Don’t Be Like Frank

Start Small and Test Your Product Early

By Chris Varosy

There are a lot of things in life that can be overwhelming, and bringing a world-class digital product to reality is definitely one of them. Product managers are trying to balance time to market, budgets, feature sets, pressure from executives, competition, team dynamics, and much more. With all of these considerations, it’s easy to see why some leaders fall into the trap of skipping user research, hoping to save time and budget. However, this thinking can be very short-sighted, and user research typically SAVES time and budget in the long term. Consider this story below to see how it can set you back to skip getting input from users.

Going big can cost you

“Frank” is a product manager with an idea for a new and potentially disruptive app. The executive leadership at his company green-lit the project, but had set aggressive deadlines for the app, so they didn’t miss their window of opportunity. So Frank decided to forego user testing and focus on releasing as soon as possible. He figured he’d test after it was out, and incorporate feedback into the next product cycle. In the end, Frank was successful at being first to market, but he had trouble getting customers to sign on. When he finally conducted user testing, he learned that several of the app’s key features were not valuable to users, and it was missing the number one feature users wanted. Not only had he spent considerable development resources on the wrong features, but he’d done serious damage to the app’s brand by missing the mark on version 1.0. The next version of the app was a significant rewrite, and the company had to spend a lot of money to change negative brand perceptions with advertising. What’s more, before he could release version 2, a competing app came out that nailed user needs, and devoured his market share.

Frank’s mistake was that he went live on a hypothesis. If he had done some early concept testing, he could have refined the feature set to align with user needs, and saved money and time getting to a viable app. Instead, he bet big money on development before testing his hypothesis, and ended up way behind the competition.

It doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming to test and refine. When you do it early in the process, you use the minimum artifacts to get the answers you need to validate and course correct. This is the art of starting small.

Testing your app’s concept and gauging demand for it can be done with some short interviews or a quick survey. If Frank had done this, he would have learned that version 1 could have 2 features instead of 5, and one of those two wasn’t even in his plan.

Insurance policy

Shipping a product without user feedback is a little like driving without car insurance. Except that your product is way more likely to fail than having a driving accident. Forrester found that 70% of products fail due to lack of user acceptance. Imagine if you drove your car without insurance, knowing that 7 out of 10 times you’ll crash. Building in user feedback can help you avoid those crashes with your product. But it goes deeper than that. An IEEE study found that UX involvement can reduce development costs by 30-50%. Imagine how that could change your time to market. And a Strategic Data Consulting report found that user testing can reduce support costs by 90%. So even a little user involvement can save you big down the road too. What’s more, it doesn’t even have to cost a lot of money or time to do it.

Get answers with minimal effort

As you get further into the process of developing an app, the more expensive it is to change directions. So the goal should be to do all your direction changes at early stages, when you’re throwing out sketches versus developed code. Consider the questions below and the artifacts that can help you get the answer. Notice how many of them can be answered with low-effort artifacts:

Is this Agile?

Also notice that most of these questions can be answered without developing code. On the surface, this may seem at odds with the Agile Manifesto, which states that “working software is the primary measure of success.” However, I’d argue that we should consider non-code discovery and design artifacts as very early versions of the software. Also, if users don’t want it in the first place, it’s not really “working software” just because it actually executes. Another point in the Agile Manifesto states that “simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” So in this regard, testing before developed code is very much in the spirit of Agile.

Target your testing

You can make your user research super efficient by narrowing what questions you want to answer with what method. The earlier you answer questions, the less you’ll spend, both on the testing and on the overall product. But focus on one question at a time. If you test 2 things at once, you may not get a clear answer for either. This is kind of like setting up a good science experiment. So if you’re testing different navigation groupings, don’t change the design or the labeling. Test different nomenclature or design ideas separately.

Can you leverage it?

We used to build elaborate interactive prototypes for highly interactive applications. But they are a lot of work to build and usually get thrown away since they are wireframes as opposed to usable front-end code. There are uses for elaborate prototypes, such as to test microinteractions, but a better way to test those might be with front-end code experiments, so you can use more of the work you put into the testing artifacts in the final product. So keep asking yourself if you really need elaborate artifacts to get the answers you’re looking for.

Starting small works wonders

In summary, user feedback is critical to avoid disaster with your digital product. Start early by doing some concept testing to see if there is demand for your idea. If there is, test incrementally to make sure you’re making the right product, and later, to make sure you’re making it in the right way. The earlier you start, the cheaper and easier it is to make refinements. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to get user input, and it will likely end up saving you a lot of time and money in the end. 

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