Prototype Testing: Let your consumers tell you when you’re getting it right

One of the main reasons why small businesses fail is a lack of demand for their products. It’s a no-brainer when you think about it… a business is only sustainable if its products work for its end-users… and they feel confident enough to buy them. The best way to find out if you’re giving them what they want, is to ask them. And yet, too many companies, large and small, still manage to release their products to market without proper user-testing. 
To be fair, it’s not easy to deliberately expose your ‘next big idea’ to the full glare of public criticism but, in a competitive world, it’s the best way of making sure the product is viable. The companies that make the effort to test their products are often the most successful and that’s why user-testing is such an important part of the CRL Accelerator programme.

Understanding user needs

The Accelerator programme works with tech start-ups to help them understand user needs and develop prototypes at an early stage. The user-testing and piloting stages help to refine the hardware development process and, as with other products, they include everything from lab tests to ‘human trials’. 
Testing might start with potential users being invited into the lab to play with the hardware prototype, while the developers hover around in the background, doing their best to stay out of the way and resisting the temptation to sell. It’s the first chance to see how users might react to the look and feel of the product, and to deal with any immediate issues, but it’s never going to be the same as testing in a real-life situation. The lab tests will provide valuable insights that allow for refinements to be made before the next crucial stage of testing, where the prototype is released into the wild.

Every hardware company needs testers

The start-ups in the current Accelerator cohort are a diverse bunch, and they are developing a range of products that target markets including pet owners, professional make-up artists and high-end warehouse managers. The companies are all very different, but one thing they have in common is a need to get their prototypes into the hands of users, in their natural environment, for a few days at least. 
Field-testing is where potential users get to try out products in the privacy, and ‘messy environment’, of their own home or office. It’s also at this point that the developers get to see the difference between what people say and what they do when they’ve forgotten anyone’s looking… 
To give the products, and the testers, a fair chance, the prototypes need to be much more robust and must have fool-proof instructions for set up and operation. That’s another area where the CRL Accelerator team comes in handy… they guide the start-ups through the challenges of small batch production so that they can send out multiple prototypes to a diverse range of users for testing.

Test, refine and test again

Mat Hunter, Co-CEO of PlusX explains, “The Accelerator programme helps tech start-ups to really appreciate the value of prototyping and user testing. A typical mistake in big businesses is that they can spend a lot of time and money getting so far with a prototype, only to scrap it and start again when it goes wrong. Doing that wastes a lot of time and money. Start-ups don’t have months to waste on building full-scale prototypes that might not work. They need to be able to learn quickly so we teach them that they don’t have to test everything at once, and it’s better to take an iterative approach.” 
He adds, “We show them how to start with a prototype that takes days, not months, to develop. Then they can slowly build up the level of prototyping and testing so that, over time, they can get better quality evidence that tells them that people really need their product, can understand it, and won’t lose interest over time.” 

Key questions to ask when product piloting

Here are just some of the things that Mat recommends start-ups should think about when piloting new tech hardware.
Is everything clear? Did your testers understand how to set up and operate the product in their own space? Did it perform as they hoped?
Recognise those moments of truth: How did your product perform when it came to the two key moments of truth in user engagement? There’s that first retail moment of truth when a customer sees a product, in a store or online, and is so excited about it that they want to own it. Then the second moment of truth when the customer gets the product home and starts to engage with it. 
How is the performance reality likely to live up to the retail promise when the user gets it away from the showroom? How will you manage customer expectations and create those positive moments of truth for potential users that will get you talked about, in a good way, on social media? Will you be able to generate the excitement and then deliver on the promise?
Look out for loss of interest: Did testers get bored with the product after a while – maybe it didn’t work as they expected, or it was too much effort… 
Is the prototype reliable in the real world? What adjustments do you need to make to fix any potential issues? Especially with hardware, fixing quality and reliability problems is time consuming and expensive – and a huge potential risk to your reputation.
Keep it simple: What is the simplest, most cost-effective solution for the problem that your product is trying to solve? The more bells and whistles that go into a prototype, the more options there are to develop the product, but it also gets more expensive and complicated and it may not be necessary. So, were there any extraneous features that came up during testing that could be stripped out to make a better product?
The whole area of prototype and user-testing is an important one. That’s especially true for tech hardware where problems are harder and more expensive to fix if they go wrong later in the development process. In another article, we’ll take check out some more of Mat’s thoughts on what tech hardware start-ups should be looking at when considering product testing.

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