Product discovery for vulnerable populations: Part 1, scheduling

02 April, 2023 5 minutes read

Over the past year, our product team at Sonara got to a state where we have a stable and sustainable product discovery process. We've been talking to 1-2 customers every week, building a product in the highly stigmatized and complex world of opioid use disorder (OUD).

As anyone who works in a company trying to better the lives of vulnerable, stigmatized people in a healthcare setting, product discovery is a challenge across the entire interview cycle: Getting interviews on the board, making people show up to said interviews and managing the conversation to get the best stories. I want to use this entry to discuss some of the unique properties of creating a product discovery process in a complex environment, and ways the team and myself worked through them.

In this post, I'm discussing the process of scheduling an interview and will discuss the other components (show-rates, the interview itself) in a future writeup.

taking the path of inconvenience

One common stigma we had to break early on is assuming the cohort of people we work with is homogenous (read: Not all people who live with opioid use disorder has a similar story).

It's very tempting to hop on to Reddit or use a user interview service, talk to some people and make generalizations based on what you hear on the larger population. What we found out is that going that route reveals only part of a pie: Functional, tech-savvy, people with access to technology, expressive and opinionated.

From a business standpoint, we are building a product that aspires to improve the lives of people in treatment for OUD wherever they are in their treatment journey. While talking to a small-yet-engeged portion of our target demographic is a great start, it encouraged us to build an equity-first product discovery process where we're looking to understand a context of a story from multiple angles: The person who is new to treatment, the person who may not be stable yet, the person who is in treatment for several years and 'been there, done that'.

Below are a few learnings we discovered we uncovered while scheduling interviews with people over the past year.

A sketch showing product interview scheduling in a humoristic way

emails are a flaky way of scheduling

how awesome would it be to write a bunch of emails inviting people from a vulnerable population to an interview and have them respond? Probably 1 in 30 awesome (not including the show-rate, this is putting an interview on the board). We got very few email responses regardless of copy, headline, compensation and promises of a wonderful time. The majority of people did not check their emails (I got to see a "inbox is full" for the first time since email has a 2MB capacity), some people don't have an email address, some people have an email address but won't give it to you or their provider.

What did help is meeting people where they are, while coordinating with their care team and giving them a heads up: Reaching out to them in-person at a treatment center, or send them a text after their counselor gave them a heads up.

privacy is super important

For patients in a vulnerable population that live in a highly stigmatized ecosystem, privacy and the sense of privacy is incredibly important - especially when engaging with technology. So when interacting with patients, we always work under the assumption that no one should know about their situation but them, and if by any chance someone else will get access to their mobile device, they won't be able to understand that they are interacting with a company that's helping OUD patients. Luckily, there is another company in the market also named Sonara (, we are Sonara Health) so in the off-chance a message is compromised, someone can always claim they are applying for a job. Thank you!

Privacy makes the choice of words for the text very important: When we communicate with a patient we make sure we identify ourselves ("this is Omer from Sonara") and also including open, choice-giving words: For example, the word "invite" works because invitations put the control at the hands of the invitee - invitations can be politely declined, we won't be offended, this doesn't play by the rules of appointment scheduling and is not mandatory. The word "interview" has some real-life connotations like a job interview, where there is a power dynamic between the interviewer and an interviewee. Inviting people to a conversation, allowing them to tell their stories and compensating them for their time may sound more attractive.

physical compensation cards sometime work better, compensate in a way that values a person's time

In the vein of doing things the hard way, physical gift cards has added value for some people because they can sell or trade them, whereas a digital gift card isn't worth all that much. Also, digital gift cards are less effective if the person doesn't have access to an email address.

We've experimented a lot (and still) around interview compensation and the heuristic we landed on is:

  1. Understand what works best for the person, while still being scalable
  2. Compensate in a way that respects a person's time investment

Every now and then we have a person genuinely surprised when we say that we value their time. we treat our time investment in interviews the same way we treat meetings at work: We're making an ask of someone's time, which is a scarce resource, to make our product better - so we should compensate them appropriately.


Like a lot of the best product discovery practices, it boils down to empathy - If you considered the best medium for your invite to be sent, a compensation that is mindful of a person's time, and the experience of the person when they get the interview invite, you sent a pretty good invite.

Up next - making people show up after they accepted an invitation.