As a designer and an idea person, I often get carried away with new ideas and designs. I’m a brainstormer, and when I hit something that I like, I have a habit of latching on … hard. Most of time, however, my ideas are just that: ideas. They tend to be really big picture at the beginning, and rarely based on customer or user feedback. As a result, when I start diving into the details, ideas that seemed awesome at the start fall apart quickly and leave me feeling a bit disappointed.
I am not alone in this behaviour. I am fortunate to know a lot of people who love big thinking and design. One of my best friends used to have a blog titled UnfinishedProduct.com.
So the question becomes, how do we take these great ideas and turn them into great solutions?
Recently, I’ve been working with a number of friends on a new project called Eleven Media. The goal is to provide up and coming bands with little or no money with a solid online presence. This means a professional website, photoshoots, maybe video or recording depending how far along they are. The initial idea came because Aaron and I noticed that so many bands are using services that take a cut of the record sales, and don’t actually have a home on the web. Since we planned on offering the service for free (taking kickback from any online sales in the future) we thought bands would be all over it.
In fact, most musicians and bands Aaron spoke with flat out turned down the service saying it wasn’t something they thought y could make use of. We were obviously confused. Most people pay money to have systems like this custom built for them. We were obviously missing something.
Do customer research
Rather than giving up altogether (which has been tempting) I set about trying to understand where the problems were in the system we had developed. I spent some time talking to promoters, bands, and musicians to figure out where our idea was flawed. The issue finally surfaced after a few pints with a friend who is part of the two piece electronic band:
Me: So would you be interested in a custom designed website?
Him: No. If I really need a better site, I’d rather learn how to do it on my own.
Me: What if you could manage all the content, add pictures, songs, and connect it with all your other social networks?
Him: That sounds like a lot of work.
Me: What if I could give you the ability to sell your own music and merch without having to pay another website a cut?
Him: *Eyes instantly brighten* YES. That sounds good.
In that quick conversation, I learned where the problems were with our proposed idea, and what actually had traction that we weren’t paying enough attention to.
Listening to customers is not a new concept, but often user experience designers will tell you to get something in front of your customer in order to get feedback. Prototyping is a great way to get feedback on workflow, design ideas, and general user interface elements, but when you’re working with the initial concepts, and nothing tangible, it’s hard to find the right questions to ask.
User interviews are not a new concept. People have been using formal interviews to help establish market research for decades. In many cases, however, the early stage development of an idea can be hindered by structured interviews because you’re not always going to get all the information you need. By asking specific questions, you may be missing out on an important answer to a question you haven’t asked! So I say go unstructured and let the interviewee lead the conversation.
Being wrong is hard, but it’s also important
Our initial idea with Eleven Media was built around the assumption that bands wanted awesome websites, but just didn’t have the resources (read: money) to obtain them. When people started turning us down, we were genuinely confused. And it stung a little bit. Essentially people were telling us that we were wrong, and that never feels good.
But as they say in the entrepreneurial world, failure is an important part of building success.
If you feel confident that your initial idea still has merit, don’t give us. Regroup, refocus, and relaunch. Every time you’re wrong about something, it gives you the chance the learn, grow, and then be right about it next time!
Revising big picture ideas
When we learn that our initial awesome amazing idea was wrong, it’s sometimes hard to bounce back. The natural reaction is to throw out the idea and maybe, or maybe not, start over again. Maybe I’ve been working in an agile workplace for too long, or maybe it’s just starting to have positive effect on my design outlook, but I think a better approach to trashing a project is to simply revise and move forward. Just because you weren’t right the first time, it doesn’t mean that you have to be wrong forever.
If you have the chance to talk with potential customers, running elevator pitches past them is great way to gauge if you’re on the right track. Brainstorming with like minded people is also a great way to get feedback on changes that you want to make to big picture ideas. If you’re lucky enough to have entrepreneur meetups in your area, make use of that resource (I’m totally guilty here…) and see what other professionals think.
Last but not least, translate your ideas into marketable materials and see how they are received. Eleven will be launching a new website next week with the changes and ideas that I’ve heard from other people. I’m feeling more confident in my ideas now based on the revisions that we’ve made. Ultimately I know that we are providing a better service because I knew when to give up on an idea, and how to recover by revising rather than discarding!