How to ruthlessly validate a new idea like a time-crunched designer.

If you’re like many people I know, you started the year full of new ideas, and so at this point you might be:

  • not sure how to get them all done
  • thinking of another 1000 things and not sure which to act on
  • perhaps even a bit overwhelmed

Good people — Don’t set yourself up to fail, waste time, or build regret into your life! Cut the ideas that take you in the wrong direction and aren’t most valuable for you.

In this post I’ll go over how to assess an idea you’re considering or problem you’re ruminating on solving, to see if it’s worth your time to go after — And we’ll do it just like in real life: as if there’s not enough time to do it all, so no, Jerry, you can’t add another item to the backlog without checking in with anyone else first.

First go get that wild and ambitious list of plans you have.

Write down what’s kicking around in your mind or crack open your todo list:

…a new feature to a product that you just have a hunch about? 
…a new offering to your clients, but you’re debating a few ways it could go?
…a problem that keeps popping up that you’re fixing to kill once and for all?

Make a list so it’s all out in front of you.

If you’re doing this as part of a team, get at a table or create a collaborative doc or board to look at everything together.

Next, interrogate the problem you’re trying to solve with each idea.

For any given idea, there’s a reason you’re implementing it … right? Often, it’s solving a clear problem and sometimes it’ll be building on a desire.

Importantly, if you started with a list of ideas, you’ll want to make a list of the related problems right next to the ideas. If an idea isn’t addressing any problem …

PAUSE.

Ask: is this adding new delight into the world (what delight, then)? Is this so new that literally no one knows it’s solving their problem (what is the new value, then)? Is this a creative endeavor that need not touch the world of social, environmental, or governance issues?

If you can’t come up with any reason or any problem related to your idea: HALT. You have de facto invalidated your idea. Congrats, you just got back all the time you would have spent on creating and on testing it!

Now, examine each related problem

Be brutal as you examine each problem: why is it worth solving? For whom? To what end? Are you sure it’s the right problem? Is there a problem that causes it that you’re forgetting about that has to be solved first? Is this problem “the right one?”

I just finished a short course on how to reframe and design better problems; here’s the key instructions:

From: “How to Design Better Problems

Refine and restate each problem at least once and then ask yourself: does this change the direction of the idea I have for this? Does this idea still make sense, given what I understand the problem to be?

Where your idea and problem don’t match up, congrats! You’ve just cut another idea off your list. It’s problems you want to focus on. That’s where the value is.

For ideas and problem pairs, run each through the gristmill of this seemingly cute venn diagram.

You’ll assess them based on these three characteristics: Desireability, Viability, and Feasibility.

Illustration by innovis.
  1. Start with assessing if it is Desireable — do you or others really, definitely want this thing, or want it to be addressed? How do you know? What signals have you gotten or how will you get them? Is it something your boss casually mentioned once, or something you have research pointing to its utility? Are your clients hinting that they have an outstanding need or are you just thinking up random new offerings? (If you’ve synced an idea to a problem you’re likely to pass into this circle, by the way.)
  2. Feasible — can this thing actually happen? Check for the four Ts: do you have the time, tools, talent and or team to make this happen? In software development we ask if it’s technologically build-able. In service we ask if the infrastructure (physical and/or human) is in place. If not, who or what needs to help so this is feasible?
  3. Viable — will it make money or deliver clear value? Viability is about the economics of enacting an idea, project, or product. Often, we simply need something to ultimately make more money than it costs in the long run. You can also ask: will it burn money but teach you something important you need to know or offer a delight you truly desire? And be honest: Will it drain your time and bank account and not really give back anything to you (that’s a red flag!)

Finally, assess and re-order your list.

The middle of the diagram is a sustainability indicator. So — does any idea “pass” all three assessments, and end up in the middle of the venn diagram? Are any close but just need some tweaking? Which is closest to the middle?

Reorder your list in order of which idea is most desireable, feasible, and viable. Important: You’re only allowed to put ideas one after the other, so no ideas get to be at the same level of importance and possibility.

I hope in asking this set of questions, you can end up with a few less ideas and a useful re-ordering of your ideas to prioritize your work. From here, all you have to do is start at the top of your list (or maybe, start convincing people who want you working on bottom-list ideas that they’re a waste of time).

If you’re on Skillshare, check out my 30-minute Designing Better Problems course here — and if not, you can sign up for free here with this link. Enjoy!

***

Hadassah Damien is a design thinking facilitator working at the intersection of innovations in technology and participatory experiences, as well as an artist and economics researcher.

Follow me here on Medium to keep getting my articles about using theatre works, sci-fi, and speculative methods to teach, user research, and engage!