Designers and engineers are an interesting bunch. We range from neat to messy, assertive to laid back, practical to imaginative. Despite this diversity, which I appreciate, good problem solvers have one thing in common. They don’t know what they don’t know.
You can hypothesize, simulate, postulate, and prototype, but nothing beats field testing.
Testing prototypes and mockups out in the world is business as usual when it comes to late stage validation in product development. It’s an expected part of the process. However, validation is only half the story; sometimes testing is all about discovery.
We at BOLTGROUP are big fans of rough, mad-scientist contraptions held together by duct tape and hot glue. They help prove out ideas that look good on paper but might function wildly different in real-world conditions. Sometimes these models help us realize that we didn’t even know what the real-world conditions were.
One of the design challenges we recently faced involved the preservation and transportation of hot and cold food items for catering. One thing we learned is that the task itself is as easy or as hard as the items on the menu. Keeping a lasagna or a pizza “just right” in transit is a no-brainer, but other things are much trickier. Some foods have frustratingly small windows of quality with which to work. We also found that there are more factors in play than just keeping things really hot or really cold.
Our team had beautiful concept sketches and intelligent ideas, generated in open-minded brainstorms. But optimistic speculations can only go so far. It wasn’t until we transformed the project into something that resembled a high school science project that true insights were uncovered. Armed with cardboard boxes, tin foil, and hair dryers, we put food in our cars and started to drive. By watching what happened in our vehicles, we learned to ask different questions. How long must a cord be to reach a car’s power adapter? How could a container stay level if it’s placed on car seat? Will the food stay steady as you take a turn … or brake? How do you keep your car from smelling like food in transit?
We try to use lean strategies to help get a product to market fast. It makes sense to achieve a minimum viable product—fail fast and adapt. What we’ve found is that this tenet holds true all the way back to the inception of an idea. For those of us in the design business, a minimum viable product might be nothing more than a foil-lined shoe box with a hair dryer sticking out of it.
The lesson here: validate your criterion, not just your concepts. Don’t be afraid to get away from your computer screen. Cobble something together and take it for a spin. Rub some dirt in it. Learn. You just might find that both your mission and your idea change shape. Your team will be wiser and your customers better served.