Ideas, not money, is the real currency in business. But the big challenge is knowing what ideas to develop into new products and services and when.

“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward: They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

A bad idea can escalate into a very costly mistake. It can put your business or job at risk and threaten credibility with your customers.

But how can you assess whether a given idea is worth developing further?

I’ve participated in the design and user research of dozens and dozens of different products. And I’ve seen that when we’ve taken the time to answer these three Hard Questions, there was a far higher chance of success for the product.

Hard Question #1: How well do you understand your end-users’ current normal behaviour and values?

I’m not talking about demographics or preferences.

  1. How are they doing things now?
  2. What unconscious workarounds do they use?
  3. What are they craving without even knowing it?

The key here is to look at what is “normal” and ask yourself is normal just normal because it’s the way it’s always been done? Or is there a better way?

One of the clues I look for is when people repeat dogma without thought. An example of this is how many people still say that a physical keyboard on a phone is way better than a touch screen. We all know how that turned out.

Hard Question #2: What is the end-users’ current tech ecosystem?

One of the most significant pain points I see for most organizations is fractured and siloed technology. Buyers of your new idea will lean more toward something that’s integrated with the way they do things now.

I’m working on a project now where the state-of-the-art for most users is a shared cloud-based folder and a spreadsheet. Data is cut and paste over and over again, versioning is rudimentary at best, and there is no integration between the spreadsheet and the source of the data.

While designing the workflow so it’s simple is hard work, by bridging that gap, users are making far fewer mistakes, and they can focus on their core job and not the busy work or managing a spreadsheet. Describing that value to potential investors and customers is easy.

Hard Question #3: Are you stretching the boundaries or digging a trench?

Perhaps this is the hardest of the Hard Questions because it goes to your organization’s strategy.

Stretching the boundaries while uncomfortable at first is both where the innovation is and the energy for it. Digging a trench might feel better at first because you are digging into what you already know. But its also a trap. The deeper you dig, the harder to pivot in turbulent times.

The question here is this just more of the same, what we already know and do, maybe with a different flavour? Or is this something new that still connects with our values? You want to be looking for something new.

I look for patterns and repetition. If your idea is the same pattern or similar pattern to what you are doing now, you likely are either digging a trench or have not moved far enough to the periphery. When I find a new pattern, I keep going until that pattern starts to repeat. Then I know I’ve gone far enough.