I am about to build a proof-of-concept website, and I intend to build on it using "Lean Startup" principles. I have friends and acquaintances lined up to try it out, and I will solicit their feedback.
The intended users are hikers and mountain bikers. My friends happen to be in this group. Obviously it would be nice to get feedback from users I don't know, but I have to start somewhere. So I'm looking for tips on how to ask questions so users won't worry about hurting my feelings.
How can I make sure I get honest feedback from users (rather than having them sugar-coat their opinions)?
If you're testing the proof of concept, it means you don't have your problem validated yet. This means that you can get more useful feedback with relatively less effort than if you were testing the solution.
When you're validating the problem, your goal is to make sure that your understanding of it matches your users'/customers' perception of it. This is accomplishable with open-ended questions, such as "How do you do that?" and "Why do you do that?". In the case of a proof of concept website, your goal is to create a marketing copy (text) that empathizes with your target audience with the help of their language (i.e. the terms they use to describe the problem) and then drives them to take an action (e.g. sign up for updates). In no way should you mention the features of your solution at this point as it will nullify the test. (This approach will help you in the long term as it will teach you to think in terms of problem-solution-benefits instead of product features.)
Here're a couple of articles on customer development interview goals, which can be adapted easily for website-based testing:
What's worked best for me is to be honest with them, the same way you want them to be honest with you.
Tell them upfront you are looking for honest, constructive feedback. Tell them not to worry about hurting your feelings, and not to hold anything back. Tell them that the only way you are going to be successful is if you build something useful that people want to use, and the only way that will happen is if they are truthful with you.
I know that sounds simple, but it's been the most effective tactic for me when asking my friends for feedback. You can't ever be sure that they are being 100% honest with you, and they may not be, but as long as you get 75%-90% of their honest thoughts you are in a good position to move forward and expand to people outside of your network.
I think you should care more about what they do then what they say.
User feedback is good, but usually users don't get the big picture, they'll say and ask what they need and what they think is right for them.
Having your friends testing it is ok, but the people who you really want to test your product are your potential users.
Your friends will say nice stuff anyway, it won't be honest because they don't want to hurt your feelings, but those who need to pay you - they will be honest and sometimes hurtful :)