💩✨ Stop polishing turd products with this one weird trick
Hard Test, Easy Life.
I’m pretty bullish on the idea of product teams starting new initiatives with a Hard Test. The other day I found myself thinking about why this is so effective.
A Hard Test is when you ship an ugly, tiny-scale, rough, hand-operated, cobbled-together version of Your Big Idea™ to at least one real customer.
It’s uncomfortable for many teams — scary even — and I’ve realised why.
It’s because you can’t dress up your product release in what you think a product ought to look like. So there’s absolutely nowhere to hide.
You’re forced to contend directly with the value the release delivers – or doesn’t.
You strip the whole thing back to only the element of Your Big Idea™ that you believe helps your customer be a little bit more awesome. And then it’s staring at you.
There’s no perfume to mask the smell. No glitter to distract the eye.
Yes, if Your Big Idea™ is secretly a turd, the Hard Test forces you to behold it, in all its majesty.
Whereas — if there actually IS value in that beating heart of Your Big Idea™ — customers will see past the ugly. The thing will actually help them be slightly more awesome, and you’ll know about it. (Yes, they’ll also complain that it’s janky, but those kinds of complaints are easy to fix, as well as a good sign that the customers care.)
As Alberto Savoia, author of The Right It, put it (continuing the poo-etic theme of this post) “if people really, REALLY want your product, they will put up with a lot of, ahem, C.R.A.P. (Clunkiness, Rough edges, Attention to details, and Performance issues.)”
Your Hard Test probably won’t look anything like your final product. It probably won’t involve designing UI or writing code – at least not in the way most product teams think about those activities. (Stay out of Figma!) Add no product bells or whistles. Just do barely enough to help one customer be slightly more awesome.
Remember: I’m NOT saying you should ship the ugly Hard Test at scale! OF COURSE there’s a lot to gain by building Your Big Idea™ well, making it look amazing, run smoothly, all those good things. Craft and polish absolutely matter. I just like to make sure my teams aren’t applying their craft skills and precious energy on polishing yet another turd product.
I’ve seen this simple, uncomfortable practice save so many teams from wasting so much time on the wrong things.
A few years back, my team needed to design an insights dashboard for our customers. Our Big Idea™ was to give customers a new view of their data that would help them take more effective action each week.
We’d already established with early market probes that there was enough demand for what our product idea promised. Now we needed to figure out how to actually deliver on that promise.
Enter the Hard Test: an ugly spreadsheet that we emailed manually to a handful of customers. The spreadsheet showed each customer a novel view of their actual data, crunched through a data science model, and with a couple of graphs thrown in.
It didn’t look good (I believe the designer on the team still has nightmares). But it did work.
Customers started getting in touch, asking if we could send next week’s edition to a few more of their colleagues. We invited customers to calls so we could learn more, and their questions and suggestions guided us.
Because it was only a spreadsheet, it was incredibly cheap and quick for us to add parts, change parts, or throw parts away. Over just 10 weeks, we evolved an ugly-but-valuable dashboard that most of the Hard Test customers had started using to get real results. The engineers on the team added little automations as we understood more about what we were doing, and that made it easier to put every spreadsheet together.
The final version of our spreadsheet dashboard was wildly different from what anyone had imagined when we started out. We had also learned exactly why our initial ideas wouldn’t have worked. All in just over 2 months. That’s the power of a Hard Test.
After that, the team and the stakeholders were confident to polish the design and code the product properly to release at scale, knowing we weren’t polishing a turd product.
Three methods to distil a Hard Test out of Your Big Idea™
Method 1: Only train the monkey to juggle the fire
Astro Teller of Google X uses a metaphor with his teams to help them zero in on the Hard Test:
“If you plan to train a troop of monkeys to juggle fire while standing on pedestals in the town square, don’t waste any time building pedestals until you’ve figured out how to get at least one monkey to juggle fire.”
Pedestals are fun to design and easy to build, which makes them an attractive place to start working. You know what they look like, you can get moving quickly and feel like you’re making progress. But this ‘progress’ is a trap! If you can’t solve the monkey-juggling-fire part, a million pedestals won’t help. In fact, the more pedestals you build, the more time you’ve wasted and the more sunk cost you’ve created.
So, which part of Your Big Idea™ is the part where you train the monkey to juggle fire?
Method 2: Simulate two key moments
(A version of this appears in my card deck, Innovation Tactics. Pre-orders open now.)
Write down in detail what you believe a future customer of Your Big Idea™ will do, see and feel in 2 key moments:
when they choose it (i.e. they find it, they assess it, they buy it …)
when using it actually makes their life better
Ask yourself and your team, “for those two vital moments, how can we simulate them today – without building anything?”
Brainstorm 3 different ways you could achieve this. Choose the one that you can get into one customer’s hands the quickest. This is your Hard Test.
Write down what you’ll need to see customers do during this Hard Test to feel confident that you’re onto something with Your Big Idea™.
Deliver the Hard Test. Occasionally, everything will go as you anticipated. Not often though! It’s likely that you’ll need to pay attention, learn, make changes and repeat your Hard Test. You might need to make tweaks, change plans radically, or even go right back to the drawing board. (My Signals > Stories > Options framework will help you make sense of what you’re seeing and choose what to do next.)
Method 3: Enrol for my course, Innovate Confidently, this May
Designing a good Hard Test is one of the techniques you’ll master if you join a cohort of my Innovate Confidently course.
You’ll get to practise taking a real product idea and zeroing in on the moments that matter by layering the signals you need to see onto a Multiverse Map – a model of how a customer will use your idea. You’ll also get to see lots of examples that inspire different ways to Hard Test your ideas.
Ready to register? Here’s the link: https://maven.com/tom-kerwin/innovate-confidently-with-pivot-triggers
If you’d like to ask me any questions about it, grab a slot for a no-strings chat: https://calendly.com/tom-kerwin/chat-with-tom
And want to see if your manager will foot the bill, grab the template behind the “get reimbursed by your employer” link on the course page.
– Tom x
Thanks tofor helping me shape up the Hard Test version of this article, and Alberto Savoia for encouragement and C.R.A.P. :)