Finding the sweet spot for success is not a predictable process but there are actions entrepreneurs can take to help boost the probability of being the next big thing, rather than the next big flop. One of the simplest steps is product testing.
Is it durable enough? Is it easy to use? Is it well designed? Do people like how it looks? What are people willing to pay for the product? All of these questions can begin to be answered in a physical product's early testing phase. Think of this as an informal user-research phase that occurs either instead of or before you invest in formal user research – a strategy that can start out costing tens of thousands of dollars.
For those without the budget for formal research, here are a few things to keep in mind as you embark on a leaner model for early testing:
Get your prototype out there early. Waiting until a product is “perfect” to rigorously test a prototype is a common mistake. It’s uncomfortable to dive headfirst into being judged but this’ll save you from criticism later on (when it’s much more costly to make changes). Put the product in people’s hands. Observe the unexpected things people will do with the product. Does it recover gracefully or fail? Does it have uses you didn’t originally foresee?
It’s much easier (and cheaper) to correct problems early in the developmental stage rather than later on during production. This is especially true of physical products. Once you’ve made models and entered the tooling phase, the high cost of making changes can gut a startup.
Tap into an existing network of people. Recruit your first guinea pigs through your network of friends and family and online. Social media presents a collaborative opportunity to find a pool of potential consumers in a product’s early stages. For instance, if you want to give away the first one hundred units of your product, social media will help you find the testers.
Kickstarter and Indiegogo are also great forums for testing a product concept with working prototypes to support the pitch. These platforms open up communication with an audience of early adopters who’re eager to provide feedback. As author Hardi Maybaum champions in The Art of Product Design: Changing How Things Get Made, the idea of “open engineering” is a way to break down barriers and take advantage of the online communities, knowledge and tools to accelerate the design and manufacturing process.
Feed constructive criticism back into the development process. Early, negative reactions help shape a product. To generate more valuable criticism, present people with a range of possibilities. Test out different styles and color choices, and ask how the product could work better and what features could be added. Be open minded about the comments. If your attitude is closed off, you’ll waste this testing period. Absorb the comments and use them to guide you toward a range of ideas or at least to question your old ones.
Pebble Technology Corporation (the company behind the super successful smartwatch Kickstarter campaign) is one of those startups that tweaked its product post-launch based on user feedback. When people complained the smartwatch was cheap and too easily scratched, they developed a new version that remedied those issues.
Jawbone’s UP "smart" band was pulled for retooling after it had only been out for a month. Once a critical mass of users complained their wristbands couldn’t stand up to the rigors of daily life, UP recalled the products, refunded the buyers and redeveloped the product. (Imagine if they’d discovered these problems during early testing.)
Develop a budget for testing. While it may be cheaper than formal user research, it's not dirt cheap. Don’t underestimate the costs associated with early testing. Managing logistics, collecting data and working with customers is challenging and expensive. Designing, building and testing also adds up, so make sure you budget appropriate resources to go through multiple cycles on the design.
Account for time. If you need to talk to users in a very specific market -- say forklift drivers in warehouses -- start establishing those links early, as it will take a lot of time to build this kind of network of potential users from scratch. There’s a lot to be said for casually sitting down with people and asking their opinions, but it’s also useful to be scientific. Make time to research how to do user testing in a methodical way (i.e. asking everyone the same questions to produce more meaningful significant data sets). This approach lets you analyze results to figure out what’s working and what isn't.
If you remember anything, remember this: It will never be as cheap to make changes as it is right now. Early product testing not only helps to avoid pitfalls, but it deepens the connection between a potentially great idea and the consumers who will one day be investing in it.