Ideas shape the course of history

The world is governed by ideas. To make the case even more extreme, let me quote JM Keynes: “Ideas shape the course of history.”Keynes is certainly right; without ideas we wouldn’t be able to move anywhere. 

Many people around us are often full of “good” business ideas. It feels like that everybody has that “great idea” for an app or a platform that could be the next Facebook or Netflix. You know the conversations that starts with – “Let me tell you about this idea of ….” This doesn’t happen just out of business circles; inside the companies you can also hear those ideas about new features, initiatives or products.

What ruins the party is that it is often said that ideas themselves don’t matter much – their execution does (I said this by myself numerous times). This means that even if you have the best business idea in the world, if you don’t execute it in a way that works in reality, the idea itself was worthless. It is exactly this execution that makes the effort of product building so hard.

How could you know if the idea that you have is worth building in the first place? How can you be sure that what you want to build is valuable to anyone? In other words, how can you validate your idea, prove that it is needed on the market and that there is an audience who craves for it?

Let’s start with the basics. Say that you believe that the market and the users need an alternative to Goodreads, a social app and platform for book reviews. And you have an idea of how the alternative should work and look like. First and foremost, this is your belief. You believe that something could be better and that people (users out there) need that better thing – if the product turns out to be better in the end. In other words, all of these statements are your hypothesis about the world. And they might be wrong, meaning that you are thinking wrong. And these wrong beliefs are at the core of product flops. Quite often the world doesn’t need what you are dreaming about and quite often people deliver useless things. 

What you can do to prevent this kind of dead end? There is a whole set of precautionary measures that you could take, but let’s cover the most important ones.

Rethink the problem you’re solving; don’t just count on doing a spin-off

When people use certain products, they use them because those products solve them some problems and improve their lives in a certain way. It is extremely important to understand problems that people have and how they try to solve them. As Theodore Levitt once wrote, “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” The drill is the solution for the people who need a hole in the wall.

Microsoft’s Zune, an alternative to Apple’s Ipod, ended up as a flop because it was another product similar to Ipod. You could say it was just another solution to the problem (of curating music). The approach taken here was to focus on improving the solution rather than to solve the problem in a much different or better way. 

Even if you don’t try to solve problem in an unexpected, disruptive way (think about Spotify vs. Ipod), your product solution should be dramatically better than the alternative.

Go talk with the users

Nothing beats the approach where you directly talk to your potential users or customers. When doing this you can focus on several things. What are their pain points with current product solutions? What are the jobs they are trying to do with existing products? What are the alternative solutions they use everyday? 

When AirBnb founders saw low performance numbers upon launching their first version, Paul Graham, at the time the president of Y Combinator, advised them to spend some time with the existing users. What AirBnb founders did, they rented a camera and took new pictures of the existing listings. This approach solved the problems of the potential renters who were now more confident that the listings don’t look that bad in reality. This doubled AirBnb weekly revenue.

What is sometimes extremely hard to understand is that other people, say your potential customers, are often not the same person as you are. They might be, and quite often are, different in terms of their habits, preferences and needs. Never mistake other users for yourself as you might end up with the product (or service) liked by only small amount of users.

Let people experience your solution (product/service)

You should always try to “materialize” your idea. The worst case scenario is your idea explained via words; how your potential customers feel towards it? What they like or dislike? What do they expect from it? 

However, you should always strive to simulate what your idea is about. The closer the simulation gets to the real product, the better as the potential user has the opportunity to actually experience what it is all about.  

When IBM was experimenting with speech-to-text technology, they wanted to test how users would feel about it. But instead of just explaining how the technology works, they simulated the entire experience. They gave users the microphone to talk and what they saw was their text beeing typed on the screen. What users weren’t aware was that there was a typist located in the next room and he typed the speech.

Once you witness how people react towards your intended experience, you will learn a lot about them, your idea and the experience you want to serve to them. Throughout above mentioned IBM testing, they learned about various unintended frictions when using speech-to-text technology. It is much better to learn about all the caveats of your product while simulating it rather them upon launching it.


  • Rethink the problem you’re solving.
  • Spend some time with your potential users.
  • Try to simulate the experience you plan to offer – in order to learn about it as soon as possible.

The Author: Milovan Dekić, User Research Lead at Nordeus and Talks and Folks Mentor

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