I love my mother-in-law, Elanaah.  And not just out of obligation.  We get along great because we respect and trust each other.  Our mutual respect comes from years of being straightforward and truthful with each other.

Based on this trust, I have occasionally sought Elanaah’s advice.

Elanaah is a parenting expert, with particular emphasis on the early childhood years.  Not every woman would welcome this feature in a mother-in-law, but I have found her consultations helpful and reassuring.  And she has never forced advice on us.  Her lauding our parenting skills on occasion feels like an extra strong endorsement given her expertise.

Elanaah is also an avid reader, belonging to two book clubs simultaneously, one of them for over 40 years!  Our taste in books doesn’t always coincide.  (That book about the traveling funeral was barely readable and my book club hated it too.)  Yet I often ask what she is reading because her assessment of books has consideration and depth, rather than just a thumbs-up or down.

On child-raising and books, I value Elanaah’s advice.

On the other hand, Elanaah is not what you would call technically inclined.  Asking her preference for laptop brands or cell phone apps is likely to elicit hardy laughter, and a friendly shrug.

In a figurative and literal sense, my asking Elanaah’s opinions on child-raising and books could be deemed mother-in-law research.  Mother-in-law research refers to the practice of asking those you know what they think and treating their opinions as research.

Start-ups and small businesses may be especially tempted to conduct this kind of research because they can’t afford more formal research.  Especially when the alternative is no research at all on some product, service, logo, packaging or other offering where feedback is warranted before further investment. 

The key to good research, however, is to ensure the feedback comes from relevant and trustworthy sources.

Relevancy comes from being in your target market.  Unless your mother-in-law is a potential customer of what you are testing, she is not in your target market.  Don’t ask her.

This goes as well for your own mother, brother, father, aunts, uncles, neighbors and friends.

But being in your target market isn’t the only criterion, if you are going to query those you know.  The second litmus test that target-market-friends-and-family must pass is the ability to be truthful with you, from a customer point-of-view.

Can you trust them to tell it like it is?

Formal research recruits people who are not at all related to the creation of the product or to anyone working in that industry or even related industries.  The reason is that good research requires objective respondents.  We want the truth, and we can handle it.  (We also want to avoid tipping off the competition.)

Your family and friends may not want to hurt your feelings.  They may temper their responses or even paint a positive picture while their true thoughts are anything but.

Or they may have other baggage or issues that underlie their responses to you, causing them to overemphasize or trash aspects that they would not even mention to a non-related researcher.  One client told me that her brother ranted against several aspects of her business, even though he had no vested interest in it and never used her product!

You cannot rely on your friends and family to recuse themselves.  They don’t want to disappoint you.  Few have the presence of mind to say, ‘You know, I never use those widgets so I really don’t feel comfortable giving you feedback on them.”  Or even better, “I’m still angry at you for the way you drew a line down the middle of the bedroom we shared when we were kids, and wouldn’t let me leave because your side had the door, so I can’t be objective about this.”

Don’t worry about whether family or friends will be offended if you don’t ask their opinions.  Indeed, if you explain that your criteria include only asking those who are users of your potential product, they will probably credit you with business wisdom.

The highest quality research feedback comes from people who are potential users of the product and who have no affiliation to or stake in the product’s creation. 

A good place to start:  use these two successive questions as a litmus test to qualify people to test your product:

  1. Are they in your target market?
  2. Will they tell you the truth, unfiltered and unembellished?

Professional research companies use 10-15 questions to screen respondents to ensure they fit the criteria above.

If you are serious about launching your new product, quality feedback from the intended user is crucial to its success.  Baseless flattery will not help make the product the best it can be.  Hardy laughter and a friendly shrug can be demoralizing; a rant can send you into a tailspin.

Get the best feedback you can, and if you can’t afford to have a research company find qualified respondents, find unaffiliated people who can help in a constructive manner yourself using the two questions above.

Have you ever tapped someone close to you for feedback on a new product or service idea?  Let me know about your experience in the comments below.

As for me, I’m off to ask Elanaah what she has been reading lately!

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