You’ve been bitten by the product bug, or you feel like you want to take over the world with a new startup. You need to build a product, you want to sell a product…you’ve come to the right place. In a series of articles I’ll walk you through all the steps of building your product from scratch, without adding too much complexity to the process. Follow each article in order as listed below and you’ll be on your way towards releasing your very own product into the market.
As a note, whenever I mention a product, it could also be a new feature within a product, therefore I’ll alway refer to the word product but know that it could be one or the other.
I typically jump straight into ideation as I typically have an idea before starting this process. But it’s possible some of you just itch to create something or start a company but have no idea what you’d like to get started. This is where this article is useful. And the best way to get started is to take a look at yourself. Get to know YOU a little better and WHY do you want to be an entrepreneur.
So let’s start why. Something or someone put the spark of wanting to start a business. Who is this person to you, or why would you want to follow their advice? Why all of a sudden are you motivated to create a startup and a new product? Look around and find your why, which is super important. Without a strong why, your motivation will quickly dissipate as you move towards your product launch. Spend some time understanding why you’re doing this. Put your why on a piece of paper.
Let’s start brainstorming some ideas. First, without thinking too much, put on the back of the piece of paper any product ideas you may currently have or would like to see in the market. There are no wrong ideas here and everything goes.
As you go through this exercise read these questions or comments if you’re stuck trying to find more ideas:
- Can I combine one or two of the ideas already on the paper?
- Add products from science-fiction movies (the science is now caught up)
- Can I add extra features to my favorite gadgets/clothes/house appliances?
- Have I been frustrated recently using gadgets/clothes/house appliances? Why?
- Reverse engineer a product, simplify it and add a new approach to it, Can it be done without being sued by the manufacturer?
- If the product is digital, cut out squares out of a piece of paper and draw specific functions in each sections and then play with your squares until you get something great.
Now, finished with your brainstorming session you must have a really good list of potential products. For each one ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this product exciting? When I read it I’m eager to get started on it?
- Does it align well with my WHY and WHO I am? If you’re a software engineer and you get excited about building the next revolutionary chair, you’re already putting some pressure on your startup by not being aligned with your skillset. Investors will also probably raise concerns if you’re trying to get funding for it.
- Do you already see how this product could be developed, brought to market, etc. Or you’re completely in the dark and don’t have any idea what comes next (no worries if that’s the case, that’s where we’re here to help). In other words, if you already see a lot of the puzzle pieces this particular product is definitely better suited for you.
Once you’ve identified all the best product ideas, redo the exercise by ranking each of them by adding a point (1) for each of the above questions where the answer is yes. So you’ll end with a couple of products with 1, 2 or 3 as their total. If you have more than one 3 point product do a final pass with the below questions and see which ones have the best chance of being successful.
- Do you know people that could help or have expertise related to this product? If yes, add a point.
- Are there a lot of these products in the market? If yes, remove a point.
- Is this product very complex and most likely extremely expensive, where the GTM and sales will be initially challenged by a long cycle? If yes, remove a point. This one in particular shouldn’t be a deterrent if it is something you really want to do but recognizing early on it’ll take a longer cycle to sell and manufacture these products is important. This will also have an impact on funding the startup.
Now that you’ve determined which product you’ll move forward with, you can move on to ideation.
Ideation is the initial process of figuring out your product or new feature, where you brainstorm what it will look like, its main features, etc.
Do you have a problem you’d like to solve? A new product or feature you want to add into the market? You must have a spark of an idea that pushed you towards wanting to make a product. This is the first step. Write all the details of this initial spark, along with any relevant drawings. If it’s a physical product, draw some sketches of what this product will look like, it functions. If it’s a digital product, it might be a good idea to draw the application visuals along with the workflow of the product. If there’s any gaps in your product idea, this is a good time to brainstorm those missing elements. Use a whiteboard or a piece of paper and scribble everything about this product.
Now that you have a good compilation of drawings and notes about your product, you need to figure out the why, why would you like to create a new product or feature. If you don’t have a strong enough why, how will you realign the troops and motivate everyone when challenges are thrown your way? So finding the why of the product, why YOU want to create this product, is really really really…important. Not having a strong why is like building a rocket without having any fuel, you won’t go anywhere with your rocket once it’s built.
So let’s summarize the process of ideation:
- Initial thoughts and sparks down on paper
- Add and brainstorm more details about the product
- Figure out why you want to create a product.
Once you have a really strong why, repeat the first 2 steps until you’re satisfied with the amount of notes, drawings and any visuals describing the spark of your idea. Then you can move on to research and reference.
Now you have a potential product idea with notes and potential designs. The next step is by far one of the most important in order to save you thousands if not millions in development or prototyping costs. Think of it as your gateway or filter of all your ideas that needs to be evaluated as a realistic product. The following list of questions is what you need to have answered before moving on to prototyping:
- Do we have the resources (skills, investments, logistics) inside the company to bring such a product to market? If not, what are the challenges and elements needed to execute? Is it realistic?
- Is it an idea that can be tested and validated in the market within a reasonable period, say the next 6 weeks to 12 months? Or the product requires a lot more research to be viable?
- In the case of a long product cycle, will the reward be worth the extra efforts (risk to reward analysis)?
The answers to these questions will most likely bring a lot more specific questions that needs to be answered. This very first step is to determine the viability of the product, is it a “shoot for the moon” idea and if so can the team execute and how would this execution looks like.
At this stage you might eliminate a lot of cool ideas or things that looked great on paper but in reality will be a big resource vacuum and end up costing a lot of money to your company. And sometimes you’ll have a big idea that sits just in between being too crazy but yet have so much potential it is worth investing resources into this moon shot.
Once you have validated your project, the next part is the really fun part. Gathering references and surrounding ideas to push the idea further, and develop a stronger foundation for the prototype. Let me explain.
When you design a prototype or even model a 3D character, typically the process is to gather references to give you a direction, a guideline for the character you’re trying to model. If you think about every product or art that designers or artists draw or build, nothing is completely original and is typically derived or inspired from something else. This is why every artist or designer gathers references, so they can start from a solid foundation. An architect just won’t draw a building from memory, he’ll surround his designs with colors, shapes and other inspirational buildings, etc. You need, as a product developer, to gather references around your new product so you know what to do, what not to do, colors and shapes that inspire you, etc.
Personally, I use a program called Pureref but you can use anything you’d like to gather references, where you can categorize elements of your product together. So what kind of references do you gather? This is far from being an exhaustive list but a good start:
- Other products in the same category; images and marketing materials related to them.
- Colors, shapes, designs that inspire you, from the same category or even other types of products.
- Specific elements of the design or art that you absolutely want to nail. Say you’re doing a new type of coffee machine but are inspired by washing machines for a new design. Gather as many references of that element as possible, in this case every type of washing machine you can find. Having variations of a specific function of a product will definitely help you in pushing the envelope.
- Any wildcard ideas; things that have absolutely nothing to do with the product but somehow inspire you and want to include in your reference board.
There comes a point where analysis paralysis will prevent you from doing anything concrete and moving the product forward, and you need to eventually stop the research and compiling of the references and move straight into creating a first prototype.
There are, in general two types of prototypes; physical and digital.
The first one requires building something that will resemble the final product in functions and in design. BUT be careful not to actually build a fully functional product but instead mimic the experience of what that product would look like and function. An example of this is if you’re prototyping a new type of service robot (like the example in the Sprint Design book by Jake Knapp) you can’t really build a fully functional robot, so for some parts such as the interactions in between humans and the robot you could literally have a human being controlling its movements and the voice. If it’s an actual product like a new printer or whatever, build a prototype that allows users to feel and touch the new product experience without going into full development mode.
The same goes for digital products there are tons of tools that will allow you to design your experience such as Adobe XD, Illustrator, Sketch, Framer and then others to animate and add interactions such as InVision, Principle, Framer, Figma, After Effects. All these tools will allow you to bring your digital application to life at a fraction of the cost.
So gather all the research, references and notes put together previously and build a first iteration of your prototype, physical or digital. This is going to be an enlightening experience mostly because some of your assumptions about the product might be completely off and some new insights will show up. I personally find this part of the process meditative as you never know what will come out at the other end of this first prototype.
Build it, and then move on to the next step, where people that have nothing to do with your product will give you feedback.
Testing your first (and many other iterations of your) prototypes is such a crucial step, especially around saving thousands or millions of dollars in development costs. Testing with external clients, people that haven’t been exposed to your product will allow you get a fresh perspective on the product that most internal (or even current clients) stakeholders are well familiar with and in many cases aren’t the best suited to be objective around providing feedback. So let’s take a look at how the testing process should be executed:
- Determine and build out a list of potential customers that should be interested in your offering.
- Briefly introduce the product and its purpose to the group, however you shouldn’t have to provide a manual or specific instructions on how to use the product. If you need to, that’s already a bad sign and your product might not be intuitive and user friendly. Most people should be able to use your product out of the gate, especially if the end user is the targeted audience. Example, if you’re introducing a new type of broom and your targeted audience have no idea how to use it by just looking at it…you’ve already failed on one front and need to go back to the drawing board.
- Let the users play with the prototype and use it in a real environment. Ideally you want to record on video or have the screen recorded if it’s a digital experience. This way you may have specific element of the prototype that pops up as problem areas or favorite tools. There are several other tools you can use to gather feedback while a user is playing with your prototype such as heat maps for digital products and even some people went as far as connecting a heart monitor to determine stress levels while users were playing with the prototypes. Whatever data you can gather while the prototype are being tested the better positioned you’ll be to improve it next.
- Finally, do an exit interview with questions rating their experience, ease of use, comprehension of the product, pricing, prone to purchase it or not, etc. Depending on your product, you’ll find plenty of questions to ask them after the fact but keep in mind the answers aren’t the most honest representation of their experience VS when they were using the product. So focus as much as possible on gathering data while they’re using the product and after the fact round it up with some comments and opinions from the users.
After this, gather all the data and combine them all into one report that explicitly demonstrates the experience of the users in general, what areas were liked and disliked, what areas were completely misunderstood or the user couldn’t figure out how to use them, etc.
This is the step that sort of closes the loop in between your initial prototype, testing and reviewing the prototype based on your tests and feedback. Also, the testing to iterate phase could last several cycles (and I strongly suggest you do several) as the more time you spend in a non-committal form for your product, the more attractive and sticking the product will be once it hits the market. And when you’ll test the product you’ll know if and when it is ready for prime time.
What I’d recommend, especially around digital products such as web or mobile applications, as you go through the cycles of iteration, to have an A/B testing approach with the product. Based on the feedback and all the ideas you gathered, do two different versions of your product and test them both as A and a B version and see which one stick the best with the clients. Also, when you do web applications you can even keep those different versions live and randomly select users to experience one of the other as they log into your platform. This way you’ll have more data from the larger pool of users and make a more informed decision for the final product.