Validating ideas is at the heart of a product manager’s job description. To some extent, a PM is a human validation machine.
A minimum viable product (MVP) is one of the most prominent validation methods. However, we often take the product part too literally; even if it’s reduced to a bare minimum, building a real solution is still one of the most expensive methods out there.
There are dozens of other — faster and cheaper — approaches to validation.
Table of contents
- What is product validation?
- Low-evidence validation methods
- Medium-evidence validation methods
- High-evidence validation methods
- Validate ideas for features, too
- Don’t over-validate
What is product validation?
Product validation refers to activities designed to test whether a product or feature addresses customers’ needs and pain points.
We can categorize product validation methods into three buckets:
- Low evidence methods are quick and dirty. Although the validation they provide is far from perfect, they are a great source of inspiration for further product direction
- Medium evidence methods strike a balance between validating the solution and getting additional insights for medium effort
- High evidence methods are great for strongly validating specific and already-refined ideas
Low-evidence validation methods
Low evidence methods are like smoke tests: they are not enough to confidently validate whether the idea is worth following or not, but they quickly tell us whether further validation is even worth the hassle.
While high-evidence methods focus on validating a precise idea, low-evidence approaches are great when we have only a rough idea and need some inspiration to chart a direction forward.
Low-evidence product validation methods include:
Prototypes are designed to mimic the behavior of a real product with minimal effort. They provide a great balance between effort and realness.
Although we often think about prototypes in terms of a product, you can even prototype a service — for example, through interaction stimulation during a Zoom call.
Validation surveys allow you to get a handful of quantitative data quickly.
The quality of your results, however, depends on the quality of your answers. It’s easy to get plenty of false positives or negatives from a poorly designed survey.
Ask for help if needed. It’s better not to run a survey at all than to get twisted results. Always make sure to use an excellent screener to filter out irrelevant answers.
If you have a sizable audience, you can ask it directly.
Just post on Twitter that you have an idea and ask people what they think about it. Or, set a poll on LinkedIn to get a pulse check.
This approach only works if you have a somewhat focused audience and you build a solution for like-minded people. If a bunch of completely random people follow you, use different methods.
The difference between validation interviews and exploratory interviews is that, in the former, you have a very precise set of hypotheses you intend to test.
The goal of validation interviews is to ask questions to help confirm or deny a hypothesis.
There are various types of validation interviews, such as:
- Willingness to pay discussions
- Customer validation interviews
- Subject matter expert interviews
- Partner and supplier interviews
Medium-evidence validation methods
Medium-evidence tools strike a balance between the effort they require and the evidence they provide.
Use medium-evidence methods when you have a specific idea in mind but you are not yet ready to commit to high-validation methods. These approaches also come in handy when you still want to refine the details of the offering.
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Medium-evidence validation methods include:
Nowadays, everyone can set up a landing page within minutes.
Set up a basic page with core information about your offering and see how it converts. It pairs nicely with the waitlist method, which we’ll discuss later.
Keep in mind that the landing page does not validate your value proposition. It does, however, validate general interest in a given topic and your messaging.
If you get 90 percent conversion on your landing page, you nailed your messaging, but it doesn’t necessarily confirm that you nailed the product itself.
Effort: Low– medium
Letter of intent
Useful more in the B2B setting, letters of intent are solid proof that a potential partner is interested in the product.
Signing a letter of intent doesn’t guarantee it’ll happen, but it is a strong indicator that the second party is at least interested in learning more about your product.
You can validate many ideas by using research someone else conducted.
There are different types of desk research, including:
- Search trends to validate general interests on given topics
- Industry reports to gauge in which direction a particular industry is heading and whether it aligns with your idea
- General statistics to size the market and notice trends
Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.
Effort: Low – medium
You can set up an ad and see how it converts. This technique pairs nicely with landing page testing.
The ad validates your messaging and general market interest in a given topic. It does not, however, validate the value proposition itself.
Getting a waitlist is a great way not only to gauge initial interest, but also to determine the initial audience to interact with.
Waitlists also serve as a great selling point in the case of two-sided marketplaces. If you need to build up the supply side, you can use your buyer-side waitlist size as a selling point to potential suppliers.
This technique works if combined with other tactics, such as:
- Mailing campaigns
- Explainer videos
- Landing pages
- Online ads
The concierge approach is when we manually perform Jobs-to-be-Done that our product would eventually do.
Although it has severe downfalls as a validation tool — the added human touch changes the overall perception and quality dramatically — it’s a great tool when we want to combine validation with more profound exploratory research.
Doing JTBDs manually allows you to talk to potential users during the whole experience and get additional feedback.
High-evidence validation methods
High-evidence methods are — apart from building an actual product — our best indicator of whether an idea makes sense or not.
We should only use high-evidence methods after we have done some low-medium evidence validation and already have a clear picture of how we want our product to look.
High-evidence product validation methods include:
Actual sales are a great validation method. If you can get people to give you money before the product even exists, then something is in the air.
If, for some reason, you don’t want to make money yet, then you can resort to mock sales. You proceed with an actual sale, but when it comes to finalization, you resort to a letter of intent or a handshake instead of an actual exchange of money.
While sales work mostly for B2B customers, we still have a tool to get the money in the bank for B2C customers: crowdfunding.
Set up a Kickstarter campaign and see how it performs. If enough people can put real money on the table just for the promise of a great product, then something is in the air.
Wizard of Oz
Wizard of Oz testing involves building the application’s front layer but using a human rather than software for all backend processes.
It’s similar to the concierge approach — the customer is served by a human — with one core difference. While in the concierge approach, potential customers know they are served by a human, in the case of Wizard of Oz, they do not.
The goal is to simulate an experience as similar to the end experience as possible. Although hard to pull off, it’s a great tool to validate the product itself.
There are dozens of integration and no/low-code tools. It’s possible to quickly build a Frankenstein product similar to an end-solution.
Although piecemeal products lack performance and scalability, they are often more than enough for the early phases. Plus, if you decide to pivot along the way, it will be easier and less expensive.
You could use Webflow for the frontend layer and Zapier to integrate with some freebie tools and extensions, and voila, you have a product.
Validate ideas for features, too
For some reason, many people drop all their validation habits after achieving the initial product-market fit — as if validation is necessary only in the early stage.
Features themselves need validation, too. And building features is expensive.
It’s worth your time to validate features in a similar manner to how you validate whole products:
- Building a new fancy B2B feature? Try to make mock sales first
- Have plenty of ideas on your roadmap? Build waitlists and see what brings the most interest
- Want to build a new complex feature? Perhaps you can use some low-code solution to build a half-baked version of the feature first
Features are mini-products. Treat them as such.
While it’s way more common to behave like a feature factory, blindly building feature after feature, some people are on the other end of the spectrum.
It might be tempting to keep validating the idea repeatedly with different methods, but the ultimate validation is the actual product on the market.
You can’t be 100 percent certain whether your product will be successful by doing interviews, mock sales, and prototypes.
Do enough initial validation to gain the confidence that you are building the right thing, but don’t ever expect full confidence. I’d say that 50 percent is still a great bet.
Featured image source: IconScout
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