Idea Validation

See also: Innovation Skills

Linus Pauling, the Nobel laureate, once famously said that to have one good idea, you needed to have lots of ideas. There is therefore a tendency to focus on generating lots of ideas—and our pages on Creative Thinking Techniques and Brainstorming Techniques provide plenty of ideas for doing just that. However, a lot of people forget that you then need a way to distinguish the good ideas from bad: a reliable method for assessing and validating your ideas to check that they will be viable in the market.

This page discusses some methods that you might consider for idea validation. It includes ways of approaching customers and obtaining information from them, such as interviews and surveys. It also considers aspects such as technological feasibility and economic viability.

Idea Validation Within the Innovation Process

It is useful to understand where idea validation fits within the process of innovation. This helps you to understand the purpose of assessing and validating your ideas. This will, in turn, help you to select suitable methods for the task.

Our page on Understanding Design Thinking explains that design thinking, as a technique for innovation, aims to bring together three aspects of any potential product:

  • Customer desirability: how much customers will want this product;

  • Technological feasibility: whether this product can actually be delivered at this time; and

  • Economic viability: whether the product can be delivered as part of a sustainable business model.

This therefore makes clear that any process of idea validation must assess your ideas against all three of these aspects. It is no good looking at just customer desirability, or just technological feasibility. You need ideas that hit the ‘sweet spot’ where all three are met.

The page on Understanding Design Thinking sets out a five-stage process for innovation:

  • Empathise to understand your customers’ needs

  • Define your customers’ needs and problems

  • Generate ideas to address these needs and problems

  • Prototype and start to create solutions

  • Test your solutions with users

Idea validation comes after the phase of generating ideas. It can be part of both prototyping and testing. It may also be part of the idea generation phase, to help you to understand which ideas are worth prototyping or taking further. Prototyping is an early way to test technological feasibility and how a product might look. You can then show your prototypes to your customers as a way to test the ideas.

Idea Validation Techniques

There are many ways in which you can assess and validate ideas. It is worth considering these across the three aspects of desirability, feasibility and viability.

Which Comes First?

It is something of a moot point which order you should assess desirability, feasibility and viability.

There is little point in testing the viability and feasibility of an idea that is not at all attractive to customers. However, if you cannot deliver the idea, its level of desirability doesn’t really matter.

The best approach is therefore to try to assess all three at once, at least in a fairly simplistic way. For example, take the ideas that seem most feasible for some early customer reactions, perhaps through some surveys, because these are relatively cheap to carry out. You can then see if you can deliver them within your customers’ price tolerance.

1. Assessing Desirability

The only way to assess desirability in any meaningful way is to go and ask your customers or potential customers what they think.

However, there are many different ways to do this. These methods will be useful at different points and for different purposes—and may well give quite different results. It is therefore important to use the most suitable method to meet your objectives.

This therefore means being clear about your objectives, and designing your assessment method to match.

Potential assessment methods include:

  • Surveys or questionnaires, where you ask large numbers of people the same questions, and analyse the responses using statistical techniques.

    There are plenty of companies that provide access to a ready-made survey population, and web-based survey tools. This has therefore brought down the cost of surveying customers and potential customers.

    Surveys are best used when you are clear what questions you want to ask. They are also a very good way to test several ideas quickly amongst a large group. They are therefore useful at an early stage of idea validation, when you want to get an idea of which options to pursue to feasibility and viability testing.

    You can find out more about how to carry out surveys, and particularly how to design good surveys, in our page on Surveys and Survey Design.
  • Focus groups, where you listen to a small group of people discuss the answers to a few questions, or their reaction to an event.

    Focus groups are useful when you know that people have a range of views, but you are not quite sure what those might be. They allow you to gather in-depth information on a few topics or issues. However, they are not helpful if you want to gather a lot of information at a fairly shallow level.

    In idea validation, they are likely to be best used when you have a prototype or two, and you want people to compare them.

    You can find out more about how to run focus groups in our page on Focus Groups and Group Interviews.
  • Customer interviews, where you (or your market researchers) talk one-to-one with customers about particular products or ideas.

    One-to-one interviews will give you a lot of detailed information about a few people’s views. They are useful in research, because they provide plenty of detail. However, their drawback is that you have no idea if the information can be generalised to other people. They must therefore be used with care.

    Customer interviews are probably best used in innovation as a way to explore customer issues, rather than assess ideas.

    You can find out more about using interviews to obtain information in our page on Interviews for Research.

2. Assessing Feasibility

Technological feasibility is whether it is actually possible to provide the product or service. In other words, can you deliver on your idea within your current capabilities, or easily acquire the capabilities that you will need?

There are several possible aspects to feasibility. They include your staff skills and abilities, the capacity of your manufacturing facilities, the availability of raw materials and other inputs, and whether it is actually physically possible to make that product with current knowledge.

For example, an anti-gravity smartphone that will stop before it hits the floor if dropped sounds great. It’s probably highly desirable to customers—but no company in the world has the technology to deliver it at the moment. It is not feasible to develop this product in any meaningful timescale. For the time being, we have to settle for cases for phones that will protect them in the event of being dropped.

3. Assessing Viability

An economically viable product is one that you can manufacture or provide at a price point that customers are prepared to pay, and that will give you your desired level of profit.

To assess economic viability, you therefore need to know:

  • What will the product cost to produce?
  • What is your desired level of profitability?
  • What are your customers prepared to pay for this product?

Perhaps the easiest aspect to assess here is what your customers are prepared to pay. You can assess this as part of assessing desirability.

Profitability is a matter of company strategy. For example, some companies choose to accept lower profits in the early stages of a product in order to establish a market. In other fields, you may be able to use patents to protect your technology, and therefore charge higher prices because the product is not reproducible. This will allow you to make more profit in the early days, but your profits will drop off when the patent protection expires.

Finally, your production costs will depend on your manufacturing choices. Will you manufacture in-house or outsource? Will you consider manufacturing offshore, or do you want to keep production local? Do you have capacity in an existing facility, or will you have to invest in new capacity? All these questions will have to be answered.

You may also need to consider the materials that you are going to use for the product. What options are available? Do they have different cost implications? This may be the key to whether you can produce the product within a suitable range of prices.

You may be interested in our pages on Pricing Strategies and the 7Ps of Marketing (one of which is pricing). These give you some ideas about how to set the prices of your products.

Don’t Forget to Consider the Quality of Your Information

There is one final aspect to consider in all of this: the quality of your information.

How you gather information, and from where, affects the quality—and that in turn affects whether you can rely on it for decision-making.

Choosing the right method of gathering information is essential. However, you also need to carry out each method appropriately, and examine your information critically once you have got it.

There is more about this process in our page on Turning Information into Action.

An Ongoing Process

Finally, it is important to remember that idea validation is not a one-off event.

Ideas and products will change and evolve over the innovation process. It is helpful to keep checking back with your customers and potential customers to make sure that the product still meets their needs, and addresses the original problem. Having a ‘customer council’ is one way to be able to do this—but there are many others, including the methods outlined on this page.