The Airplane Test: A Trick to Force Yourself to Truly Understand Your Customer

I lived and worked in San Francisco for 10 years, basking in the culture of innovation and new ideas. While this environment has produced many great products and solved many challenging problems, it also produced many horrible products, or even worse, many irrelevant ones. What I began to realize, usually during trips back to my hometown in New England, is just how many startups and product managers fall into the trap of building products targeted for San Francisco millennials.

Creating an irrelevant product is The, with a capital T, biggest sin in product management. And yet here, in the innovation capital of the world, I noticed it all around me. I even noticed it within the way I attacked product problems! One day while flying back to the east coast I came up with a mechanism to force myself to get out of my own biased, egotistical head and into the minds of my customer. 

I called it The Airplane Test.

The tech culture in San Francisco has developed into a relatively monochromatic scene: liberal twenty to thirty-somethings, mostly white, single, transplant, college educated, career-driven, and wealthy. This homogenous environment seeps into the unconscious, making anyone living in this city truly a ‘product of their environment’.  It only takes a trip to anywhere else in America to show you just how insulating San Francisco can be.

As a founder or product manager, one of the most important aspects of your job is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes and understand the world from their perspective.  Making the assumption that the San Francisco perspective exists in large populations across the country (or globe) is just flat out wrong. It is way wrong. The rest of the country and the world are very very different. 

The airplane test forces you to see, and more importantly, internalize the differences. It works like this.

Next time you board an airplane and are walking down the aisle to your seat, look at each and every person you pass and ask yourself, “Would they use my product?” 

You’ll notice men and women of different ages, people with different backgrounds and races, a woman with a neck brace, parents with children, and people with varying income levels. 

When you get to your seat, write down the characteristics of each person you passed and if they would use your product. Close your eyes and really visualize them using it. For those people you think would use your product, write down how and when they would use your product. Describe the scene in which they are using it. You’re not going to know a lot of these answers so make some guesses, be detailed. The purpose of this exercise is not to come up with the right answers, but rather to force your mind into internalizing your potential customers and their lives. 

When doing this with my teams, some people say, “Aren’t you just making assumptions based on people looks?” For the purpose of the exercise, yes. But that is missing the point.  The purpose of the airplane test is to understand and empathize with the differences between individuals and ultimately how your product fits into the narrative of their life.  

Here are the outcomes you can expect with The Airplane Test:

  • It forces you to define your product/market fit in greater detail. Nuances are important!
  • You’ll quickly realize who ISN’T your target audience, which is just as important to define as who IS your target audience
  • You’ll be forced to address social and emotional characteristics in people’s lives which are just as important as functional ones
  • It highlights that the word ‘user’ is a far too general term
  • It brings reality to all the KPIs and metrics you look at on your computer
Airplane cabin and seats with TVs

The Airplane Test isn’t finished when you get off the plane. This exercise should be the beginning of a dialog you need to have about the minute details of your customers’ lives. In fact, you should have more questions than answers at this point. This will be a starting point to go get real findings from real customers which drive you toward product and marketing insights.  It is these unexpected findings that lead to innovation and truly great products.

Case Study: Moosiko

I used The Airplane Test for a guitar learning software company called Moosiko. I was on a 12-hour flight to New Zealand which gave me extra time to walk and rewalk the aisles. Here are some of my main takeaways and questions I gathered:

  • When do people practice guitar? Weekday nights? Weekend days? When they have free time…when is that?
  • Who is around when they practice? Could be solo, their spouses, or their children (later when asking a user about this I learned their children like to hang around and pluck the strings while they practiced)
  • Fighting for people’s time is a big challenge. How can we make playing the guitar more enjoyable than watching Netflix or scrolling Instagram? 
  • How can we help people learn guitar even when they are not in front of a guitar…like on an airplane?

These questions have since lead me to some phenomenal insights around customer feelings, social implications, and functionality that I would have never been able to develop had I not forced myself into their shoes with The Airplane Test. 

Meet the Author

Dan Mascola

Dan Mascola is a customer-first leader who sits at the intersection of product and marketing to drive innovation and growth. He has 10 years of experience building product and marketing teams, launching software & hardware products, and developing killer marketing programs. His superpower is an ability to understand long term strategy/vision while getting in the weeds and delivering results. His personal philosophy of “using technology to get away from technology” keeps him interested in businesses that have a real-world, physical impact.

Product Mindset book

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