Clients often ask me how to be sure about a new product idea. “Is this the ‘right’ idea,” they ask? While there’s no sure thing, experience has taught me three lessons about how to get closer to certainty and lower the risk.
1. Have a Worthy “Why”
Is your idea worthy in the first place? Does it address a real human desire or need? The need could be a minor annoyance, a major human need, or a desire people don’t yet know they have (but is indicated by lifestyle trends). All these are good “Whys”. The need could be your own if you are an avid player in the category, or an educated “hunch” based on your court sense of the market (more on that later). Or you may recognize the opportunity by observing customers’ and end users’ current behavior, and comparing it to emerging lifestyle trends.
Steve Jobs liked to take long walks through Palo Alto and needed an easy way to listen to his wide-ranging musical tastes. So, he developed the iPod to improve on the lousy options existing at that time.
Herman Miller and designers Bill Stumpf and Don Chadwick had a hunch they could shake up the world of office seating with something that provided better ergonomics, was easier to use, and appealed to both interior designers and dot.com workers. So, they created the Aeron chair.
The creators of Skype recognized the global consumer’s need to communicate easily across borders without the high cost of available phone options.
Here’s a test: I’ve found that if you can craft a compelling story around your idea to illustrate its “Why”, then you’re more likely to have a winner. Try telling a story to illustrate the Why of your idea.
2. Test, Tweak, or Pivot
Testing ideas with customers is crucial. It’s also risky. Truly novel ideas often get negative marks from users simply because they’re unfamiliar. Herman Miller’s Aeron chair failed its initial customer testing. And sometimes testing reveals challenges and opportunities that you had not counted on. Jim Semick tells of testing features for video conferencing software and learning the biggest need was for a product that’s easy to budget for (one that doesn’t have a cost spike with high usage). So, they pivoted to what became GoToMeeting and its all-you-use pricing model.
3. Trust an Educated Gut
In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell says we too often cloud our instincts with analysis. Moments of revelation that occur in the blink of an eye go unrecognized. He believes we all have the innate ability to make “gut” judgments based on limited information. The best basketball players, he notes, have “court sense,” allowing them to quickly take in everything around them on the court and make snap decisions. Brilliant generals have coup d’oeil, or “the power of the glance”—the ability to immediately make sense of the battlefield.
Bill Stumpf and I partnered on several design projects for Herman Miller. I noticed that Bill was an astute observer of people and the built environment–particularly furniture. He told me how the early concepts of his Aeron design were panned in market research, and that some people within the Herman Miller organization deemed the chair’s high cost a nonstarter. But Bill detected something in the research—passion. Customers were very vocal. They either loved the chair or they hated it, but no one was uninterested. Bill’s court sense, gut instinct, and perseverance, helped bring the chair to life and gave Herman Miller its most successful product ever.
Steve Jobs eschewed market research completely, preferring to rely on gut instinct and the opinions of his core team. But his gut—his court sense—came from a deep understanding of his end user. He and his team looked at a product category, discerned what they loved about it and what they hated about it. Then they destroyed what they hated and perfected what they love.
Make court sense work for you. Give yourself permission to explore ideas that rush into your mind unexpectedly—the ones you might be tempted to dismiss. With a powerful “Why” and the right kind of testing, your gut ideas just might be the winners.