A simple, step-by-step framework to validate your perfect app idea and prove it works. No tech knowledge or developer required.
A high school friend pitched me this new social media app idea a few months back. He wanted to know how to take it to the next level. We went out over a few beers and he asked all the questions you might expect.
I’ve been helping startups answer these questions for years now and my answer is always the same - you must validate your idea with customers.
You can sit here all day buying me beers (thanks by the way!), but I’m not your target customer. While my opinions are valuable, they do not mean you will make money or attract attention from future investors.
And look, I’ve been where he is. I’ve probably been where you are too. The question you ask is “Will my idea work?”, but what you should be asking is “How do I prove my idea works without building it?”
That is the million dollar question.
Can you test if customers will pay you before you spend months planning and hiring an expensive developer?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes. That’s what I’m going to teach you today.
This is a condensed version of my product validation framework. We’ll cover everything from your customer, to sketching and designing your prototype, and even where to find and interview real people to test it.
And all without hiring a designer or a developer.
Not too shabby if I do say so myself. Enjoy!
Checkout this super-awesome quote.
“When you’re creating a mobile app, one of the first things you need to figure out is your monetization strategy.”
I see this kind of advice all the time and quite frankly it drives me nuts.
I don’t think I can facepalm any harder than I am right now. Believe me, I’m trying, but it’s hard to type and facepalm with only two hands.
Is monetization important? Yes, obviously.
But is it one of the first things you should figure out? God no, not even close.
Toss this mentality right in the trash where it belongs.
Your first objective is not making money and scaling into some rich monocle-wearing oil baron, you need to find a damn customer first. Solve that customer’s problem and then trade a few bucks for it.
Think about it. What’s the point in designing and building an app if nobody wants it?
I have no idea. Seems like a waste of time to me, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it every year.
Did you know 29 percent of users will immediately abandon an app if they don’t find it valuable? Ouch, that’s rough…
And if that’s not bad enough, check out this chart on how many users typically churn in the first three months.
Psst - Churn is fancy-startup-founder lingo for “Users who try our product, get distracted by cute panda videos on youtube, and never come back”
So… yea. Those stats sure do suck. The average app is losing roughly 3 out of every 4 people they acquire. Brutal.
I think it’s fair to say that you NEED to take your customer extremely seriously. Lucky for you, this article is entirely dedicated to validating your app idea the right way - customer first.
What a wacky coincidence!
Now, enough humdrum depressing stats about how other people fail. That’s not you. You’re going to do great!
Let’s talk about how you're going to crush it with your app and not make the same mistakes!
First, I want you to start by taking 15 minutes and stepping away from your tech.
It’ll be ok, I promise. those funny cat memes will still be there when you get back.
Pull out a sheet of paper and pen and continue below.
Use these questions to kick off your brainstorming:
Next, focus on how they would engage with your app idea:
Finally, do not overly focus on surface level demographics, such as age, race, gender, or other similar traits. These can seem important, but people tend to be more complex in how they live their lives.
The key here is to go deeper and find core aspects that make them unique. In other words, what makes them who they are? That’s what you need to know like the back of your hand.
“Mapping a customer’s journey” might sound really confusing or complicated, but it’s actually extremely straight forward.
The customer journey is a list of interactions your customer has with your product or service - from beginning to end.
So, if you’re building a mobile app, the customer journey might have a user:
Note: Your start and end may look different. These vary from product to product. For example, your app might not end with payment or start with social media ads.
The customer journey is absolutely critical because it’s how you get someone from “I have no idea what this app is” to “Take my money, I love this app!”
And I think I speak for all entrepreneurs when I say, that’s a pretty damn good place to be!
Who doesn’t want their user experience to be so irresistible that users happily purchase. That sounds glorious.
For the examples below, I’m going to map out a customer journey for a trip planning app idea of mine, Trip Packr. Trip Packr helps customers spend time enjoying their vacations, not planning and stressing about details.
Trip Packr’s customer journey will follow a fairly conventional flow for mobile apps. A user sees some marketing, downloads the app to try it out, goes through a few screens, and can optionally pay to upgrade their account later.
Start the customer journey with a fresh piece of paper and your favorite writing utensil. Go grab one of each now and come back when you’re ready.
I’m a snobby fan of pens, so I’ll silently judge you for using a pencil. Just kidding.
Pick Your Start. First, write down the start in your customer journey on the left. Your start may be different from mine. Just make sure it’s the first interaction a customer has with your product.
Pick Your End. Next, write down the final step in your customer journey on the right. The end of your customer could be any number of things. For Trip Packr, I’m choosing the day a user leaves for their trip because I believe that’s their ultimate goal. You could just as easily stop payment or something else entirely.
Fill In The Middle. Now, envisioning your app, walk through each step/screen that a customer will see.
You want to keep things manageable, and not go off the rails designing features and screens that probably aren’t valuable. Ten steps seems to work out nicely so that you lea
Here’s the final Trip Packr customer journey map. Yours will look similar in structure, but with steps relevant to your app.
While Trip Packr customer journey map stays fairly traditional (download, register, do things, etc.), you do not need to follow that pattern.
You have a tremendous amount of creativity with the steps you want between your start and end. Go crazy if you want to do that sort of thing. As long as you can realistically prototype and show it to potential customers then it’s totally fine.
I can already hear your cries of anguish.
“John, I’m not an artist. I can’t sketch or draw anything. I can barely fill in a coloring book!”
Shh. Shh. Shh, It’s going to be alright.
You’re just experiencing normal flashbacks from the nightmare that was your high school art class.
You know, the one where you tried sketching your hand or that weird plant in the room.
Does this look familiar?
And you know what? That squiggly little hand is all you need. You don’t need to produce the quality of Vincent Van Gogh here. That’s not realistic for anyone.
All the skill you need rests with simple shapes and text.
It’s time to suit up, you’re ready to go!
You're not a professional designer or user interface guru. And you don’t need to be. The world has plenty of designers and ideas that you can learn from. You just need to know where to look.
Here are some ideas that I guarantee will get your creative juices flowing. Go spend some time and find your inspiration.
Design Websites. The world is full of amazing designers and they often showcase their work on websites like Dribbble. With Dribbble you can even filter by tags such as mobile app.
Discover Hidden Gems. The internet is huge and you can’t find everything through Google. Luckily websites like AlternativeTo make it super easy to find.
Scout The Next Generation. Websites like Product Hunt are fantastic for finding the next great startups before they hit it big. Lots of people innovate and the best is yet to be found on websites like Product Hunt.
Search Your Competition. Hop on to your favorite search engine and find some of your competitors. Checkout some of your market competition. If you think they’re getting something right, then it’s probably worth doing.
By now, you should have a ton of ideas for your new app. So, if you haven’t already, take a few moments to write a few minutes and write down your thoughts. Screenshots work great too. Highlight anything that stands out to you and worth using.
Keep these notes handy for later.
Remember that customer journey map you created before? It’s time to put that thing into action with some sketches.
Sketch Your Start. Begin with the first step in your customer journey and sketch what that screen in your app might look like.
Here are some tips to help guide you:
Sketch The Rest. Now continue through the rest of your customer journey.
Here’s an example of what you might have when you’re all done.
Big words. Simple images. Black and white color. You don’t need all the details. And you definitely don’t need to be a professional designer to do this sort of thing.
In fact, you don’t want to be.
Professionals tend to get distracted on crap that doesn’t matter. They focus on all the tiny details that only they will ever notice. Their result might look amazing, but it also takes them 12 bazillion hours to ever release anything to the world!
I promise you won’t have these problems. You have the perfect skill level for what you need right now. Just start drawing and keep iterating until your sketches feel solid.
The reason we started by sketching your prototype is the same reason I started with an outline writing this article.
Designing your app prototype (or writing 4,000+ words) involves a lot of tiny decisions. By sketching first, you prevent yourself from wasting time later working on useless features.
Speaking of making decisions and saving time. Let’s talk about the most important tool in your arsenal - your prototyping software.
Search for prototyping software online and you’re going to get overloaded. I did this a few weeks ago and I found about 30 products to test run.
Ooof, that’s a lot of options and you don’t have time to go through all that crap.
Luckily for you, I’ve already chosen the best tool - Proto.io They help you (an entrepreneur) create prototypes and bring your ideas to life.
Learning any new software can feel daunting. Proto.io not only understands this, they go out of their way to make adopting the software ridiculously easy.
Seriously, these perks are amazing:
Proto.io is amazing and not surprisingly they charge a monthly subscription (which is totally worth it to me personally).
But they still offer a free version so you can play around with the features.
If you are new to prototyping then I 100% recommend not paying right away.
Why should you? Spend some time learning how to use the software and then upgrade later.
A great prototype must accomplish two things:
When you achieve both, the customer will believe it’s real. Even when it isn’t
Not every button needs to work. Not every link must go somewhere. Not every feature needs to be functional.
Build only what you need to test with customers. This will turbo charge your learning curve. Eliminate the waste so you can focus your time actually testing and learning.
This is the beauty of your validation process. You’re faking everything you can so that you learn faster. Think about it.
Look for shortcuts when you’re building out the prototype. Ask yourself, “Do I need this to learn?” If the answer is no then fake it.
To be clear, you CAN hire a designer to help you out here. I understand that people are busy or feel overwhelmed dealing with new software and skills.
Hire a designer if you want, but try to build the thing yourself first. Taking a swing at prototyping will not only help you understand the process, but you are more prepared to hire great people.
Humans have this weird obsession with assuming that all professionals do a good job. They don’t. And if you have no experience (a.k.a. Trying and failing) you’re going to hire a dumbo who charges too much for a pile of crap.
I see it happen all the time advising new startups. And this especially true when it comes to tech and marketing. Tech people hate marketing so they hire it out. Sales and marketing people hate tech so they hire it out. Both are screwed unless they have some background first.
So, if you want to hire a designer here are three options:
With a prototype built and ready to test you now only need to find a few people to give it a test run. In fact, you need exactly five people to interview.
And why five people you ask?
You interview five because it’s this magic number where you learn just enough to move forward. After five interviews we generally know what is working and what is not working.
Will five customer interviews tell everything? Absolutely not. Interviewing a hundred people will tell you more, but not enough to justify 20x the time.
You don’t need to know everything right now. All you need to know is that your app idea and prototype are worth investing in more.
Now, let’s go find you some ideal customers to interview.
Here’s a list of my favorite tactics for scrounging up the best people to interview.
Tip: Make sure you keep your target customer in mind from before. Each person you find must be a match.
Social Media Groups. I love poking around social media groups relevant to my customers. And once I find a few active people I like, I’ll slide into their demos with a small pitch and ask to meet.
Local Meetups. Your town might not be New York or San Francisco, but I guarantee you can find some awesome local gatherings by searching websites like Meetup. Find a few groups your customers would attend and go make some friends!
Your Personal Network. You can absolutely reach out to your personal network. Just be extremely careful about biased people who like you too much. For example, your mom or best friend are awful to interview because they’ll never give you honest feedback.
Your Professional Network. A fantastic tool for finding customers in the B2B realm will be Linkedin. The social media juggernaut is nearing 1 billion members, so you’re bound to find your five connections!
Local Gig Sites. I hire people all the time for product interviews with sites like CraigsList. Yea, it actually works pretty well. Make sure you screen them though as some people will want to just make a quick buck and not offer you good feedback.
Now that you have some great places to find your customers, let’s answer a few questions you probably have about the whole process.
Yes, absolutely. Interviews work in-person and remotely.
One thing that has begun to change is the availability of remote interviews. Remote work has exploded in popularity and so has people’s understanding of remote work technologies.
So, while meeting your customers in person will provide the best results, you can do things remotely. Remote is just a bit harder and takes a bit more preparation
No, you can’t use friends or family to help you validate a prototype. It just doesn’t work for two reasons:
Yes, I actually do this all the time with local gig sites.
Paying people respects their time and what they are offering you. You will seem more professional and less slimy looking to take some free information.
Finally, be careful when the person is actually your target customer. When money is on the table some people may accept only for the quick buck. It’s your job to confirm what you need.
The best way to explain the customer interview is to lay it out as a small framework. We fancy folk in the industry call this the Five Act Interview and it looks something like this:
Watch this video from the Google Ventures team to see the interview in action.
Keep in mind that these folks are awesome at interviewing. They have done hundreds of interviews. That’s a lot of experience and practice you won’t have starting out.
Interviewing someone takes practice. Your first few will feel a bit awkward and that’s totally normal. In fact, that’s exactly how I felt too. With each interview I became more comfortable talking about my idea with a stranger. You’ll get there too.
Here are my favorite tips that will help accelerate your interview skills and get you the best results.
After running a batch of interviews you’re probably wondering what to do next.
We’ll get to all of that in just one moment. But first, I want to talk about something I think is even more important - your mindset.
The prototype you made won’t be perfect. It has flaws. Your first interview was likely rough and you messed up some transitions. Maybe you even ran out of time.
So, it’s natural to be feeling a bit done at this moment your first time through. And that is where your mindset comes in.
Was all of this process worth it to help validate your idea?
The truth is you actually can’t fail when it comes to validating your app idea. If customers like what they see then you need to double down for the future. And if customers didn’t like it? Then you know what to ditch or to pivot.
if they like it, keep it. If they don’t like it, ditch it.
The only way people actually fail is by never starting or giving up halfway through. The validation process is a win-win. That’s the mindset you need to have when reflecting on your results.
You did great, even if you learn that your app idea is not.
Ask yourself these questions when reviewing your interviews.
That last question is critical because it will dictate how you move forward.
For example, if you feel really confident in the app and customers respond well, then you’re probably ready to go hire a developer and build the real deal. Huzzah!
And if customers don’t respond well or you are not confident, then you need to go back to a previous step and redo some of the work.
When customers don’t respond it’s usually one of these reasons:
In either case, your customers will tell you what’s wrong. Take their feedback, iterate where you need to make changes, and then interview a fresh batch of customers to compare your findings.
Keep cycling through the iterate and interview cycle until people really resonate with the product.
Once your idea becomes undeniable in the hands of customers you know it’s time to invest in a great software developer and bring this puppy to life!