Here’s a little-known technique that helps you start learning from potential users without building anything at all.
Before I launched my last startup, I spent a couple of weeks testing my idea with potential customers. I sketched box diagrams of how the app would work on paper, and observed volunteers as they pretended to use it.
During the test, I had volunteers tap the paper and tell me what they expected would happen. I paid attention to the words they used, their expressions, and their feelings. After each session, I made quick iterations — replacing confusing buttons, tweaking the messaging, developing clearer calls to action. I thought that this kind of paper prototyping was as simple as usability-testing could get.
Then, one afternoon as I was sitting in the coffee shop waiting for a volunteer to arrive, I realised I’d left my prototype at home. I had to think of something fast, so I got out my smartphone, opened a competitor’s app, and placed it on the table.
‘So,’ I said when the volunteer arrived. ‘Here’s my app. It’s called YPlan.’
Using my competitor’s product to do usability testing for my own app was the best idea I’d never thought of. I hadn’t checked if other people shared my opinions about my competitors, nor had I considered how much I could learn from them, good or bad.
YPlan lists out a selection of tonight’s events that you can book in two taps. The volunteer seemed impressed by the design and immediately started playing with the interface. But she completely missed the hidden menus that I would have otherwise copied.
I asked her which event she’d like to go to. She went down the list much faster than I’d expected and I realised that she was using the images to guide her decision. A pattern emerged — images that resonated were either unusual or exciting. For example, a photo of a pizza with a glass of champagne got attention because ‘pizza and champagne don’t often go together.’ Conversely, a photo of an empty restaurant was ignored completely because ‘who wants to go to an empty restaurant?’
I did the same test with other volunteers and by the end, I could predict which events people would click into with reasonable accuracy. I’d never have figured this out with a paper prototype.
Paper prototypes and mockups use blank boxes or placeholder images in place of real content. This allows the tester to fill in the blanks with their imagination. The problem is it’s very hard to know what goes on inside people’s heads.
Live products show real content. And it’s hard to overestimate just how important the specifics are. Great content can make up for minor mistakes in the user interface, but no amount of design can fix bad content. Understanding exactly which content users love — and why they love it — helps you build better interfaces that enhance the positive qualities of great content.
In the case of my startup, 3 Kinds of Ice, I decided to curate our venues based on how unusual or exciting they were. I hired a content team to show what it was like to experience each place, with full-screen storybooks containing professional video clips and images.
You can test your competitor’s products the same way you test your own. Give volunteers a goal; for example, ask them to try and book a flight to Paris, and see what they do.
You could even go one step further and let them loose on Google or the App Store and see which competitors they choose.
I continue to test other products even after launching our app. Whenever I see a new feature in another app that interests me, I run a quick test. It’s not always competitors’ apps either — I like testing new apps that are just taking off. It’s easy to feel like you need to ‘keep up with the Jones’ and match every feature your competitor releases, but most features fail — so it’s worth testing first.
Testing your competitors’ products gives you an advantage over them. Exploit their weaknesses to win over customers. Seize the chance to understand your customers from a new perspective. And just hope that they aren’t testing you too!
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.