When to Start Prototyping

t’s like detective work, and, as you might imagine, there will be a lot of unanswered questions.

Building a product or business involves a lot of research and experimentation.

The hunch to start or explore an opportunity starts with curiosity. Why do people prefer using Fiji-scented shower gel? How come there are no products for grandmas that still feel like they’re in college? Answering these questions will require a lot of research.

And that’s where you’re supposed to start.

You want to understand the customer, the market, and the competitors in that market. If, after researching, you find out that there are no competitors, then that’s an even more alarming flag. More research would be necessary. Why aren’t there any products addressing that problem? Has anyone attempted to make a solution and failed? Are you misunderstanding the problem? Perhaps you need to talk to more people to figure things out.

This exercise is what people nowadays call design thinking. Or, at least, it’s the cornerstone activity of design thinking. Customer development, empathy, etc. In essence, it’s all about spending time understanding context: customers, the market, competitors.

The outcome we seek from research is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is more or less an idea. Here are examples of hypotheses:

  • We believe that people in college would buy a see-through wallet.
  • We believe that teenagers are willing to pay $99 for our product.
  • We believe that we can get more sales if we bundle our products.

Literature tells us that right after you’re done design thinking, you start prototyping and testing hypotheses. You build a prototype, measure the outcome, and end up learning something about your idea or customer. Then you loop back into building. You keep doing this till you reach product-market fit: the state in which there is alignment between your product and the market it intends to serve.

From experience, this is more or less accurate. What is left for gut-feeling or personal judgment, though, is when do you move from researching the context to building a prototype. How do you know that you’ve done enough research?

Ok, ok. I wrote that to tweet it and sound witty in a short statement. Here’s what it means: You’re doing research for a reason. What’s that reason? Perhaps you want to understand why your shop isn’t selling as much as you’d like. You need to do some research to direct your focus. Are people not coming to your shop, or are people coming but not buying?

Here’s what happens when you don’t do research and start pumping money in the wrong place: You’ll pay a huge amount of money to an influencer. Shell out more money for a huge marketing campaign and some sponsored Instagram posts. More and more people start showing up at your shop. You’re excited. Your work has resulted in a positive outcome. Fast-forward to the end of the month, and you barely made a bump in sales. What’s going on?

Well, had you done research, you would’ve known that your issue isn’t lack of exposure and footfall, but rather in converting that exposure into sales. People are coming to your shop but not buying.

That’s why you need data. That’s why research should power your experiments and change initiatives.

I’ve Done My Research, Now What?

After you’ve done research, you’re ready to formulate a hypothesis that will become the basis of your experiment. Let’s carry the shop example from above. You’ve gathered data that shows your weak conversion rate (Many people coming into the shop, few end up buying). Now you have informed data to back up a simple hypothesis such as: We believe that we can improve our conversion rate by removing half the number of items in the shop. Let’s say you do that but nothing happens. Sales don’t improve nor dip further. You then move on to another hypothesis, and set up another experiment.

So Research Comes Before Experimentation?

Well – not quite. You’re still learning about your customer, market and competitors as you’re setting up these experiments and learning from the outcomes. However, you do need to start with preliminary research to at least guide you to a better hypothesis to start with.

Again, you’ve done enough research when you can formulate a hypothesis.

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