Making stuff is awesome. Developing new product ideas with smart people is genuinely rewarding. And while the outcome of putting a finished product into the world is fun, technologist Tom Coates says the experience of making things can be even more enjoyable. In his closing keynote from #mtpcon San Francisco, Tom takes us through where ideas come from, where they don’t come from, and gives insight into a process that can help all of us to discover new products.
Everyone is Capable
Tom has been designing and building product for almost 25 years, and takes great joy in finding a broken part of the world, understanding it, and building something that can fix it. These days, however, most people who enter the tech industry never truly get to experience this process of finding ideas from scratch. Most of us come into the industry and work for someone else, using our skills to bring someone else’s idea to life.
Those of us who enter the industry to build someone else’s idea tend to be familiar with techniques to make things happen and get product to market. We are good at the cycle of “Build, Measure, Learn”, but we don’t really understand where the idea came from that gets fed into that cycle. We think coming up with ideas is something that other people do, and that founders have a lightbulb moment where the idea appears out of thin air.
Tom says he has met a lot of people over the years who are waiting for the big idea to strike. He he has known creative, brilliant, and inspiring people who can make extraordinary things, who somehow think they are not capable of creating ideas. He’s also met many people who have had an idea in their head for years, but never really put it to the test to see if it makes sense. The truth is, everyone is capable of finding new ideas, and there are techniques and processes that can help.
What is an Idea?
This may sound like a very basic question, but there are misconceptions about what an idea is. We may think that ideas appear and remain static through a product’s lifecycle, but ideas evolve, get refined, and change. The place where you start is not where you end. So when Tom talks about ideas, he is simply looking for a clear description of where you want to start building the first version.
The goal is to bring focus to your idea, and get enough information for you to have something to test. Tom recommends you make initial assumptions around areas such as:
- The basic promise of the product
- A set of features that will fulfill that basic promise
- The people who will use the product
- How you might monetize it
You’re not trying to get to product-market fit at this point. It is an attempt to guess what it might be in a relatively structured way so you can start work.
The Context in Which Ideas are Formed
We regularly talk about product sitting in the center of business, technology, and user experience. While it is a helpful model to think about our roles in companies, Tom also thinks it is a valuable way to think about new ideas. With UX we understand user needs. In tech, we examine feasibility and possibility. In business, we look at financial possibilities and what people might pay for. If your idea doesn’t have all three areas, it is not an idea at all. It is an illusion.
Any of these areas might be the initial spark of a new idea, and no product team can deliver unless all three disciplines are involved. So make sure you are looking across disciplines and sanity checking each idea to see if it is viable.
How do Ideas Appear?
The foundational story of Silicon Valley is the magical founder who turns up one day with a fully formed idea. We’re led to believe that the “Eureka!” moment is everything, and everything that comes after is just the unfolding of that story. This isn’t really how it happens. Ideas are not divine inspiration. Ideas are work.
There are a few different ways that ideas can come to fruition:
- The Slow Hunch: ideas that appear to come from nowhere, but have really been stewing for years. The person has been thinking about the area for a long time, turning it over in their head, maybe even experimenting a bit, until finally things come together. But it seems to have been an immediate revelation.
- Building on the Work of Others: Facebook wasn’t the first social network. There were several others that came before it. Facebook was the first that was able to really find the business model and become successful, but it was able to build on the conceptual labor that had already been done by others.
- Discovering an Idea Through Work on Another: This is the pivot. For example, Flickr was born out of a web-based game that had media sharing. The game never gained traction, but the media sharing proved to be valuable, and Flickr was born.
- The Hidden Work in Survivor Bias: After a company succeeds, it is really easy to forget about the hard work that went into the beginning and hard to see the work that went into other areas of the startup system.
So ideas are hard work, but this is a good thing! It means that ideas are not only the domain of geniuses and demi-gods. Any of us can put in the work to develop ideas.
A Process for Finding Ideas
Now that we understand that we are all capable of finding ideas, how do we go about putting in the work to do so? Tom walks us through some steps he has found useful in discovering ideas.
- Start off by finding some territories – a core user need, business opportunity, or technology that seems exciting. Don’t start with a fully-formed idea. This can be accomplished by starting with a wall and some sticky notes, and writing out everything that is interesting to you at the moment in the world of tech.
- Explain what is interesting about these territories to others. This will help you articulate why an area is interesting, and what you might dig into further.
- Group the insights coming out of explanations into themes.
- Generate some very quick product ideas in territories that you are considering focusing on. This should be short – 20 minutes – but just enough time to rapidly assess if there is a territory with some value.
- Vote on the territories you find the most interesting.
- Write them into simple, clear, one-pagers and rank them.
This is a focused process that should only take a couple days at most, and provides you with some areas to explore.
From Territory to Idea
Once you have chosen a territory to focus on, you can dig deeper to find ideas.
- Commit to the territories you have chosen and explore. Spend a few weeks digging into them – play with the technology, interview users, and really understand your starting point.
- Focus in on user needs. No product idea is communicable to another human being unless it brings value to real people.
- Don’t be afraid to apply brute force. You can try to force concepts together to see if they make sense.
- Gradually start to triangulate your idea. Start to figure out how to move your idea from its starting point to the center of the three disciplines.
- Filter as you go. Trust your instincts and park things that don’t make sense.
- Fill in the detail by going out into the world. Meet the users, talk to the people who will pay for the service, and continue to refine based on what you learn.
Choose an Idea
Now that you have gone from an infinite product space to a few product ideas, it is time to choose which one you move forward. Run your ideas past real people, trust your team, and check your own enthusiasm. But most importantly, remember it is just the beginning. You’re about to embark on a journey of exploration, so choose the area that will open the most doors and provide the greatest amount of opportunity. Look for the project that makes things possible that weren’t before. Then make a decision, and commit.
The truth is, this is always the beginning of a larger process. However far you get, you still have more to learn. We never stop finding the product – and that’s okay! Our work evolves, pushes, and changes the state of the art. It has been a hard time in the world of tech recently, but Tom still believes in the future that we can create. As long as we are working ethically, and as long as we’re aware of the effect of the things we make, if we find ways to make everyone’s lives better, we are doing good. So let’s spin up our ideas by the thousands, and take them out into the world. Let’s be great. Let’s be good. And let’s have fun!