What an idea, sirji! And how did you come up with the idea, sirji?

29th Sep 2012
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If you’re building a startup or a product, you’re likely to be obsessed with ideas. Wouldn’t it be cool if...? Oh wait, there’s no one who’s doing this in the market, what if I start this…? This idea’s so cool, I should patent it!  Why work for someone else if I have such a great idea - should I just quit my job and work on this full time? There are so many VCs funding projects, I am sure I’ll get funding easily.

Ideas are intoxicating. And that’s a good thing. What comes after the brainwave is not easy. Productization or company building is an arduous task, and if the idea doesn’t thrill you enough, you might just give up halfway.

All ideas relate to opportunities. But how do you figure out if it’s the right idea or opportunity, what is the demand for the product that will germinate, and whether consumers will adopt it? By the time you get to productization, you might figure that your original idea has morphed into something totally different.

There’s a lot of literature on the how of ideation - brainstorming, creative thinking, concept generation, etc. that you can read up off the net.

Many large companies have processes and people who help with idea generation, product conceptualization, consumer insights, marketing, etc.

As a startup, there are some elements you can adopt as you go about your ideation journey.

In this article, let’s explore some of the parts of ideation and prototyping.

1. A consumer in sight is not consumer insight

Consumer insights is not just about sitting with prospective consumers and asking them what their problems are. Most consumers will rarely be able to help you with a solution. Many may not even be able to describe the problem contours.

While you may not have the means to go through formal processes like qualitative or quantitative consumer research, demographic and psychographic segmentation, here are some things you could look at:

- Who are the primary consumers for your product/service?

- What context do they live in? What constraints do they have in life?

- How does their typical day look like?

- What problems do they face?

- What are their likes/dislikes, beliefs and habits?

- What are they currently using to solve the problem you are targeting?

- Who are the influencers in their life?

- How comfortable are they shifting habits?

Much of this may seem simplistic, but a little thinking on this saves a lot of time down the line. Many of the critical success factors for your product come from a good understanding of consumer needs and motivations.

A few factors to watch out for:

- Personal bias: Consumers have different views and outlook. Its easy to think that you know what they want without really listening

- Technology bias: In the tech world, we often feel that a technical solution is all it takes, without understanding consumer attitudes to technology. You might build great technology, but if it is not what the consumers want, they won’t use it.

2. Landscaping and opportunity analysis

Informally, this could just be about understanding

- what competitors are doing in the space

- what are barriers for others to come in

- is the solution a me-too product that has little or no distinction to what’s available

- what price points are solutions offered at

- what business factors affect success - are success factors around product, discovery, marketing, after sales service or pricing

- who are the suppliers and influencers you need to work with

This can involve detailed market analysis and estimation, consumer choices and how you plan to establish your service.

3. Getting feedback on prototypes

Building a quick prototype after learning the first two might be the quickest and best way to get feedback. A prototype might not even be a functioning product. It could be mock ups of the product and work flow or even sketches that you could show prospective consumers to get feedback.

4. Refinement and iteration

The process is usually iterative, so you might find yourself going through back and forth a bit before you come to an final product idea that’s plausible.

All the gyan is fine. But how is it useful for me?

Here’s an idea! Let’s go through a quick exercise to see how this would play out in practice, so it all doesn’t seem like gyan :)

For starters, let’s keep this extremely simple in the initial ideation phase and refine the idea in later stages.

Say you have an idea for a travel site. You believe that the travel sites for weekend getaways are still missing something and you sense an opportunity there.

You could start by asking– whom will you target and why?

There are a lot of folks joining companies every year across major Indian cities. Many of these are fresh out of college, are earning for the first time in their lives, are curious to explore and have a large group of friends that they hang out with.

You decide this is a great place to start (in research terms, you are beginning consumer segmentation).

You try finding out more about this set of consumers. You estimate that 60% of them are male. Most of them have their weekends free.After the first month of exploring the city and setting up house are looking for places to explore.

To start with, you read up all you can on the travel industry and the consumer segment. You realize that there are many areas within 200km of major cities, and many sites that already offer this information. However, you notice that most of the sites are targeted to those who are looking for indulgent weekend vacations, or resorts and hill stations.

Now, you spend time with some of consumers. Since you want to avoid a bias, you choose a set of people amongst those you know and others you don't. You try learning from them on why they travel and what they look out for. You ask if they have used the competitive sites and what they find missing in those sites. In addition to asking about why they travel, you also try figuring out why they don’t travel.

During the conversation, you might realize that while most of the sites are great for people who have a car or want to travel by bus, there is no site for places to reach on a bike. Many of the consumers tell you that they plan to buy a two-wheeler soon as they it has always been their dream. When they buy it, they wish to explore India on a bike, or at least get away every weekend. Those who already have a bike tell you that its great biking on the highways, but they dread the traffic when getting out of the city and back in after their travel.

Now this sounds like an insight you could use! What if you built a travel site for bikes that used predictive traffic info to tell you what was the best time to leave for the destination and to get back?

That’s an idea you could prototype and check with your segment.

During the discussions with the prototype, you realize that consumers like the fact that they can see info when they plan, but fear that data connection might be a problem when they have reached their destination. So you refine the product and figure out that the solution could be a website + a consumer service number that people can carry with them to call and ask about traffic info on various roads into the city. Depending on this information, they then decide when they leave the destination, take alternate routes into the city or stop at outskirts till the traffic gets better.

Now, your idea has evolved and you could prototype/mock up this and ask your users again. This is just a simple hypothetical case, but often key ideation insights come up when you dig deeper into consumer concerns.

So, if you’re thinking about your startup or product, try talking to consumers and figure out key insights. They might help you ideate better and save expensive assumption mistakes.

In the next article, let’s look through some other elements of market and opportunity analysis.

What has your experience with consumer insights been? Post your comments on the topic below or reach out to me on Twitter at @shrinathv.

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