Whether you're a hobbyist, startup, or a big company, you'll often find yourself in a situation where you need to develop and evaluate projects and ideas.
There are many ways to skin this particular cat, and in this post, we’ll outline a process based on what we’ve picked up from working with startups mixed with things we’ve learned while helping some pretty amazing companies create successful products.
The process consists of three separate activities: Research, Idea capture, and Evaluation, and, as with almost everything we do, we recommend that you start small to get going quickly and work in iterations.
A note on environment: One of the most important pre-requisites to generating good ideas is fostering a collaborative environment and mindset. All forms of ego or search for recognition should be left at the door. The environment must be built on cooperation, commitment, trust, and enable the team share and debate ideas openly.
Activity one: Research
Doing research may sound laborious, yet it’s the foundation of any innovation project. You need to understand, really understand, what the most critical channels of information are and extract information from them.
Persons of Interest
It’s a good idea to start by acquiring a thorough grasp of the target demographic and business needs by spending time with important stakeholders. These can include:
- Customers and users
Identify what they are not getting from anyone, identify problems and needs, understand their motivations, and see if they have created solutions to their own problems.
Suppliers are often close to the latest technology and know about competitors’ products and other products in the industry.
- Sales departments
Sales specialists are usually a good source of insights into customer needs and the marketplace. Have they seen anything better on the field? What do they perceive as customer needs? How can you support the sales teams?
- Marketing departments
How can you create something that fits into the current marketing strategies?
- Customer support
What are the most commonly mentioned problems and requests?
Some of the best ideas are the ones that solve problems you have yourself. They are tangible and odds are, that if you genuinely want something, there are others out that want it as well.
Note: Also try to identify and include product pioneers within the respective stakeholder categories. Users who are the first to adopt and use new products. They are usually months to years ahead of the average user in terms of product use or expectations.
Insights can be acquired through interviews, informal meetings, field studies, focus groups, and observation. This will not only provide you with a sense of the wants and needs but also allow you to gain invaluable connections.
Competitors and Industry trends
It is absolutely crucial that you fully comprehend the competition and what they’re offering. Assess what the competitors offer through reading online material, talking to their customers, and testing their products.
Having deep knowledge about what the competitors are offering will not only give you ideas but also help you understand what they are not offering and how you can make a product stand out from the competition.
If you’re an existing business improving a product or adding new products, you should have intimate knowledge of company’s offering related to what you are doing. Having this enables you to:
- Create new opportunities by improving or merging existing products.
- Find synergies between new and existing products (e.g. building a unified API that serves two or more products can add much value to your organization)
- Understand how new products fit into the current offering.
- Prevent duplicates or very similar products.
You should have a perfect understanding of what startups related to what you’re working on are doing, what technologies they use, and how they are received by media and customers/users.
Try to look beyond your industry and identify solutions that you can apply to the problems you are trying to solve.
Some problems are written off as unsolvable when no-one has (yet) come up with a feasible solution. Keeping track of technological advancements can enable you to be the first to match a technological break-through with an unsolved problem.
Activity two: Idea capture
The insights and assumptions identified during the research phase should be used as a foundation for brainstorming ideas and projects. The purpose of these sessions – whether formal or informal – is to create lists containing as many ideas as possible.
These sessions are preferably held in a room with a whiteboard and can be enhanced by asking a few key stakeholders to participate during some of the meetings (but not people in positions of “power” as this might make the participants apprehensive).
Participants should be intimate with the insights and assumptions and can be asked to develop a couple of ideas ahead of time. They should also be informed that the ideas will be evaluated after the sessions and that the ratio between impact and scope will be the most critical assessment factor.
A positive atmosphere should be maintained throughout the entire process (there are no bad ideas!), and participants are expected to defer judgment and instead add to, or expand on, existing ideas rather than critiquing them. It is perfectly fine to present rough ideas as they may help add energy and momentum or inspire other participants.
Moreover, since we mentioned momentum, keep the process going in the background between sessions. Brainstorming is excellent but, for some people, ideas come at the gym, just before they fall asleep (keep a notebook on the nightstand), or when they’re in the shower.
Activity three: Evaluation
The resulting ideas should be screened, and all ideas that are deemed interesting are organized around topics. Attempt to identify synergies between different ideas and how they could fit into different products or suites.
The products and ideas are then prioritized, and the best candidates make it to the list of things considered for implementation.
Ideas that can be turned into products or features can be evaluated through the following criteria:
- Does the product solve a real problem (or serve a future need) that can be clearly described and is the proposed solution easy to understand?
- Can you precisely measure the outcome or value delivered?
- Will the product stick out against competitors or internal processes (e.g. does it have a “wow-factor”, how is the target audience going to react)?
- If the product is solving a problem, how important is the problem to solve relative to other problems the potential users have?
- Does anyone want this product so badly they’re prepared to use a half-finished MVP version of the product?
Who wants this so much that they’ll use it even when it’s a crappy version one made by a two-person startup they’ve never heard of?
- To whom will the project deliver value?
- To how many can it deliver value?
- What is the relevant time frame for the market opportunity?
- How long will it take to build?
- Can you build an MVP that delivers value quickly and iterate on that?
- What is the measurable impact to implementation cost ratio?
- How does our ability to launch the product compare to a competitor’s ability to defend their market?
- How does the product fit into existing marketing and sales strategies?
- Can you use existing channels to get exposure?
The criteria you use to evaluate ideas can also include project-specific key performance indicators such as: customer acquisition capabilities, user activation, user retention, revenue growth, and productivity gains.
Try to apply a quantitative scoring model during the evaluation if the list of potential projects is long as it will help you prioritize the different ideas. You can build prototypes or create presentations to further evaluate the best ideas with potential end-users.
Apply the three activities described above iteratively until you find a problem worth solving, for which you can create a feasible solution that is useful to a large enough population to make a significant impact. Then go forth, build it, launch it and conquer the day.