Validating the Product

There's only one way to make sure your product will solve the problem you're focusing on: to get your hands dirty and build a prototype.

It doesn't matter if you don't have much technical experience--you don't need an engineer to build a great prototype. Instead of choosing expensive and time-consuming prototyping techniques, you should aim to keep things lean.

Once you've built the prototype, you'll begin to run tests with users to gather feedback and learn as much from them as possible. Before you build the 'real' product, you want to be extremely confident that your prototype is solving the right problem.

Step 1: Build a prototype

Our goal is to build and test your prototype as fast as possible. By shortening the feedback loop between building and testing, we can iterate far faster. This is crucial for learning as much as possible in the shortest time.

A prototype doesn't need to be complex. Even if your ultimate goal is to build a fancy website or app, you don't actually need to write any code to validate your idea.

When you're prototyping, get creative! Try to identify exactly what the core of your product is, and think of ways to test whether it works in the simplest possible way.

Let's imagine your product idea is for a new kind of hardware and software device to help visually impaired users navigate their homes. Geolocation and proximity sensors would identify the user's location and a vibrating belt would tell them the direction they need to move in. Building a 'real' version of this product would be very expensive and time-consuming.

But there's a simpler way. You can plan and prototype your idea in 30 minutes, without actually needing visually impaired users to test with too. During a prototyping exercise, we experimented with a very simple 'prototype' of this product: we blindfolded one of our team members and faked the product by tapping on his waist to simulate the vibrations of the belt. It's an incredibly simple setup that lets you carry out basic initial tests of a product idea and get immediate feedback.

Prototype hacking with blindfolds

In another prototyping experiment, we were looking for ways to help increase awareness of the needs of refugees arriving in Berlin. We had several different ideas for how an app could help achieve this, but had to face a challenging language barrier and very limited time. A hacked together cardboard prototype was a much smarter way to tackle the problem and get rapid feedback.

So, we built a very rough and simplified prototype of the app and took it to the streets to gather feedback as fast as possible. As you can see, this is a million miles away from what a final product might look like, but it was the right tool for the job at this point of the process.

Another example, this time from a real company. Mike Matousek, who founded Flashnotes.com, a study guide and crib notes marketplace, validated his initial product idea using a simple 'offline' method:

"The idea for Flashnotes.com was sparked when I was a junior at Kent State University. I started creating these detailed study guides for our exams and sold my final exam guides for $10 a piece. Not only did they sell, I was literally hunted down on campus by more and more of my classmates -- easily making over $1,000. After this initial interest, I knew I was onto something and had my friends test out the idea of selling study material in their own classes."

If you’re not entirely familiar with prototyping and want to learn more before jumping in, check out these resources:

Step 2: Test your prototype(s) with users

Building a prototype and deciding you like it doesn't mean it's validated! Gathering feedback from users is the next critical step.

This can be intimidating, especially if you've not done it before. Figuring out where to find users and how to run tests with them forces you to go 'public' with your product idea and thinking. That's much harder than working away at your desk on a hypothetical idea.

But it doesn't need to be this way. Once you've run your first couple of tests you'll start to see how the testing process is not just a source of valuable insight, but is actually a lot of fun.

Ninja user testing methods

If you can find people around you to be your test subjects, this is a great starting point. Our visual impairment device and Flashnotes.com are two good examples of creative real-world testing.

Ideally, you'll look for users who are in your target audience--people who really are visually impaired. But at the very earliest stages of testing, you can also get useful feedback just by grabbing people around you and running simple tests. The UX purist might argue that these users might lead you in the wrong direction, but done carefully, this can be a very good way to ease into user testing.

Once you learn more from these ninja tests and potentially iterate your product, taking into account the feedback you gather, you can move on to more structured tests with your target audience.

Remote user tests

Even if you can't find the perfect users to test with from your local community, there are many great ways to test with users remotely.

As a remote design team ourselves, we test remotely very often and with great success. Here are a few of the best tools to help you run remote tests:

  • testingtime.com: Helps you to find Skype users for remote testing. It's a little more time-consuming than some of the more automatic alternatives, but the opportunity to sit down with your test user and talk to them directly can be very valuable, especially at the early stages of the process.
  • usertesting.com: This is the automated, 'unmoderated' alternative to interviewing users. You set up a test and define your requirements, then receive screen and voice recordings from users attempting to follow the instructions you've set. This technique isn't ideal if you're at the beginning stage of your product--it works better when you have higher-fidelity prototypes or a real product to test with.
  • A small plug for our own tool, PingPong. Currently in beta, this is another tool for scheduling Skype interviews with remote users. We'll mention PingPong again in the next chapter as we've validated the product using the steps in this Playbook too!
  • We've also found usabilityhub.com to be a useful tool in certain circumstances. It's a quick and fairly cheap way to get prototype insights and reactions from a number of users.

The goal of product validation, whether remote or in person, is to make sure that your product is solving the right problem in the most effective way. It's highly unlikely that you'll manage to do this perfectly the first time around--but that's perfectly fine! Iterations, tweaks and pivots are a natural part of the product validation process and are one of the reasons that prototyping is such a valuable technique.

Once you start gathering strong positive feedback from your target users when testing your prototype, it's time to move onto the final stage of the Lean Validation Process.

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