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The Rules of Genius #23: Test your ideas in realistic situations

Question: How can you predict whether an idea will survive in the real world? Answer: Test it in the real world. Many entrepreneurs believe you can’t test new ideas. The reason they give is that people can’t predict what they’ll buy or endorse. While this is mostly true, what the entrepreneurs forget is that new ideas are tested all the time—as soon as they reach the marketplace. At this point the shortcomings are apparent and it’s too late to fix them.

The solution to this seeming paradox is to expose ideas to the marketplace before they’re launched. You can do this by approximating real- world encounters using prototypes and a small number of test subjects.

For example, you can gauge the potency of brand messages by A/B testing them with a limited audience. You can assess the features of a new product by handing prototypes to a cross-section of likely users. You can try out a new business model by first opening a store in a small market. You can test the sales potential of a retail package by placing a range of mockups on a store shelf, then talking to customers who are shopping there.

While none of these situations are perfect, they come close enough to real life to provide useful feedback. You don’t need precise information to make a confident decision about a new idea. You just need uncertainty reduction. Without pretesting your ideas, you have only two options: 1) take a substantial risk and accept the consequences, or 2) reduce the risk by removing the qualities that made it innovative in the first place.

Tip: Don’t use focus groups to test new ideas. Focus groups were designed only to “focus” the thinking of product developers and marketers. They weren’t designed to predict future sales or to judge the market-worthiness of new ideas. Instead of focus groups, use your best creative judgment, build prototypes, and show them to customers, one at a time, in realistic situations.

Next week: Simplify.
Seven ways to drive out disorder

The Rules of Genius is now a book with a bonus section called “How can I matter?” that includes 10 essential rules.  Buy here.

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