As a UX consultant who advises early stage startups, I often encounter founders in one of two camps: those who say they don’t need to conduct user research and those who regret not doing it correctly earlier on. Of course the only real difference between the two is whether they’ve tried testing their prototype with real users yet – and even if they have, they still find it difficult to dissect what users are saying and knowing what to do with the feedback. 

With this in mind, let’s take a look at some UX risk factors or “signs” that are putting your prototype on the path to failure.

Risk Factor #1: You arrived at your conceptual design with little or no end user input

Tell me if this ideation process sounds familiar to you: You independently, or with a small team, brainstorm possible business ideas with many “If only…” and “Wouldn’t it be great if…” statements. These problem statements are based mostly on your personal observations and assumptions of how the world works. Your idea might sound something like “If we can get X number of people to do Y, then in theory, we should be able to make Z in revenue.”

So what’s wrong with this approach? It is a fairly popular conceptual framework for defining and determining problems to solve in a logical way. However, it’s largely based on your own theories about how things should be. If you don’t put your theories to the test, you won’t really know if your theory is actually true, only partially true, or not true at all. And if you wait until the final product is finished to test the market, you are taking a very, very big gamble for which very few people have the risk tolerance for.

Don’t only rely on your existing experiences and observations. Go out and gain new insights through field observations and user interviews. Turn any insights you have into different hypotheses to be tested and look for real evidence of user behaviors that can help validate (or more importantly, invalidate) those hypotheses. Something that sounds to you like it should be an obvious winner “in theory”, might not actually resonate with the average consumer in the same way you originally thought – or might only be the tip of an even bigger iceberg to further explore.

For example, when a gift card service called Giftly.com first started out, they thought it would make business sense to capitalize on people’s unwanted or unused gift cards by asking people to mail them in exchange for cash. Sounds like a reasonable, logical conclusion theory, right? But when they finally started to talk to people who buy and receive gift cards, they realized the real opportunity was in offering people an alternative to gifting cash in the form of a personalized gift card. Had they started talking to people earlier on, they would have saved several months in their product development process and countless resources.

Risk Factor #2: You’ve conducted market research without conducting user research

Another very common misstep that founders take when starting out is to cast their net too wide in terms of who to target for their initial solution. Founders have to be optimistic in nature, but as a result, they often overestimate the scope of who they should target as customers or users of their product. Remember here that in introducing something very new and innovative will mean that much of the market won’t necessarily respond positively right away – it’s the early adopters who plant the seed and set the tone for testing and honing the initial versions of new products before they are ready for the mainstream consumer masses. It’s your job to sift through all possible customers and identify the early adopters for the best chance (and quality of feedback) to test your product early on. Deepening your understanding of different segments of potential users will also help you pivot your product-market fit moving forward if it turns out that all signs are pointing to another slice of the market with different feature priorities in mind.

Don’t get me wrong, market research is a critical piece to understanding whether or not you should go into business in the first place. However, it is largely a macro-level view of how groups of individuals behave geographically or demographically. User research, on the other hand, helps you understand the more intricate patterns of behavior and decision-making that starts with observing individuals and then works its way up to understanding groups of individuals. Employing methods from both fields helps you to cross-check market findings with your own empirical behavioral findings.

For example, you may have determined through market research that catering businesses in your country represent a $100 million industry and that over half of that industry comes from corporate or high net-worth (HNW) individual events in urban areas. But do you know how often those individual corporations or HNW individuals initiate events that need catering? Or what are the trigger events that lead them to start evaluating caterers and how much time (and decision inputs) it takes before they can finalize who to choose? How about what barriers they face when it comes to working with caterers versus other alternatives? These are just a few examples of questions that user research can answer to inform what you should, or shouldn’t, offer to your prospective customers (and end users, if there is a UI component to your product offering).
For more about market and behavioral segmentation, you can check out my article on personas.

Risk Factor #3: You believe that being “first-to-market” is your best chance for success

It may seem tempting to believe that because there’s no one else currently offering your solution, that being the first-to-market is a guaranteed winning strategy. But you have to remember that chances are, you’re not the first with the idea – it’s more likely that many others have already tried and failed which is a likely indication that “the market” isn’t ripe to receiving this new change yet. And keep in mind that the reverse could also be true. Even if there are already players in this space, it’s possible that the biggest competitor is actually consumer apathy – in other words, users don’t care enough about the new solution to change their current (hard-to-break) habits of doing whatever it is they’re already used to doing.

Even if you are first to invent a new technology, it doesn’t automatically translate into a sustainable business. For example, YouTube has been around for over 10 years and still (arguably) doesn’t make a profit. It’s also why Hulu.com (another video service) could have turned a profit earlier on, if only they had realized that users would have been willing to watch a handful of ads in exchange for the convenience of being able to watch syndicated TV shows on their own time instead of having to be home at a certain hour to watch on their TV set. (More on this case example another time.)

This means that the scope of your user research must include ways to capture insights about how people are actually behaving right now, with or without any technological assistance. It necessitates conducting research “in the field” and also likely requires more detailed methods such as task/behavior analyses and constructing customer journeys to identify the best user insights to take advantage of. Think of it as going “undercover” to investigate what users are really up to and why – kind of like a detective who has to collect evidence and proof of (incriminating) behaviors.

Risk Factor #4: You are waiting for your prototype to be fully-functional before testing with real users

When it comes to a new product concept, consumers don’t care as much about how the technology works, but rather whether or not it delivers the end outcome they want. Think of it this way, if someone is selling you the concept of a futuristic flying car, do you first want to know the details of how the technology works or do you want to know how much faster it can travel compared to a non-flying car? What I’m really trying to say is, you may need to acknowledge that the desire for a fully-functional prototype (versus a quick-and-dirty low fidelity prototype) comes from a place of vanity.

My point here is to carefully consider what level of fidelity for your prototype is necessary to get useful feedback. Don’t automatically assume that you have to a high fidelity (fully functional) prototype first, which is a costly process both in terms of time and resources. Start with low fidelity prototypes, such as paper prototyping and/or clickable wireframes, and see what kind of feedback you get – and aim for many iterations in a short period of time. If the feedback is poor quality, it may mean you need another type of prototype or to try a higher level of fidelity. (Or it could be you’re asking the wrong questions. More on that for another article.)

Remember when I mentioned identifying your early adopters? With the help of your early adopters, analyzing their feedback and responses will guide your design decisions and help you determine which features to prioritize. So don’t wait until you have a fully-functioning prototype in hand before you start engaging your early adopters. Start testing if the end outcome is even enough to keep people coming back for more – and more importantly, if it’s good enough for them to want to pay real money for it. Remember that in getting feedback from users, you’re not only testing to see if your product is usable or effective but whether or not it is a sustainable business.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, failure is bound to happen in some shape or form. But it’s how you learn from the failure that will set your trajectory for future success. Some founders have a higher tolerance for the risk factors I described above and may not need to take my recommendations to heart. That’s okay because they can afford to conduct business as usual. For those who have a lower risk tolerance, I encourage you to learn more about how introducing UX methods early and often can mitigate your risks of ending up with a product that no one will buy.