In UX design and design thinking there’s a step for prototyping and testing ideas. The idea is to quickly and cheaply find a way to see if your idea will work before dedicating a ton of time, money, and resources to something that is destined to fail, or even worse, you realize you hate working on.
Prototyping can be as simple as storyboard sketches on a piece of paper, role playing, or creating a clickable digital mock-up without using any code (aka “faking it”). Then you put it in front of actual people. Early on this may be team members or collaborators, and if you really want to see if it has legs, but it in front of someone from your target audience.
Design is meant to be iterative. Testing out ideas allows you to gain interesting insights into what happens when people actually interact with your product or service. As you iterate, you can make prototypes that go from low fidelity to something more high fidelity. Still, it doesn’t have to look perfect. In fact, when something looks super polished and perfect, the people you’re testing ideas on may get distracted by the look rather than what you’re trying to do.
You really want to focus on the the core problem your trying to solve. You can refine solutions over time. It’s better to fail early, fail fast, and fail often. It means you’re learning—and hopefully improving—as you go.
So why am I giving you a mini UX lesson? Because the same ideas apply to real life. It’s tempting to dive right in to new projects, but sometimes it pays to figure out a way to test things out first. Also, the best answers to a problem aren’t always the most obvious.
Here’s a real story for you:
Back in grad school I’d take on odd jobs to help cover my cost of living in France. Through my travel blog I’d get various inquiries (I told you, it’s my best business card). Helping people move to France seemed a natural next step for me.
Here’s the catch. I tried it and HATED IT. Like had the WORST DAY OF MY LIFE HATED IT. By no one’s fault (except maybe the lack of efficiency and service in France), the perfect storm arrived when I was working with two clients at once. Due to other circumstances and delays, they both needed me at the exact moment where I was not.
I have a distinct memory of being downstairs by the elevator in the hall of one client (who client was upstairs trying to get the door unlocked hours later, and the locksmith had cut himself, disappeared before getting the door open, and then invoiced an insane amount for craptastic work) when the second client called me to inform me that something had not happened, and suddenly everything was my fault, and neither scenario happened as planned, or as it should have. On top of it, because of the minor crisis upstairs, I hadn’t eaten lunch, it was now 3pm, and my wits were at their end. The stress of the clients being in a land they don’t know and didn’t speak the language didn’t help either. The side of relocation that people don’t talk about is the emotions it brings out too.
Even though this situation was no fun at all, I’m really thankful it happened. It made me realize it was not at all what I wanted to be doing long term. Not only did it not suit my personality, but there were so many potential aspects of the business I had envisioned that would have driven me absolutely nuts.
In testing out ideas, I had taken on a couple small odd jobs because let’s be honest, I needed the money, but also knew it was something I could do. Those odd jobs planted some ideas in my head of what I could do next, after school. It let me see if there was product-market fit (turns out there was, but still, that doesn’t mean there was an automatic fit for me.)
Most of my life has been figuring out what I don’t want to do, rather than having the single end goal in mind. I like it this way, because it keeps me open to possibilities I otherwise never would have known existed.
The book Designing Your Life (in my post of the 3 books that helped my biz the most) makes a big case for prototyping and testing out your ideas. The book has you come up with three different paths, one which is kind of crazy. To prototype and test your ideas, you can go try something out to see if you like it, set up an interview with a person in the industry, or find some other creative way to try it out without being a big investment (talking time and money).
The emphasis on discovery is designed to help you figure out what parts of jobs you really enjoy, and which you don’t. What energizes you and what sucks you dry? In testing things out—or even just through talking with people already in the industry—you may just uncover a facet of the work you never would have uncovered on your own.
I always give the example from a chef friend who went to culinary school. She tells me so many stories of people wanting to start their own business or shop because they love something like baking cookies. But baking cookies in the comforts of your home is very different than having to mass produce cookies at scale. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just to say that sometimes you may want to try things out before diving head first. Our dreams and expectations don’t always meet reality. And if you’ve ever talked to anyone who has worked in a professional kitchen, it’s hard work! But so many people who jump straight into the deep end haven’t bothered to talk to anyone who is in the shoes where they want to be.
I’d say the same for a graphic designer or developer. Before quitting your cushy full-time job, start taking on a few freelance clients on the side to see if you even like it. See if you can get paid what you’d expect, if they pay you on time, if you even enjoy it (spoiler alert: for many freelancers it’s lonelier than they expect). Prototyping and testing ideas does not—and should not—be a big, expensive idea. It’s just a fancy design way of saying to try something out, and learn from that experience.
It can be as simple as starting a blog. Ok. Pause. Stop that vision of blog of today that is perfectly branded and templated. Instead, figure out the path of least resistance. Perhaps use Medium (free), Tumblr (free), or add a blog to a site you already have. Blogs are a perfect playground for ideas. I give myself a time limit now to make sure it gets done (otherwise you’ll have a 4 year block like I did where I beat myself up). Testing ideas means seeing if something is fun for you before you dive in head first. You can always polish it once you realize it’s something you really enjoy.
If you have a workshop or class idea you’re toying with, look for beta testers. When you offer something for free you don’t have much to lose, but you have so much to gain from their feedback. Yes, it may be another step up front, but the idea is that you’ll save SO much time in the long run. I know even though I’ve run well over 250+ Paris tours, even 5+ years later I’m still learning from my clients, and I make tweaks from each experience I learn from. The reality is that we’re never done learning, and that’s what makes running a business fun!
But back to the worst day of my life. In hindsight, it’s actually one of the best days of my life because I learned an important lesson early: this was not at all what I wanted to be doing with my life. Sure, every job has ups and downs and good days and bad days, but through this experience I started to realize it’s not how I could best contribute to the world. Sometimes the best thing you can learn is to be honest with yourself when something isn’t working for you.
From that bad day forth I decided that how I’d help expats was through writing funny stories on my blog, Prêt à Voyager. In my travel and Paris writing I strive to hit the right balance of humor, practicality, and resources. Even if I don’t directly help people move to Paris through my business and blog, it turns out that people reach out to me often (or I meet them in person years later), and the tell me how helpful my blog was for their move to France, which is always heartwarming to hear.
In all of my work I try to manage expectations, and the same goes for my writing. I hope to share my own experiences and lessons I learned the hard way so others can learn from it too. (See post: Everything I learned about running a business in France.). As a bonus, I also pick up great tips from my readers and Instagram followers all the time, so it’s a win-win.
The irony as I write this post is that I have an idea in my head that’s inspired by that first business idea. Except it’s an entirely new twist, done in my own way, and drawing from my own experiences. The step after testing should be learning. I’ve learned a lot from my failures over the years—they’re the best way to grow. And I’m REALLY glad I failed early rather than investing in starting up a business that would have made me miserable.
Your turn! What were the ideas you had that you were so glad you tested out before diving in too deep?