You Should Always Be Making
You’ve identified the level of risk you can take, and established the value of the problem you’re seeking to solve for your target audience. At this point, I still meet people who look at the entrepreneurship process as having an idea, formulating a plan around that idea, getting funding, then making the thing. This behavior happens not only in product and service design, but in nonprofit and global development work.*
Rapid prototyping and learning from those prototypes through intelligent iteration is the new norm. When people say the word "iteration," it's a marriage of both crafting versions of a product and reacting to what you learn from customers using that product. You should always be making rough versions of your solutions. These are ways to embody and test your assumptions and hypotheses around what customers might value. You can’t receive feedback about what customers value unless you make things and get them into their hands.
This is the native impulse of many product designers. We have to make the things to understand them, argue about them, gauge their value. This is even for business ideas that may seem a bit intangible and contingent on technology for their execution. If you want to simulate how people would interact with a voice-command concierge like Siri, you could start with a scripted dialogue with people on the street rather than immediately building a front-end solution. If you want to create a website that provides the best chocolate bars available, use a paper order form and circulate it with your friends, seeing what content and prompting encourages them to part with their hard-earned cash. Test the value of the service or product in small chunks, touchpoint by touchpoint, and see based on their feedback what the shape of the system is going to resemble.
Know What the Things You Make Represent
I recently had a project where our client was interested in creating a new business extension that could improve how we manage our money through smartphones. They had a lot of awesome capabilities to make this happen, but no explicit focus on what behaviors to target with people. So we spent time with the right people, meaning households where they were struggling to adopt strong financial behaviors, such as paying off their credit card balances on a monthly basis, saving money regularly, and all the other “good habits.”
At the end of these interviews, as we heard from them and observed different "duh," problems, we tested different hypotheses around what would best help them manage their money. We put provisional, sketched versions of dozens of solutions in front of them. We let them prioritize those different solutions, to see which would be more or less beneficial to them. Then we asked them, “Why is this solution are more valuable than the others you've seen?" You want people to say, “Oh, I wish that I had this, but it would be more like [a new solution they've drawn out] to explain what they need, because of [a situation or problem they hadn’t thought of until this stimulus was in their hands.]”
The Best Solutions You’ll Have to Tear Out of People’s Hands
In participatory design situations like the above, I gather feedback from people regarding potential solutions. Is it this exact solution, or are there other ways we can help them with similar issue? I then ask them whether out of everything they’ve seen in the stimulus, what one thing would they want to have fully working and in their hands when they walk out the door.
This is what’s known as forced prioritization. Sometimes the people we’re meeting with gravitate towards one or two ideas, and talk halfheartedly about how it might be useful for them. But you know you’re cooking with hot sauce when they say, “I wish I had this solution right now. I would start using it immediately.” Then they tell you how, in specific situations. This is a great starting point in which to gauge value, just as much as the fit or quality of a product solution as you’ve designed it.
But as a designer, I'm also trying to understand how to create the most compelling, well-crafted solution. I try to get a range of solutions into people’s hands, whether we are talking about ideas sketched out on paper, screen-linked prototypes on a phone, or functional prototypes of a product solution. You want people to desire what you make. Not just like it, not just want to use it. You want to tear the best solutions out of their hands, because they want it now.
This is how we know when the prototypes we’d made for our clients were resonating with each person she showed it to. They could see how they could use it in their lives, and wanted to start using it right away.
*In a recent workshop I went to with Zaid Hassan from Reos Partners, he referred to this as Design, Implement, Evaluate (DIE).