Prototype & Test Your Ideas Like a Hacker
How to validate your product ideas, 5 funding rounds, 2 acquisitions, Zero-Knowledge Proofs, managing engineering teams, hybrid work tips, jobs and more
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Prototype & Test Your Ideas Like a Hacker with Jim Zarkadas, SaaS UX Designer
This week, I’m really excited to have Jim Zarkadas on the newsletter, for a guest post on how to prototype your ideas and validate with users to build better products. Jim is a UI engineer turned product designer, helping SaaS teams grow their products by coming closer to their users. In the past, he was the Design Lead at TicketSwap, one of the most successful tech companies in Amsterdam with over 5 million users, and the co-founder of a boutique design studio with clients across Europe and US. He currently works as a UX freelancer, helping companies increase their revenues and growth. Right below, Jim walks us through the process of prototyping, shares why Apple and Pixar prototype their product ideas, sometimes before even writing a single line of code, and what are the best ways to get early feedback from your users.
Why prototype your ideas
First things first, what’s a prototype? A prototype is a fake and hacky interactive version of a product.
Product = something as tiny as a button to as big as a mobile app or website.
Fake and hacky = built with quick and smart ways to make it look and feel like it works.
Interactive = it's not static; you can use it and interact with it.
Below you can find some examples of prototypes.
Apps and websites
While designing the screens of an app or website, we connect the designs and add interactions, in order to test the overall flow and understand whether it feels right and is easy to use. More on the right tools to do this later.
Augmented Reality - How Apple prototypes
Designing for AR is complex and hard. Discovering usability problems during development can cost a lot of time and money. That's why prototyping in smart, hacky ways and testing ideas early on is so important (see more at "Prototyping for AR" - A 10-minute keynote from Apple WWDC 2018).
Animated films - How Pixar prototypes
In Pixar, when they create new films, they start by sketching the characters and landscapes. They use simple software to create short videos and see how everything fits together and what their story feels like. They don't start by designing the perfect 3D models or finding the perfect colours. Those come later through iterations and testing. For them, watching the movie is the actual user test. They can observe whether the message is clear or the story is boring and so on (see more at "Inside Pixar" - A series on how Pixar designers work).
Hardware - Apple's iPhone early prototypes
Designing hardware is challenging and usually starts with paper sketches and prototypes. This way, people can use and test their ideas, get a sense of how they feel and decide if they want to evolve them further or search for new ones.
All in all, prototyping can help you: 1. save time 2. build something users love. Only once a draft of the product idea is in the hands of real users, you finally see how they want to use it and how they feel about it. Everything until that moment is just assumptions. And with prototyping, you can do this in hours or days. Not weeks. This means that you can test with users and iterate way more times by creating hacky prototypes vs. coding the whole product, which might take weeks or even months. Hence the reason why prototyping helps you ship better products!
How to build a prototype
Many people believe prototypes have to be as close as possible to the end product. This is wrong more often than not. Before you start prototyping, it’s important to define what you want to test and the level of detail required to validate your idea.
Testing a new button style? Focus on the button's visual details.
Testing the conversion rate of a signup flow? Focus on the user journey, the content and how everything ties together. Don’t spend time obsessing about colours, branding, illustrations, etc. Design a black and white (wireframe-style) version and focus only on what you want to learn.
Remember the example of Apple and augmented reality that I mentioned above? Apple’s design team doesn’t spend days building a complex AI algorithm and UI. They simulate the idea they have in hacky ways to test and see how it feels. Once they feel confident about it, then they spend time building it.
The key principle here is to prototype like a hacker. Think unconventionally and focus on what you are trying to validate. Don’t get distracted by details that don’t matter. Fortunately, there are several tools to help you do that. Framer, Proto io, Figma, Sketch, Adobe XD, ProtoPie, Marvel or even code. For more complicated products, sometimes a prototype can be built by having an engineer join the design team. The whole idea is to create a hacky, quick prototype together. Designers coding prototypes alongside engineers can be a big time-saver and smart way to validate feature ideas and redesigns.
How to test with users and validate your ideas
Time to break a stereotype now. User testing doesn’t have to be complex, time-consuming and expensive. In fact, you can conduct user testing as a small team without spending thousands of dollars and several weeks. Start by finding a pool of users to validate your ideas.
Use services that recruit users for you and pay per user, such as User Interviews or PingPong.
If you already have a pool of users interested in giving you feedback, you can use Ethnio or Research Hub.
Join a community where prospective users might hang out such as Reddit, Discord or Slack groups, etc.
Ask feedback from your network. Sometimes, I test prototypes I create with friends and family, in case they fit my user personas.
There are two methods to have them test your prototype and receive feedback:
Moderated testing. In my opinion, this is the best, but most time-consuming way. You join a video call with your users using Zoom, Google Meet or any other video calling app and ask them to complete a task using your prototype. The power of moderated testing is that you can ask questions and go as deep as you want on insights that you find during the testing session.
Unmoderated testing. Since video calls are time-consuming, there is a big collection of tools you can use to collect feedback in an asynchronous way, which helps you save time and test more. My favourite tools are Userbrain, Ballpark, Lookback, UsabilityHub and, a tool I built myself, Think Out Loud.
There are no golden recipes when it comes to which method to follow and how many people to test with. The answer is: IT DEPENDS! Sometimes, unmoderated is enough and other times a mix of the two is best. Think of the problem you are trying to solve and start from there. While there are studies, which suggest that after 5 users you won’t find new significant UX issues, it’s really a matter of what you are testing and the complexity of your prototype.
Keep in mind that full validation of your idea happens once you ship what you are designing and determine whether real users use it and pay for it. In addition, testing is not a one-shot thing. It happens in different phases across the entire release process. From testing prototypes while designing, to testing an early version while the product is still in a development environment, to testing with a phased-out release to a small percentage of your userbase, etc.
Finally, let’s talk about data as part of your toolset. Data and analytics are an additional layer of validation and a great monitoring tool to indicate when something is wrong with your product and whether people drop off or struggle with parts of the UX. Use them consciously and keep a balance between qualitative (user feedback through testing) and quantitative feedback (analytics). Don’t become data-obsessed and don’t forget the human and emotional aspects of your product.
In other words, keep it simple and stay human! That’s the main learning I had from the last 10 years of working in tech startups as a designer and engineer.
If you’re interested in more UX tips and tricks, you can follow Jim on Twitter or LinkedIn, where he shares bite-sized best practices for SaaS teams to increase their revenues. You can also order a personalized UX video review of your product through loveatfirsttry.io, a service Jim created for fellow SaaS teams looking for expert UX feedback.
Looking for your next career move? Check out 1,274 job openings from Greek startups hiring in Greece, abroad, and remotely.
WeatherXM raised $5m Seed led by Placeholder to build a decentralised global weather network. Recently did an interview with the team and discussed how they bring a new paradigm shift in weather data collection.
Ferryhopper raised €5m from Piton Capital, LAUNCHub Ventures and Metavallon VC to continue growing its online ferry booking platform. The company has served more than 3 million travellers, offering ferry routes across 400 destinations in 15 countries.
Gaspardesk, a SaaS platform that uses AI to help companies manage and automate their IT support requests, announced a $2.3m round from VentureFriends and other investors.
Wikifarmer, a startup with the mission to empower farmers through educating them and offering them access to the open market, completed a Seed round from a group of investors including Metavallon VC.
Goodloans, an AI-powered digital lending platform for emerging markets, received funding from the Google for Startups program.
Skroutz acquired EveryPay. Skroutz had already acquired a minority stake in the payments gateway company two years ago and is now expanding their partnership with the acquisition of the entire company stake.
Greek-founded tech company Meta Materials, which develops high-performance functional materials and intelligent surfaces, acquired Optodot for $48.5m.
Day One, a 10-week acceleration program by Genesis Ventures, launched and is accepting applications.
Five Greeks in tech with experience building and scaling startups launched a new fund to invest in pre-seed, seed and Series A rounds.
Interesting Reads & Podcasts
Documenting my journey to understanding Zero-Knowledge Proofs; moon math to let someone prove something without giving up any info about that thing. I created a reading list as a starter pack for anyone that wants to go down the rabbit hole too, starting this week with lvl1 as an intro.
My colleague Sanne Goslinga kicked off the 2022 Greek Compensation Report. Last year’s report was a huge success and the call for participation for companies this year is now open. You can contribute here.
Insights from the Greek tech industry in 2021 and predictions for 2022 in this report by Endeavor Greece.
A BadGuys episode with Dimitris Andreadis, Director of Engineering at Red Hat, on managing engineering teams and more.
A presentation on how to hack hybrid work by Zaharenia Atzitzikaki, Design Executive & Leadership Coach.
Lessons learned managing high-performing teams by Cristina Georgoulakis, Partner at 776, here.
A conversation in the Parliament regarding agtech and innovation in Greece with George Varvarelis (Augmenta), Sotiris Bantas (Centaur Analytics) and Nikolaos Zotos (Future Intelligence).
Inaugural Tech Sales & Customer Success Greece Meetup by Tech Sales & Customer Success Greece on July 13
AI and Beers, #1 by AI and Beers on July 13
DeFi - Reshaping the very essence of finance and economies by DevStaff on July 14
Women in Tech - connect, learn, network by Endeavor Greece on July 21
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