On Friday night I walked into a room filled with 70 other people I had never laid eyes on in my life, excited to spend the weekend validating an and designing a prototype with a small group of them: Startup Weekend. We were the weekend warriors who would spend the next 54 hours making what could be The Next Greatest Thing.

The Problem

Starting with a solution and trying to prove the problem

It was at about hour 49, when I was deciding between grouping information with cards or separating sections with lines on the 18th screen of the clickable hi-fi prototype I’d designed, that I realized I didn’t even think our product idea was viable. Our team had spent the day before badgering 140 people to take our survey about how they buy shoes. We were trying to prove that the app idea we’d rallied around would change everything about the current mobile e-commerce experience. We didn’t start with a people problem; we’d started with looking for data that would prove what we needed it to prove. And I was the eager designer who had jumped into pixel pushing, ready to present a great looking deliverable.

The Goal

The right solution for the right problem

Design thinking is about prototyping and testing before you get too invested too quickly in a single idea. It starts with understanding a need and who has that need and then exploring and testing different solutions for that need. It means not falling in love with your favorite solution if it isn’t the right solution for the people whose problem you are trying to solve. It means not spending hours perfecting the pixels of an app design that no one will ever see.

Spoiler-alert: we didn’t win startup weekend. But I did learn a lot:

1. Let go of your first idea.

My team spent the weekend ideating the nuances of our product’s various features. “Should we have an in-app camera or just an upload button?” We got stuck on the original product idea when what we needed was to reframe with an open-ended question like:

How might we streamline the process from discovery of an item to purchasing it?

This question opens the door to a myriad of different ideas and possible solutions. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans talk about ideation, “More ideas equal access to better ideas, and better ideas lead to better design. Expanding your thinking improves your ability to ideate and allows for more innovation.”

2. Start with empathy and let what you learn about people drive ideation.

How do people think about wanting an item and then take the action to purchasing it? What happens in that in-between moment? Where are there pain points or frustrations? Is there an opportunity here?

3. Personas: use them.

It’s hard to solve a people problem for people without faces. People are the core of our product; if no one will use it, then what’s the point? And even if an app does appeal to the 325 million people in the U.S., who are the early adopters? Who is going to the app store to download our product and is so excited about it that they are sharing it with their friends? “An app for everyone” falls flat on its face when pitching to investors.

4. Make quick[er] and dirt[ier] prototypes.

I found myself jumping into Sketch too quickly, designing screen after screen of a prototype, choosing icons for a menu bar, dragging in some sample product images. What we actually needed to know first was if the design is contextual and accessible. People’s use of the app was grounded in a few specific scenarios. What I know now: I would’ve sketched an app on paper to prototype with real people, having them run through our use-case scenarios with this “paper” phone:

  • The notices someone’s shoes while walking down the street, he pulls out his phone and opens the app. He snaps a photo of the shoe. The app searches for a match and produces various shopping links to the exact pair of shoes.
  • The user is browsing instagram and sees someone wearing a pair of shoes she really likes. She screenshots the image and uploads it to the app. The app searches for a match and finds only similar results.

Does this process actually work? I’d only be as invested in the idea as the time it takes to draw a few boxes with sharpie on graph paper.

The Solution

Stop designing for yourself and start listening

My team and I talked to 140 people in one day about their experience of the purchasing process for shoes. If we’d been listening instead of trying to prove our idea, we might have noticed some patterns based on different people’s experiences and identified a real need. “The best products are a result of putting aside our expectations to effectively listen and observe what people need. When we fail to define the problem and our audience, the products we create are inherently useless.” Tiffany Eaton

But I now know more than I did before startup weekend and I’m proud of that. #failforward

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