One of our favorite books here at DeveloperMode is called The Mom Test: How to talk to customers and learn if you business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you by Rob Fitzpatrick.
The premise of the Mom Test is that it’s difficult to get candid, useful feedback from customers unless we ask the right questions. That includes getting feedback about current experiences as well as interest in future products.
Many of the questions we instinctively ask, like “would you buy product X that does Y?” produce answers that mislead us, make us overconfident, and make us vulnerable to cognitive biases. A lot of customer feedback skews positive because people don’t want to hurt our feelings or crush our enthusiasm.
If you’ve mentioned your idea, people will try to protect your feelings.
— rule of thumb from the Mom Test
The book is called the Mom Test because it teaches you to ask questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about. No matter how much she loves you and doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.
While most of the examples in the Mom Test are about talking to customers, I’ve found it be a very useful tool for improving my conversations with developers.
Asking good questions is crucial for effective developer advocacy. Good questions ensure we fully grok the developer’s situation, understand their unique technical needs and challenges, and ensure we’re funneling the right feedback to our product and engineering teams.
The 3 simple rules
The Mom Test has three simple rules:
- Talk about their life instead of your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
- Talk less and listen more
For a developer advocate, “your idea” means the product or service you represent. Focus on what the developer is building and don’t pitch your product until you’re asked about it.
The Mom Test book has lots of examples of both good questions and bad questions. Bad questions are speculative and open-ended:
- Do you think it’s a good idea?
- Would you use a feature that did X?
- Would you be open to a different solution?
These questions produce wishy-washy answers that generally equate to a “maybe”.
Good questions, on the other hand, probe into the past to get hard facts and real experiences:
- Talk me through your workflow
- How do you solve X today?
- What’s the last problem you had with X?
Good questions for developers
One reason your company pays you to be a developer advocate is that you are uniquely qualified to get insights by talking to developers in the field. You cannot do this unless you know how to ask good questions.
Judge your success at events by the number of unique insights gathered, not only by the number of developers you talked to.
Here are some good questions that you can use to start practicing and learning. Adapt them to your product and the type of information you want to gather.
Understand their technology
- Walk me through your tech stack
- What’s the last tool you added to your stack?
- What’s the last tool your company bought?
- What do you spend the most time or money on?
- Walk me through how you do X today
- What’s the last problem you had with X?
- The last time that X broke, how did you fix it?
- How much time or money does your company spend dealing with X?
- What else have you tried beside X?
Line up your next conversation
- Who else knows about this?
- What else I should have asked?
3 practice tips
1: Never forget this rule of thumb from the book:
The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.
2: Write down the three rules of the Mom Test on the back of a business card and take it to every event. Review it right before the event starts.
3: Record the number of insights that you receive per event. Take notes and share them with the rest of the team as part of a retrospective.
Who else should read this post?
See what we did there? ;) If you did think of someone, please share it! 🤗
If you’re serious about improving your ability to ask questions, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the The Mom Test. It’s a quick read and goes into much more detail than I did about the philosophy, good vs. bad questions, and how to generate your own good questions to ask.
Thanks for reading!