Getting to “Aha!” in Product Validation, with Darshan Mehta

It’s not unusual for product makers to be terrified by the mere notion of product validation. Often over-invested emotionally and financially in the product, they’re afraid of what they might learn. And many lack confidence in their approach to conducting validation research.

But the learning will come one way or another, Darshan Mehta points out. And far better to get as many insights as possible early on, while there is time to make changes and the cost of doing so will never again be so low.

There is nothing worse than learning once a product is IN the market that it has fatal flaws—except for discovering equally far along that nobody wants to buy it!

Darshan Mehta is the founder of iResearch, and author of “Getting to Aha!: Why Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts.” In this episode, he explains the fascinating nature of insights, and how they can help validate product ideas and lead to meaningful discoveries for improvements. At iResearch, Darshan has created a unique resource for conducting cost-effective and insightful online focus groups via chat, anywhere in the world and in any language.

Whether you are considering traditional focus groups, surveys, or interviews with prospective users, you’ll find Darshan’s advice timely and helpful.

It might even fast-track the “Aha!” moment you really need.

Episode Highlights: 

• Why we do product research (01:00)
• How insights predict the future (03:50)
• The real-world masters of testing and iteration (04:45)
• Fatal research flaws of product giants (05:37)
• Focus groups come in various forms (07:55)
• When customers are never wrong (09:36)
• Listen now or learn later: take your pick (11:21)
• Finding the people who represent your market (13:40)
• Learning to recognize and tap into insights (15:45)
• Conducting research without focus groups (16:46)
• The downside of analytics (18:29)
• Using insights to fill important gaps (19:04)

Buy Getting to Aha!: Why Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts on Amazon
iResearch Website:
Graphos Product, The Product Marketing Agency website:

Episode transcript:

Laurier: Hey, product people! If you’d like to de-risk product creation, you don’t want to miss this episode.

Darshan Mehta is the founder and CEO of iResearch, an online insights platform that conducts chat-based focus groups all over the world, in any language. Darshan is an adjunct professor at universities in Thailand, Sweden, France, and the US. His work has brought him to more than 80 countries. He’s been recognized in Forbes, the Journal of Advertising Research and Entrepreneur. And now he’s also the author of “Getting to Aha! Today’s Insights Are Tomorrow’s Facts.” I’m delighted to have Darshan as today’s guest on the Product: Knowledge podcast. I started our conversation by asking Darshan how he became interested in running focus groups and how that led to iResearch.

Darshan: So basically we’re talking about research, and let me just take a step back. What is actually research? And it sounds very academic, but if you really think about it, what it really is, is structured curiosity. And there’s two ways to do it. One is quantitative, which are surveys.

And again, each one has unique benefits and drawbacks, and the benefit of quantitative and surveys, which most of us are familiar with, is you can extrapolate that to the population like you’re hearing polls, we took a national poll with plus or minus 5%, and we know with 5% confidence that, X number of people think and feel this.

With focus groups, it allows you to go deeper, to get at the “why.” So for example, a lot of times in surveys, you get a question, it’s an open-ended question. Most people don’t answer those, and those are qualitative. But when you have a discussion with someone, that’s, when you have the opportunity to do a deep dive.

To give you a simple example, you and I experience this when we go to let’s say a party or a cocktail party, and you meet people and you start having a conversation.

And before you know it, everyone’s engaged and getting into it. And you’re just doing a deeper dive. Because what you’re doing is as a result of that conversation, if it’s engaging, you’re all thinking about things that you hadn’t articulated. And it’s one of the ways to try to tap into people’s subconscious.

We start getting to what they think, what they feel, what are their pain points, what are their motivators? And when you think about decision-making, 95% of most decisions are made by your subconscious, because we’re amazing creatures as humans, where we can process a tremendous amount of visual audio and all this other sensory stuff that we’re just absorbing and doing.

And we have a database of it over the years and experience that, some of it seems intuitive, gut feeling or whatever, but we think we make decisions, logically. But most people are driven by their subconscious. And so that’s what we’re trying to do with focus groups is have a conversation, do a deep dive, make it engaging so that people can start articulating what they think and feel.

And the benefit of a focus group is that once you have people talking about a topic and you get a deeper, dive, you start peeling back and getting to these kernels of insights. And when I say like-minded people, you want to have a homogeneous population in the focus group, unlike a survey where you want, a random representative sample.

For example, if you were to do focus groups for politics, we wouldn’t mix, in the US, democrats, Republicans, Independents. We would keep them all separate.

Because we want to do a deeper dive with each of their thinking from their perspective in those different parties. And that’s what you’re trying to do, is you want to do a deeper dive into what people think and feel.

Laurier: Yes. And you want to talk to the people who are going to be buying and using the product. And that could be just a small sliver of the population. You mentioned the word “insights” already and in your book, “Getting to Aha,” you define what insights are.

To me, that’s really important. It’s something marketers talk about all the time, but few of us can say exactly what it means. And you write that insights are a combination of observations and facts, influenced by sociological and technological trends that make us say, “Aha!” How can insights help product makers not only see how customers are thinking today, but to somehow predict what they will need tomorrow?

Darshan: Customers won’t tell you the solution, but they will tell you the problem. And that’s where you tap into your expertise in your industry or product area. And you say, “now I understand this pain point and I also know how to solve it.” And that’s where you can have a leg up on your competition. But to go back to your question, what’s an insight, an insight is trying to get at a truth, and probably the best example I can give you that we’ve all experienced, and I think people that are great at insights comedians. When you see a really good smart comedian and they take something from over here, over there, put it together and articulate in a way that makes you say, ” I never thought of that, but that’s so true,” that’s an insight.

Laurier: Comedians are also really good at testing. You know, they’re testing their ideas constantly and seeing what works, what works in different places, what falls flat and, even great comedians have stuff they say that just doesn’t get the outcome that they expected. So then they adjust on whatever level it takes to do better the next time.

So comedians are a perfect study for product marketers.

Darshan: Yeah. If you think about it, they’re doing A/B testing. They’re doing iterations, they’re doing pivots and stuff based on the audience. And it could be the same joke, told a different way with different timing, to different audiences. And that’s something, they develop a skill and an actual over time, but absolutely they’re constantly testing.

But the real smart ones, like the ones that truly get into an insight, that’s when it takes a little bit of time for you to say, “I never thought of that, but that’s really true,” that is an insight.

Laurier: It’s a word that we use all the time, but in understanding where they come from and how we put them together, that’s kind of the complicated part of it. It takes a certain amount of practice and a certain level of thinking and an openness, to be able to see insights.

And that’s where, you know, people like Steve jobs are known for having these insights of being able to predict what people are going to want before they know they want it. Whereas, very often big companies can fail thinking they’re doing enough research and doing the right research.

I think of Coca-Cola with new Coke, for example, tons and tons of research, but they weren’t measuring the right thing. They weren’t measuring loyalty and they weren’t measuring scarcity. How can a focus group tell us what customers want and don’t want when even Coca-Cola and Google, sometimes don’t know. Coke with new Coke and Google with Google Glass, these massive flops, because they have blind spots that they don’t see.

Darshan: I’m not sure that’s a result of focus groups, to be honest with you, like in the example of Coke. They did a tremendous amount of testing when they launched new Coke. They did a lot of surveys. They did a lot of qualitative, but they forgot to ask one key question. And that is, how would you feel if we took away your old Coke that you grew up with?

Laurier: They were just trying to come up with something people liked better than Pepsi. They’ve forgot about loyalty. They forgot about scarcity and, you know, totally ignored some really important concepts when it comes to changing behaviors.

Darshan: If you’re driving a car and you don’t see the car in your blind spot, is that the fault of the car? You know what I’m saying? So there are blind spots that can happen. That’s just what happened for Coke. They just had not thought of that as an option because they’re so focused on, getting a better formula that was going to be more successful than their competitor.

Laurier: And to answer my own question about Google glass, I feel is very much the same thing as Google was interested in a technology, in something to find out if they could do it, could it be useful, but they weren’t. They weren’t thinking about the psychology in the room when someone is wearing a camera on their glasses, and nobody wanted to be that creepy guy in the room with a camera running on his glasses.

And so people didn’t to pay the dollars to buy the product.

Darshan: Yeah, there’s a little bit of art to doing focus groups, right? Because you really have to want to listen. And sometimes when you’re doing research, especially for a company, you’ve got to really be careful you’re not trying to sell and just listen for what it is. You’re leaning towards, you know what I’m saying?

So you really have to play devil’s advocate and go in there with the approach that you’re not the expert, even though you may be, because it doesn’t really matter the level of expertise you have. What really matters is the perceptions that your customers are having, even going back to, you mentioned Steve jobs.

A lot of times he’s associated with a quote that he’s never done a focus group, but Apple does a tremendous amount of research. And I think he actually did his own kind of focus group by talking to people, for example. I think going back to we’re talking about, when he came out with the iPod. He was a music fan and he was frustrated with the experience with MP3 players, and the iPod was not the first MP3 player by far in the marketplace.

You remember, we had the Sony Walkmans all these different things, but he knew what was frustrating because he felt it, but he also saw other people is when you were traveling. How many CDs can you take with you? How many cassettes can you take with you? He’s but he was in a position where he knew the industry was evolving, where the price of hard drives was coming down. They were becoming smaller.

And so he said, you know what? I think I can develop a product where basically I can give you a thousand songs in your pocket. And that was genius, right? Because he not only came up with a product, but he did it at a level where It was an instant emotional connection and understanding: “Are you kidding me? I can take a thousand songs in my pocket?” And that’s what is the value of really having an insight. You see a problem; you see a pain point. And if you think about it, people are willing to pay for something that’s either cost less, saves time or is easier. If you can do one of those things, your chances of being successful are pretty good.

If you can do to let’s say two X and you can do three, three X, but then if you throw that other additional fourth component of triggering an emotion, you could be talking six X, 12 X, I don’t know, because it depends on the emotion. What happens when you evoke an emotion, what’s the first thing you’re likely to do?

You’re going to want to share it. Like I just had this amazing experience and I got to tell my friends and family.

Laurier: Yeah, absolutely. You said something I thought was really important there because, um, you said a few things that are important, but we were talking about doing focus groups for validation, but what you’re also talking about is those insights and the role they play in positioning the product, meaning how you’re going to set up the product so ideal customers know the real value it’s going to bring, not just what it’s going to do, not the specs, but understanding that the thousand songs in their pocket is what they’re going to value. That’s what’s going to go and make them buy in droves.

Darshan: Customers are never wrong about knowing their pain points. They know the things that frustrate them. They may not know the solution, but that’s where you come in. And if you think about it, if you look around our world that we take in now at some point, most of these things were an insight from someone.

Just think about it. It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have smartphones like we do now, but that came out of an insight from iPods to phone. And then basically, from adding a fly wheel to make it much more touch-based, as opposed to the traditional keyboard. Those were all insights to do what, make it easier, make it faster and create a wow experience.

Laurier: Welcome back to Product: Knowledge, the podcast about creating and marketing products that people truly need. I’m Laurier Mandin. Today I’m talking with Darshan Mehta, author of “Getting to Aha!” And founder of iResearch.

For people out there who are looking at developing a product and bringing something to market, when is the ideal time that they should run a focus group, in the product development cycle, to get the information they need? Should they run multiple focus groups at different times from maybe at concept?

And then later on, when they’re trying to understand the key benefits of the product, what is really demanded by the market? What do you recommend to someone who’s thinking about how to work this into their cycle.

Darshan: Sure. Let me answer that in two components. One, if you think about it, whether you do focus or not in today’s environment it’s always been the case even more so now. You’re going to get feedback from people one way or another. So your choice is, do you want to listen sooner or later?

And what I mean by that, do you want to listen later, after you spent a lot of money and time and launch it and then hear from the customers like, “Hey, I have no interest in paying for this,” or do you want to actually run it up the flagpole, get some feedback and see if people are reacting to it. Not only that, that allows you to pivot early on.

And so you’re going to get feedback one way or another, your choice is do you want to do it sooner or later? And I think one of the reasons people have not done focus groups is because they traditionally have been a bit expensive, but they’ve also been a little bit more complicated than just surveys.

We’ve all taken surveys, we’re familiar with them. And even now you get a lot of surveys. Now that doesn’t mean they’re good, people feel they’ve done them. They can take them, but focus groups are a little bit different than people haven’t experienced them or done them. I’m trying to change that with a platform that allows you to do focus groups anytime anywhere and at a considerably lower cost, because I think if we were all to do more focus groups, you’d be able to tap into these insights. And do have conversations at scale. And as you said, in my book, I really believe today’s insights are tomorrow’s facts. What I mean by that, I think there’s insights all around us, but you really have to have those conversations to do those deep dives, to tap into those insights.

And the great thing about insights is when you have them, it is really an amazing differentiator, a way to innovate and a way to really have a competitive edge among your competitors.

Laurier: it’s really easy to justify with the cost, as you said, of doing a traditional in-person focus group. and what innovators often say about focus groups, being not a good way of knowing is a good idea and what isn’t, but at iResearch you’ve got some things going on that can democratize that and make it more feasible for one thing, I think you say running a focus group with high can be done for about the cost of taking someone for a nice lunch. And to me, that is worlds away from cost of running real in-person focus groups with recruiting people and bringing them together. Especially if you want to sell to people in different regions and get cross-sections of these people in different places.

I’m curious about how you manage to assemble these focus groups all over the world, and somehow find the appropriate people speaking the right language and who can answer questions that are useful. Can you tell us a little bit about how you do that?

Darshan: Sure. There’s a variety of ways to recruit. When we first started on, it was a little bit more challenged, but nowadays with social media and everything, but there’s several ways. One, they’re actually sampling companies where you’re going to call them, say, I want these demographics, this geographic.

And so on and so forth. And then what you do traditionally as a screening survey, because you probably want to get into certain attributes that you may not have otherwise. Interest demographics, for example, the propensity of them to buy a product or not. What was the last time they bought a product in a category. You can actually drill down by doing an initial screening survey, and then you invite people to the group. Typically, we would invite 15 confirmed people with the expectation that eight to 12 will actually show up. And one of the ways you want to make sure they show up as you incentivize them.

There’s some costs that don’t change, whether it’s in-person or online. So the costs that don’t change are incentives, recruiting, and let’s say screening. But the costs that do change are eliminated. There’s no travel. There’s no transcription costs; there’s no video. There’s no food costs.

The facility cost is much lower, so you’re talking a substantial savings from a third to a half. And I think what could eventually happen is that people could even do more micro-groups, with an online scenario. And of course, now with COVID, the ball game has really changed because it’s become even more difficult to try to get people to get together in a confined room around a table.

Laurier: Yeah, it’s also made people more open to doing things remotely and more accepting of the fact that things can be done well without having everybody getting together face-to-face in a room.

Darshan: With iResearch, I, traditionally started doing these groups for clients and I developed this platform to use internally, but then I realized that I can actually convert to this platform so that others can do it on their own. So that’s why I’m converting to basically a SaaS model so that it’s software as a service.

You can log on, subscribe and start using it. And then we’re also going to offer training on how to become a moderator as well as how to do focus groups properly. I just really feel if people were to learn this and to do it and start seeing the benefits from it. I think they too will come to the kind of conclusion I have by doing this over years, that today’s insights really hard tomorrow’s facts.

What I’ve learned is that once you start tapping into insights, you get the sense, like you have a a plug into the jet stream of society and you really have a sense of the ebbs and flows, and that’s when you in a way start feeling you can foresee what’s coming because you have a better sense of what people’s pain points are and what things could be solving those pain points.

Laurier: I strongly believe that innovators, that product makers need to have a product validation mindset. They need to get these insights and failing to do so is taking, you know, as you said, it’s. The research and the insights that you’re going to find out anyway and learning them the hard way, and also risking not making as good a product as you can make, because those insights are what help you to understand what it is the market wants.

What does someone do if I’m an innovator and I’ve got a product idea, how do I get started? And what do I need to know in order to set up a focus group with iResearch and to be able to. run a focus group, that’s going to get me answers and the insights I need if I’ve never done it before,

and I don’t have the experience in creating a focus group in the first place.

Darshan: You don’t even have to do focus groups, to be honest with you. You just go out and start having conversations with your target markets and your customer. For example, when Airbnb. They were in California and they were told they weren’t successful in many markets, but they were seeing some traction in New York. And they were told, just go to New York and talk to your customers.

So they went to New York, and they started going to people’s homes, sitting around their, breakfast table, dining room table, and just talking to them. And what they quickly found out is that a lot of these people didn’t know how to take good pictures of their properties. And if you think of that makes sense, right?

These people weren’t marketers. They never done this before. And so they actually hired someone to take better pictures. And within a week they started doubling their sales. And it can be as simple as start going out, having conversations with your target market customers. And that’s basically qualitative, but I think at some point, if we can get to a little bit more formal and do it at scale and start doing focus groups, then you’re going to get even more feedback and you can use the focus groups to get to product-market fit.

You can use them to do message testing, to, do UI UX. And, there’s a variety of things you can do. And I’m not saying do those surveys either. I’m saying, if you can do focus groups first, you will then end up being able to develop better surveys. Cause your questions will be more relevant and your answer choices will even be much better for whatever they need to quantify?

Laurier: I absolutely know that from having put together many surveys, very often, you feel like you’re stabbing in the dark and in order to make surveys effective, you have to really narrow them. You have to know what you don’t know in an, in essence to create a really good strong survey so I can understand how talking to people in the first place, getting those insights to build the survey can help you not only to get the insights in the first place, but also to more effectively seek and get that important data that you need further down.

Darshan: Now we live in a world of analytics where we can basically get analytics on all kinds of clicks and traffic and everything. And that’s fantastic. But there’s only one drawback. That tells you what people have done, but it still doesn’t tell you what’s driving it, what’s behind it.

And so even though we have all this big data, it is helpful to get the context of what’s actually driving this behavior.

Laurier: Yes, you need to know not only what’s working for you now, but where you’re missing. As you said with analytics, you can look at web analytics and see which of your keywords people are using to get to your website. But you don’t know which keywords you’re not using that would get you more people. So it only helps to show you how you’ve succeeded or failed to the point that you have.

As I think you’re saying, insights are filling in those gaps and helping you to understand what it is between the data you have and what will get you to where you need to go. And what’s coming next.

Darshan: It’s amazing. Sometimes when you have something you’ve worked on, it’s your baby and you’re pursuing it. But sometimes, you find out if you just have some conversations with your customers, they’re coming from a completely different angle and you say, “Know what? I never thought of that, but hey, that works for me. I can make that work too.” It absolutely is beneficial to have these conversations earlier than later.

Laurier: That’s it for this episode of Product: Knowledge and my conversation with Darshan Mehta, author of “Getting To Aha” and founder of iResearch. Find out more about Darshan and his work at and buy the book on Amazon. You’ll find links in the show notes.

Be sure to also visit, where you’ll find all the podcast episodes with transcripts and get insights from our blog. Reach out to us on Twitter @GraphosProduct, or email us through the form at Thanks for listening. I’m Laurier Mandin.