Leading up to the event I gave a short presentation of Product Hack tips. The top lessons learned from our Pods (teams of 3 to 5 engineers) about how to quickly take an idea from concept to demonstrable experience.
Before specific tips, the most important macro advice is this: make your product SHOCKINGLY COOL. It is important to continually improve and optimize the current product and features, but a hackathon is about going out to the edge of what is possible and discovering a cool product that makes heads turn. Think of it like pitching a VC for funding (or your boss to support a project) … everyone expects incremental stuff. Everyone is looking for the shockingly cool.
5 tips for getting your product to shockingly cool.
Tip 1: Research
Find the best of what is already out there. This simple framework has been very useful for us: look at two sets of apps/sites - the “biggest” and the “buzziest.” Ex: when we do work on travel products – we always look at what Priceline, Expedia, etc. are doing. And what the startups like Hipmonk are doing. Comparing and contrasting how the old and new are tracking similar problems to yours is fast and insightful. Make sure you read their customer service forums too … this tells you a TON about where the problems are and where your solution can win.
Tip 2: Guerilla Customer Testing
You are iterating rapidly. You need a rapid response team of customers to bounce iterations off of. Formalize this group right-away. I like groups of five (tip on selecting the team below). Give them access to prototype or screens. When soliciting feedback, only give them two instruction: (1) a task like “rent a car for this weekend” and (2) ask them to think-out-loud. The more verbose they are the better. If you are getting feedback remotely, better to get on the phone and hear them … asking them to write notes is a pain for them and you will probably miss the most valuable insights.
Don’t confuse “how it works” (usability testing) with “would I buy/use this?” (value testing). You simply have deal with the former – customers have to understand how things work intuitively. But the real power is identifying where they see the VALUE. How they are using the product and what problem they have that you are solving (it is often not what you intended). If you don’t zero-in on this value point and pivot your product around it, you may miss the opportunity to create shockingly cool.
Tip 3: The “You + 1” Rule
When making your Guerilla Test Team you should always be a member – by that, I mean that the product has to excite you. You are the creator and if it doesn’t work for you it is going to be mediocre.
Your team should also include someone that you know is tough customer (the +1). Someone who buys/uses products like yours a lot and will not hold anything back. In my case, for anything shopping related, I ask my wife Alice to be on the team. She will tell me like it is. And that is invaluable.
Tip 4: 40-20-40
To use limited time most wisely, use this framework: 40-20-40. Like writing an essay in college, spend 40% of your time planning/research/setup. 20% executing the v1. 40% iterating-like-hell on it.
Tip 5: Pour Love into Interaction Design
You can fake the backend. You cannot fake actually thinking about a customer problem and iterating on the solution. It is like sculpting: you design the interaction. Get feedback (from customers). Sculpt again. Repeat & repeat.
This IS NOT VISUAL design … it’s about creating elegant experiences by getting the experience right. The right steps, data hierarchy, copy, hero images, etc. The minimal bits that will communicate the essence of the experience.
It cannot be ugly (the internet is visual medium and design matters). But at this stage, you can craft the essence of the product without visual design help. It’s the core DNA of the product that you are creating. This requires tremendous love & care – and cannot be outsource to a visual designer.