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Early user validation is to product what early revenue is to investment

Early user validation is to product what early revenue is to investment

A digital product in development with no user engagement or validation looks pretty much identical to a digital product in development with extensive user engagement and validation.

A business plan with no market validation and early customer revenue looks pretty much identical to a business plan with extensive market validation and early customer revenue.

Such is the importance of early sales revenue that an experienced investor, considering an ambitious business with a sound business plan, will see the endeavour in a completely different light if early sales revenue is flowing into it. That market validation rightly transforms the shareholder’s understanding and expectations of that business, and immediately values it at a higher sum.

As with business plans so with digital products. As with market traction so with user validation.

The digital product which has survived contact with a user should be viewed in an entirely different light to one which is still sitting comfortably in the design studio.  As Mike Tyson observed, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The digital product which has survived contact with the user has been metaphorically punched in the mouth, shaken it off and is fighting on.

Business plans and early–stage digital products are merely working hypotheses, predictions if you will, taking a punt on what it believes a future user, customer or market will value.

To have evidence that a smaller number of users value it right now is highly significant for the following reasons:

It mitigates risk – across geographies, sectors and markets “no market need” is cited consistently as a top 3 reason why start–ups fail.  In short, the product is solving a problem that people don’t feel acutely enough, or not enough people have. Predicated on the belief that the primary role of all design is to solve problems, the confirmation that the problem being solved is real gives the product confidence and focus.

It sets a foundation for growth – the single best predictor of how a human will behave in the future is how they behave now. Because of that, early indications that a product is solving a real problem for users today offer valuable signs that a more mature version of the product could be of value to a larger number of users tomorrow.  The litmus test of early user validation affirms to the designers that they have given themselves the best possible chance to increase product adoption through users who value what it offers.

It builds credibility and internal confidence – most designers have the smarts to build a product right, but no designer has the smarts to build the right product in the absence of user feedback and guidance. Early user engagement and validation provides quantifiable metrics which instil confidence and hone product direction.  The software build phase is very often the most expensive part of any product development process and pre–build user involvement means that the largest time and money investment in the project is closely aligned with user need and market value.

A number of years ago two potential clients approached the agency to discuss the delivery of some UX work.  While both projects centred around the UX for a mobile app, they could not have been more different.

One project, for a new energy provider was to be designed for their customers to manage their energy needs, see and pay bills and generally run their relationship with the utility provider. The prospective client came to us with a fully–written functional specification and a very impressive set of brand guidelines, wanting us to develop an interface to facilitate that functionality with the look and feel of those brand guidelines.

The other project was a beacon–based project for people working on building sites, who would use a wearable device to clock–in and clock–out, saving them time and energy and helping to keep the building site manager compliant with their various health and safety and other legislative responsibilities.  This prospect had no functional spec and no brand guidelines but had been running a crude pilot with beacons, mobile phones and an Excel spreadsheet successfully on a number of building sites for a year.

Only one of those projects could bring verifiable value to its users out of the starting blocks.

While the energy provider brand guidelines were beautiful and highly produced, and the functional specification detailed and precise, they were silent when it came to user experience.  Those artefacts were clear on what the business needs were and what the business wanted to say, but much cloudier on the goals of its users and what they wanted to find out. It’s not that the technical specification or the brand guidelines were wrong, it’s just that they weren’t the full picture – the canvas could only be entirely drawn when the user was in the mix.

While the building site product was crude and in MVP state (to put it kindly), that client came to us with the assurance that their product idea had value, and that real people in the real world were prepared to use it.  That fact mitigated risk, set the foundation for growth and built confidence internally and externally, giving our client the assurance to invest in user experience, UI design, technical specification and app build.

By getting your product into the hands of users as early as possible, you can explore how it is perceived, understand how it is used and discern how your users value it (or not). Baking that learning back into the product design empowers you to enjoy the benefits which come from aligning the product with what users and the market want and need.

It’s only through research that we can determine if the alley we are planning to go through is blind or not.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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