The Lean Launchpad philosophy is predicated on an iterative process of customer development and validation. In Four Steps to the Epiphany, author and e245 teaching team member Steve Blank fervently evangelizes this process of field learning, discovery and pattern detection.

The Voci.us Team experienced its first mini-epiphany this week during a second round of customer interviews on one of the web’s most contentious issues — online anonymity.

Avid online news consumers alternatively described comment forums as “the Vietnam War of the Internet” and “the lint traps of society” during our initial product interviews. Despite their strong opinions, everyone surveyed was interested in discussing current events but wanted better systems to reduce the vitriol and vacuousness that often overtake the forums.

Potential methods for solving that user need varied among the project team so we resumed our customer interviews to determine the best way forward:

•  Is requiring verified real names upon registration a deal breaker for participation in online forums?

• Would linking/cross-posting forum responses to users’ social networks increase/decrease the likelihood of participating in a productive way?

• Do reputation/status points/ratings matter for steering attention toward smart, trusted users and away from people who are not adding productive commentary to the news thread?

• Under what circumstances would a user want/need to posting anonymously?

• Would a user pay for access to an intelligent online conversation about current events?

Based on these new insights, we’ve confirmed/rejected some our initial hypotheses and explored alternative value propositions important to our resegmented market.

To that end, our Minimally Viable Product is a commenting system that integrates users’ social graphs with a basic persuasion framework to address positive/negative behaviors that impact user experience. Future features identified as important to some of our early adopter subset group could include: AI-driven topic and social networking recommendations, limited instances for trusted users to post anonymously through a reputation reward/cost system, and fee-for-service power user accounts.

So a tip of the hat to Steve, Ann Miura-Ko and Jon Feiber for insisting that projects teams “get out of the building” and talk to customers. We avoided unsupported hypotheses that could have derailed the superlative user experience we’re creating as our market differentiator.

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