s dominant online payment systems.

Building a company with a specific audience is easier said than done. It commands us to make a decision. Sheena Iyengar’s jam study revealed that we can’t even make a decision on what jam to buy if there are too many choices. With close to eight billion people on Earth, how do we decide on which group to serve? Let’s begin by discussing what not to do.

Try not to create a product first and then expect to find your customers. Instead, find a group of people struggling with a similar problem, then design a solution centered around their unmet needs and points of frustrations.

A great place to find this group is by looking at the edges of what we define as normal.

Todd Rose, a Harvard professor, has been arguing this point for a long time. In his 2013 TEDx talk, Todd illustrates the price the U.S. Air Force had to pay to learn this lesson.

In the 1950s, more pilots in the Air Force were killed during training than in the Korean War. The Air Force tried to blame the pilots, technology, and even instructors. Gilbert Daniels, a lieutenant in the Air Force, investigated the accidents and noticed that the cockpit was designed to fit the average pilot from the 1920s and not the pilots of the post WWII era.

Daniels began by designing a cockpit for the average pilot. He figured an average cockpit was the right solution for all pilots. After he built and tested the average cockpit, almost no one fit inside of it. Consequently, the idea of an adjustable seat was born. It was designed by focusing on users in the extremes of what was defined as normal.

The Air Force led a monumental shift in design by creating a unique solution for its pilots instead of building something for a fictitious average user.

Unique solutions can be discovered for unique groups by asking a simple question:

Who is this for?

Starting off with this question leads to others such as, “Who has the most complex needs?” or “Whose pain-points is no one else addressing?” The answer to these questions are hidden in customer interviews, tasks analysis, and contextual inquiry.

If you are still struggling to identify your minimum viable user or customer, research what your competitors are doing. Identify competitors that have already built something but still have customers with unfulfilled needs. Use the competitive analysis as a proxy to identify who might buy, maintain, and use your product.

User research and competitive analysis allows us to understand someone’s needs and hidden personal demands further defining who we are building the product for. As founders, designers, and engineers we like to focus on the product. That’s our milieu, our home in which we find comfort. Instead, I challenge you to focus on the person using the product instead of the product alone.