So you have an idea, but how do you know if there is a need for it?

Jo Barnard speaks to Andrew Muir Wood about design research and validating your ideas.
February 16, 2023

We read lots of stories about how Steve Jobs never did market research. He’s quoted in his biography as saying “People don't know what they want until you show it to them.”

This could easily be interpreted as implying that researching customers isn’t helpful at all, but what Steve actually means is that people are really bad at articulating what they actually want. So asking them directly doesn’t always work.

Market research can also be a minefield when it comes to bias. It’s all too easy to ask subtly leading questions such as ‘if there was a more sustainable option on the market, would you buy it?’ and you very quickly end up collecting data that appears to support your idea but in reality is doing nothing of the sort.

What is market research?

Market research is the process of collecting and analyzing data and information about a specific market, including its customers, competitors, and industry trends. This information can be used to identify opportunities, determine the feasibility of a new product or service, assess the effectiveness of marketing strategies, and make informed business decisions. Market research can involve a variety of methods, such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, and data analysis. The ultimate goal of market research is to provide insight and understanding into a market, allowing businesses to make informed and strategic decisions.

We are all prone to confirmation bias; the tendency to seek out the answers that align with our own beliefs. Yet, when we’ve put hours into exploring and designing a new product or service idea, we are at even more risk of wanting others to like it. And, to make matters worse, people don’t like to hurt our feelings. When you tell them about your idea, they’ll say they love it, but then never end up buying it.

Steve Jobs tells us; show them your actual solutions. But when it comes to showing people an idea, this means getting to the design stage so you can walk people through it or physically hand it to them. It often takes time and money to get to this stage and it also comes with the challenge of protecting your ideas, especially if you think you might have something really exciting.

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”


In order to try and work out this messy issue, I sat down with Andrew Muir Wood, founder of research agency Muir Wood & Co, to discuss what entrepreneurs can do really early on to find out if their idea is worth pursuing.

JB. Tell us a little bit about yourself

AMW: Hello Morrama! Sure thing.

I trained as a product design engineer, did a PhD on the evolution of consumer products, then moved into research and strategy. I’ve worked as a consultant and in-house researcher at startups and bigger companies. My agency work covers a broad range of industries: from a sleep school, to a UTI test, to a food delivery app! We are all about helping clients to learn what their customers need and test out new ideas for products or services.

JB. What’s the best time to start sharing an idea with others?

AMW: Learn about the problem before talking about your solution.

Before even working on your idea, the first conversations you have should be learning about people’s problems and how they’re trying to solve them currently. So for example, if you’re building a new kind of travel pillow, you need to ask people things like: Why did they choose different types? How much did they spend? When do they/don’t they use it?

This gives you the requirements of a better travel pillow, and who might be your primary customer. Just don’t say your customer is “all travellers”! A holidayer with neck problems will have different needs and budgets than a business person who travels light.

Once you have a clear understanding of the problem and who will spend money to make it go away, then you have the inputs to design a solution that fixes it and can get sketching and prototyping.

JB. This is amazing advice, because it means you don’t have to share all the details of your idea, especially if you feel you might want to protect the IP later down the line. OK, next question…How do you go about finding people to share an idea with?

AMW: Make sure your research participants are relevant for what you need to find out.

If you’re trying to work out who your audience is and what problem you’re solving, it’s good to speak to a wide selection of people. Because you’re only talking about existing behaviour and past purchases, you can speak to friends and family with less risk of bias and you don’t even have to mention your idea. Just make sure it’s a wide mix of jobs, demographics, activities etc.

Once you’ve narrowed down to a target audience and sketched or prototyped some concepts, you need to be more diligent about who you speak to. There are platforms and recruitment agencies that can help you find people who fit your criteria and also help with consent and NDAs. They charge a fee and the participants get an incentive for their time but you’ll know you’re getting feedback from an impartial stranger, who definitely spends money in your product category.

JB: What is the value of quantitative and qualitative research?

AMW: Both qual and quant are valuable at different times.

Qualitative research helps you to understand people’s tasks, decisions and behaviours then contextualises any feedback they have on your idea. Interviews are a great way to learn quickly, but sometimes it’s useful to observe people doing an activity or using your solution. E.g. take a trip with someone using a travel pillow.

Quantitative research usually means a survey, which is great for market sizing and segmentation: they give you the statistical confidence that there are enough people out there with the same needs. I usually recommend that interviewing people first helps you write a better survey because it helps you work out the range of different answers to supply.

JB: How can anyone be certain they are getting accurate feedback on an idea?

AMW: Give them permission to be negative.

As we discussed above, people are uncomfortable delivering bad news. When I’m testing out a client’s ideas, I often start the conversation with a (scripted) intro that lets them know that we’re testing multiple concepts (make it sound like we’re not attached to any ideas) and we need to find out if they’re crap now, so we don’t spend all our money building something people don’t want.

That reframes the conversation: they can be most helpful by being negative.

Clearly, the most important thing is to get yourself out there and watch, listen and learn more about how your idea might be received by your target audience.

If you want to speak to either Andrew or the team at Morrama you can reach us at:




Jo Barnard & Andrew Muir Wood

Andrew Muir Wood is the founder of Muir Wood & Co, a product research consultancy in London