I wish I’d known about this method years ago as it would have saved me trying to force the wrong changes and pursuing hopeless causes. Looking back, when I did things that worked I was in some way following this method more or less by accident. I also really wish I had access to these ideas when I started my first three businesses. So this is a blog about a method, an approach, a set of techniques. To some it is a kind of religion but to me, the concepts are so brilliantly simple and massively useful. It is related to “LeanUX” which is specifically about interface design for software. The point of my writing this blog is that the methodology has massive potential beyond those two applications so I wanted to show how it can be a great way to run a wide range of change projects in any organisation. If you already know about these methods and use them every day, great! But for everyone else, here’s a short summary of this powerful approach.

What’s the big idea?

As with most great ideas (and I do believe this idea is genuinely great) the core is very simple and goes something like this:

The trouble with new technology is that nobody really knows they want it until they have tried it. So if you had asked anyone if they wanted a mobile phone they might have been a bit interested. But the first time anyone actually uses one, it is life changing. And more recently, if you asked people if they wanted a phone that could also take pictures, the answer would have been no. I clearly remember the first time I saw someone using their phone to take a picture and thought it was a crazy, useless idea. However, when I bought a phone that had a camera, I was immediately hooked. There is a clear read-across into new products but increasingly it is being used within businesses to establish new ways of working. The vital part of the idea is that asking people abstract questions about something (usually forcing them to answer on a Likert scale) will only give you a hint about what they would feel about something. The truth is that the margins for error are very large because we cannot really imagine what a new process will actually be like or how a new product would make us feel.

Take another example: I had heard how amazing the acceleration on a battery powered car is. But I didn’t really appreciate quite what this meant before I actually drove one. It is astonishing! But my telling you that has little real impact. You really need to experience it for yourself for it to make sense. If you asked me what was important to me when buying a car, the benefits of the electric car would not have surfaced since I didn’t really know what the product was. The crux of this approach is to find ways of presenting the actual thing – or as near as you can get to it quickly – and then asking what people think about it. This is very different a way more valuable than asking “what if” questions. This is how it is different to market research – although some “what if” questions to potential customers as a kind of initial sniffing of the air can be used but only as the start point to show there might be a problem to be solved or that a particular product or new way of working might solve the problem. Above all, anyone launching a new product or service needs to be able to answer the Big Question:

What problem is it that you are solving?

This is also true of changes being made within businesses. For instance, how many restructuring projects are based on a truthful answer to that question? There are lots of other questions that follow from this –

How bad a problem is it?

How many people have this problem?

How much will people (or the business) pay to solve it?

Who else has solutions?

Will this solution actually solve the problem?

You need to completely focus on the Big Question before you do anything else. This means you really need to understand the customer (or user) completely. This means getting some good ideas from your potential market (that’s the market research bit), then if it seems promising you quickly create a product and then seeing how your customers react to it. This is referred to as the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) – a product that is quick to make but looks as much like the final product as possible. Do this quickly and don’t worry too much how close to the real thing it is. In some instances, having a product that is obviously a rough prototype can actually give more information that one that is more refined. In general people are grateful to be asked for their opinions and when the project at hand is some sort of internal change, people are far more likely to support change if they feel involved or that they have at least been asked for their opinions.

I remember when a new school was built in my town, I met a teacher at the school and asked about what their involvement had been in the design. I was astonished to hear that they hadn’t been consulted at all. So despite the investment in the design of the buildings, many mistakes were made simply through a lack of involvement from the people who were best placed to know how a school should be designed. Inevitably there was a significant motivation problem amongst staff when the new buildings opened and some of the architects ideas lacked the insight of the teachers. A wasted opportunity. What if staff (teachers and support) had been asked for their ideas, given mockups to work with? And what if the students and their parents had also been asked?

Often those running projects like this would shy away from asking for opinions because they have their own views or because they are concerned people will ask for things that will not be feasible. And then there is the budget. But there is a useful literature to refer to here which is generally called ” involvement”. The research is clear – people want to feel involved in the decisions that affect their work. And the work environment is one of the most important elements of how satisfied they will feel. BUT at the same time people also understand that their ideas might not be the ones that are put into the final design. We need to feel consulted and listened to more than we need to get our own way. It is a matter of trust: if I am treated as someone whose opinion is important, this is of more value to me than whether my idea is actually implemented. By all means make caveats about whether ideas will be included in end product, but time spent consulting with those most closely involved is time well spent. So create a rough version of what you think might be a possible solution to the problem and get people to use it. Or as close as you can to really using it. This is true for a new process, a new office layout, a new product…

Perhaps the key thing to remember is that the MVP can be very rough at first so it is created quickly and as soon as you possibly can, given to your users to… use! The emphasis is on speed and responsiveness. Your target audience will be more forgiving of the roughness of your MVP if it is explained to them what it is about. They want to feel as though they are contributing to the creation of something so seeing it being very rough is actually a benefit. Even when building apps, some believe it is actually better to make a virtue out of this by using hand drawn screens rather than spending any time creating nicely laid out ones.

Perhaps this seems obvious but it hasn’t quite been the way it has been worked in the past. Previously a product would be created based on asking customers what they might be interested in using if it existed. Lean Startup spends as little time as possible doing this and then moving as quickly as possible into actually giving them a simplified version of the product and finding out how they respond to it. Do they actually use it when they can? It is then far easier to predict whether they would actually buy it if it comes to market. This process has become the common language amongst startups and countless examples exist of its success.

At the same time it is essential for you to be objective – or as objective as you can. At what stage do you stick to your guns and say that regardless of some challenges, you are going ahead. Or do you take the evidence as telling you it simply isn’t going to work. Do you stick with your idea, change your offer or abandon the project? Those are usually very difficult decisions indeed.

But what if you are not starting a business? Of course if you are creating a new product, the process still holds true and you can see this every day on supermarket shelves. But I see the methodology being relevant in many more situations than just these. Clearly it has relevance to the creation of new IT systems and especially smartphone apps (which was where I first came across it). But I have now seen the idea being used in professional services, training and even manufacturing where it is combined with new technologies such as rapid prototyping. I have even used it in my own day job in Higher Education where I have tried out different exercises and approaches with students.

The time I used it most was when I worked very closely with students in developing a smartphone app that enabled students to access their learning on their phones. In fact I see this is a really good example of what happens when you bring an idea to life and then put it in the hands of the user. My initial idea was for ways for students in large lectures to feel more personally involved with the lecture materials. But almost immediately it became clear that this was an important but a relatively minor part of what it could do. Students wanted it to feel social and interactive so they could hear about changes to their programmes, communicate with their lecturers and work in small groups. This surprised me because other technologies already exist to do these tasks but the message came through loud and clear: students wanted all the tools needed for their learning in one place. We had hired a researcher who was a recent graduate deliberately so she would be of the same mindset as the students still studying. She had a suspicion that this might be the case and asked students about it. It seemed as though the social aspect would indeed be important. So we created what is called a WireFrame – a mockup of the different screens. We showed it to students to see what they found interesting about it. We then made a more refined mockup that imitated some of the functionality. Again we could see the features our users were attracted to so we started to actually build it. And then refined it again and again. We got the feedback we had dreamed of: why on earth hasn’t anyone done this before?

With a skeleton working prototype, we showed it to lecturers told us they liked using voting systems in large lecture groups but it was too fiddly or expensive and could we include this? So we built a skeleton version and gave them to try. And it was extremely popular. And that was included too as were other features.

Wider applications

I have seen first hand how this approach has massive applications across all manner of organisations. It’s been a key part of designing processes that really simplify workflows by including users in the design and testing from the start. I have seen new products develop at breakneck speed with apparently promising ideas being ditched before too much money was wasted on them simply by finding that there was no enthusiasm amongst customers. And I think we are only at the beginning of seeing how valuable these methods can be. They form a crucial part of Design Thinking and driving innovation. And there is really only one thing any of us can be sure of at the moment – we need to be innovating constantly or else we and our organisations will be left behind.