In the 80s and 90s, I spent a lot of time in computer stores.
Back then, the only way to buy software was to visit a store. Once there, you'd go to the software section, and see shelves and shelves of boxes.
Often, you drove to the store with a purpose. You might have been looking for a specific title you read about in a computer magazine. Or, you might have a specific job that needed doing:
We don't drive to the store to buy software anymore, but what triggers a purchase is still the same. Our desires drive our behaviour.
If I was a software entrepreneur in the 80s or 90s, I would spend most of my time hanging out in those computer stores, just listening to people:
Ultimately, people buy software because they want to make their lives better in some way. Whatever they've tried in the past hasn't worked.
And that's our opportunity.
Our opportunity is to spot the gap between "where people are" and "where they want to be."
You can train yourself to listen for the mental triggers that cause people to act. They sound like this:
Remember: it's not enough to notice people complaining. If you're looking for good business opportunities, you want some evidence that people are also taking action. There should be evidence that they're trying to solve the problem in some way already.
Keep your ears open! Customers will let out these "inner thoughts" almost accidentally. It might be on a support call, in an email, in a forum, on Twitter, or during a customer interview.
It could also be in real life: at a conference, a meetup, or in a coffee shop.
Wherever you encounter human beings, be attentive. Write down the notable things you hear. Keep listening, and see if other people are complaining about the same things.
You're looking for a pattern. When you see evidence that people are complaining and taking action, that might be a good opportunity to pursue.
“Make people better at something they want to be better at.” ― Kathy Sierra
It takes practice, but once you learn to identify these undercurrents, you'll be on your way to creating products that people will drive to the store to buy.
This post was originally published Nov 9, 2012. It's been updated since then.