As a software development instructor, I come into contact with a lot of people that are keen to learn programming with the admirable intention of building their own product or service. While I wholeheartedly encourage this, I often find that people are ready to begin building, without having spent much time on a relatively simple, yet fundamental, step. That step being a round of validation of the underlying idea.
To put it mildly, this is madness.
You’re essentially considering investing a significant amount of time, money, and effort on something you don’t even know that people (really) want. It’s like building a house without first knowing that the underlying foundation is strong enough to hold the proposed structure’s weight.
If you build it, they ‘might’ come…
In this article we explore the importance of idea validation. We’ll look at the types of questions you should be asking the prospective users of your product or service, the tools and techniques to make the process incredibly simple (and even fun), and ultimately what you should be aiming for before a single line of code is written. An impossible goal (although one still worth striving for).
Let’s start with the goal of the validation exercise itself.
It’s quite simple: “You should aim to know that people will pay you1 (directly or indirectly) for the product or service that you are intending to build.” This is obviously a paradox. How can you really know that someone will pay you for your product or service until it actually exists and they subsequently open their wallets? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. You can, however, still strive for it, and even if you only reach a handful of verbal commitments (or a number of “Letters of Intent” if you’re building a B2B-based product) this will be infinitely better than just going with your gut.
Just to stress, even if you have what you perceive as niche domain expertise or “unique” insights into a particular market, the goal still applies. In fact, the only exception is if you happen to be Elon Musk.
But won’t someone steal my idea?
The worry that someone will steal your idea if it’s circulated beyond just your best friend (or mum) is almost always completely unfounded. If it’s a concern, you can perhaps alleviate it by considering the following: the risk that someone will steal your idea is significantly less than value gained from validating it with said people.
Ultimately, ideas are cheap and everyone has them so don’t be afraid to tell people yours. Also, while your “precious snowflake” (as Charlie O’Donnell at Brooklyn Bridge Ventures once eloquently put it) seems like the next big thing to you, everyone you ask is going to be focused on their own personal ideas and passions.
Validate, Validate, Validate
So now that you’re, hopefully, convinced of the value of validation, let’s turn our attention to how to actually do it effectively.
The Granddaddy of the validation world is arguably Alexander Osterwalder’s “Business Model Canvas.” It goes beyond just pure validation and can be used to develop entirely new business models (or thoroughly document existing ones). As an approach, it’s very powerful and highly warrants further exploration, especially if you’re aiming big and looking to disrupt existing ways of doing things. The work done by Alexander in this space has manifested itself in a company called Strategyzer, (strategyzer.com) which offers books, training, and apps (as well as the aforementioned “canvas” as a free download).
That said, if you’re “idea-rich and time-poor” and considering a web or mobile application as a core facet of your offering, you might want to explore a more streamlined approach.
The approach focuses on 3 deliverables, each of which is designed to aid in the validation process itself, as well as adding value beyond the process should your validation result in a positive outcome. The deliverables are as follows: Concept Overview Document, Interactive Prototype, Validation Questions.
We’ll now explore each of these in turn.
1. Concept Overview
Firstly, the concept overview is as it sounds. It should be a short document (capped at around 2 pages) wherein you document the genesis of the idea, the problem your solving, and a short list of the features. In regards to the latter, emphasis should be placed on things that can’t be communicated visually (as these will be covered in the next deliverable), such as workflows, roles, assumptions, etc.
Note that this document is designed to help you succinctly crystalize your thoughts. It’s also recommended that you share it (either in its entirety or key elements of it) with the individuals with whom you intend to validate the idea.
2. Interactive Prototype
The interactive prototype is likely going to be the most time-consuming deliverable, particularly if you’ve not built one before. The good news, however, is that the learning curve is reasonably shallow. Also, once you get over the initial hump, it can be a very enjoyable process.
The three tools that I recommend fall into the low-to-mid fidelity spectrum. In other words, the output is not designed to look like the finished product, and nor should it.
The goal here is make a clickable prototype that conveys the core functionality of the proposed product or service. By “clickable,” we mean that the screens can be joined together, making the experience feel somewhat like the real application. Also, because they are browser-based, they all provide the ability to easily share the generated prototypes via a link. This feature is important as it makes the validation step, as we’ll see next, incredibly easy.
Just to note this is by no means a definitive list of the available prototyping tools. Also, experienced designers will typically gravitate to “high-fidelity” tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, or Sketch, and while these offer the ultimate power, without plugins they don’t provide as easy a path to sharing.
3. Validation Questions
At this stage you’re ready to begin validating your idea with a small “inner circle” of friends, colleagues, etc. Ultimately, this list should be comprised of individuals that you feel will provide constructive feedback in the process of validating your idea (and not just tell you what you want to hear). As such, try to ensure that they fall into the demographic that you’re targeting.
Providing detailed or heavily targeted questions (along with the concept overview and link to the prototype) is discretionary. That said, I’d typically recommended a few succinct questions, something along the lines of the following:
- Would you use this product? If so, how much would you be willing to pay?
- Are there any features that you don’t need? Is there anything missing?
If you do add more than these, try not to keep them too verbose or open-ended. Remember the goal at this early stage is to elicit as many responses as possible (along with a degree of sentiment as to whether they’d use the product or not).
Also, when sending out the messages to your initial inner circle, resist using a mail-merge or a bulk mailing tool such as Mailchimp. In addition, try if possible to provide a personal message to increase the likelihood of a response.
Lastly, in terms of the number of recipients, while there’s obviously no fixed number I’d aim for at least 10 people (with a cap around 30).
Awesome! So What’s Next?
First and foremost, you wait for the responses to come in. You’ll probably find that you get a complete spectrum of types; everything from the completely minimal “yes” or “no”, through to huge essay-style answers (as well as a percentage of no-shows).
If, of course, at this stage you’re finding yourself more bullish than ever on the idea then that’s a sign that the responses were positive. And of course the same goes for the opposite.
Ultimately though, what you’re looking for is signal from the noise that indicates whether the idea has potential. Try to overlook the “nice” responses wherein people are unduly positive, perhaps because they’re your friend or family member. Also look out for additional feature suggestions or things that you hadn’t considered.
Assuming you are moving to the next stage, your goal will be to build an initial MVP (Minimum Viable Product). More on that in the next post :).
By Kevin Bluer / Image by Freepik.com