How we validated our app idea with less than $2

When we first set out to get feedback for the idea of the Tuned app, we ran into a problem -  how do we test out our idea for a mobile phone application without actually going through the entire iOS development process? That process would inevitably cost not only money, but also weeks of development time before we would ever have a user. Further, we wouldn’t want to waste time and resources if our idea wouldn’t have the desired impact that we wanted in the real world. We needed a cost-effective way to get our idea into the hands of our potential users in the shortest amount of time possible.

Our solution? Paper prototypes.

Creating our prototype

It may sound weird to prototype an iPhone app with paper, but we found it to be an effective tool for quick and cheap prototyping to get feedback from users. At that point, we already knew the app’s core function: a queue where users could suggest songs and then vote on songs that they wanted to hear. The most popular songs would then rise to the top, played next, and then removed once they were played. With this vision, we were able to make the prototype in under two hours.

Jack started by creating a simple half-sheet template for each song entry in a queue. Each template included a blank space for both a song and an artist, as well as a box for counting votes. After a number of these sheets were printed, Michael then “laminated” each template with transparent packaging tape (like we said, these rapid prototypes are quick and cheap). The tape lamination allowed users to write songs, artists, and votes on the templates with a dry-erase marker, reducing resources, waste, and making for quick turnaround. We stuck the sheets to the wall with double-sided tape in descending order of votes. The tape made it easy to change the order as votes came in and for users to add their suggestions quickly. With just a couple hours of work and less than $2 spent for all materials, we already had a way to test our idea and get it out to users.

Getting results

With this rough prototype in hand, Michael set up a small get-together in his dorm. The event was a fun way to get real use-case feedback on our idea. We set up a “Wizard of Oz” scenario, named after the staged magic by the wizard in the classic movie who operates machinery behind a curtain. The votes were cast on paper and the music was played behind the scenes (giving the illusion of software at play, when really it was Michael and Loren sitting in the corner with their phone plugged into the speaker). The results validated our idea: people were excited to have the power to get their music into the mix without directly punching it into the speakers. They were also happy to have tangible support in the form of votes: they could see their ideas validated by the numbers. Our simple paper prototype cut down on arguments surrounding music at parties.

 Our prototype in action

Our prototype in action

Not only did we mitigate any conflict over the next song played, but we also instigated much more conversation directly stemming from the prototype. People began plotting together to get their song more votes, or suggested more songs to prevent other songs from playing. These groups would recruit more people over to the voting wall, often strangers that just walked into the party. We were thrilled that our app added a social component to the party scene, a place that sometimes relies on drinking games to ease social tension.

On top of that, Tuned kept the party going longer! One user specifically announced to the room she was leaving for the night, then noticed her song was third in the queue. She then said “I was ready to leave, but I’ll stay just a little bit longer to hear my song, I’m so excited!” Not only did we give people vested interest to participate in the party and talk with each other, we actually kept the energy alive when party-goers normally would have wound down. Imagine how that could play out for a restaurant, a bar, or a night club. You could keep people around longer and maybe even get them to order dessert or one last drink. This surprising result has encouraged ideas on potentially partnering with businesses in the future of our app.

What we learned

Instead of spending hundreds of hours developing an application with an idea that we weren’t even sure would work, paper prototyping gave us a virtually risk-free trial of our product with minimal cost.

Thanks to paper prototyping, we had the validation we needed to continue with our idea. Instead of spending hundreds of hours developing an application with an idea that we weren’t even sure would work, paper prototyping gave us a virtually risk-free trial of our product with minimal cost. Of course, future testing will be needed using higher-fidelity prototypes to further validate our idea and features of the app, but these tests were enough to move us onto the next stage. A few things we found useful to remember when using paper as a prototyping tool:

1. Paper is cheap!

When using paper, you essentially have a limitless supply. Of course, we don’t want to encourage damage to the environment, but feel free to try out and test a number of different designs. Don’t get too attached to any one design until you’ve made a few and can view them in relation to each other - figure out what features make some designs stand out against others, and use those towards further iterations.

2. Quick is better…

The point of using paper as a tool is to get something out fast. Having rough prototypes with paper or pen is perfectly fine - the point is to get something out into the hands of users as soon as possible.

3. ...but don’t be afraid to polish your ideas a little

Paper gives you the flexibility of making hand-drawn prototypes or taking them to the next level (like we did) by creating them digitally using tools like Adobe Illustrator or InDesign. Take the steps you feel are necessary to effectively get your point across - don’t dwell too long on the tiny details.

4. Don’t be afraid of quality issues

One of the biggest barriers with prototyping with paper is feeling afraid that it won’t be an accurate representation and therefore won’t be taken seriously. It is totally fine to preface your user tests by telling your users that this is a prototype for a digital product. We’ve found that most users are understanding and it makes them more excited to test the product once it actually comes to its final form!

Moving forward

From our tests with paper prototyping,  we were excited with the positive feedback of the functionality and thrilled that our app had further positive social implications. With a solid proof of concept, we quickly set out to bring the paper prototype onto actual phones to see what happens when a screen comes into the mix.

What do you think? How have you used paper prototyping or are you thinking about using it as a tool in your own designs? Let us know in the comments below!



A Journey Begins

The Tuned group came together as a group of three friends connected by the undergraduate Product Design program at Stanford University. After having dabbled for weeks on how we might redesign the way everyday people capture moments through photography, we realized we shared a common, stronger passion in music. We loved listening to music, discovering new artists, and sharing our favorite tracks with friends. When reflecting on this, we found that enjoying music often occurred in a social setting where one person has control over an entire speaker system. For example,  a team might share a speaker in their locker room, or a house would have a central speaker for events or parties. On the other end of those speakers was always a phone.

The problem with sharing music from a personal device through a shared sound system is that bias always occurs.

The problem with sharing music from a personal device through a shared sound system is that bias always occurs - someone who loves rap has a higher tendency to play rap, and the same happens with fans of other genres like EDM, alternative, or showtunes. That might not be a problem if everyone has the same music tastes, but in a diverse world with fluctuating moods and feelings, that simply doesn't happen. Moreover, with a single connection, this means it is nearly impossible for everyone to have the opportunity to share the music that they want to listen to. Frequently, we noticed that listeners that were disappointed with music being played in their environment often felt tempted to (and in some cases, actually did) unplug the currently playing device and replace it with their own, creating a discontinuous stream of music that ultimately resulted in some bitter feelings between members of the same community. We wanted to tackle this problem and reimagine new ways music could be shared socially.

And that's how Tuned was born.

Well... re-born.

Months earlier, Jack had briefly started work on Tuned, but the idea never came to fruition. The idea of a voting system for songs had been created as well as a few interface mockups, but no code was ever written. No testing had ever been done, no users had ever been given the app, and no progress had been made until the Tuned team decided to bring it back to life. The next two weeks were spent quickly building an entirely new user interface in a looks-like model, as well as preliminary testing with rough works-like prototypes consisting of paper laminated with packaging tape and dry-erase markers to validate the idea.

Fast forward a few weeks to today where an iOS app is currently in development! We are unbelievably thrilled and cannot wait to be able to bring this app to users to revolutionize the way people share music. We have exciting plans for future features of our app that we hope to bring in soon. In the meantime, we will be posting about our experiences in testing and building our iOS application. Be sure to keep in touch and follow our journey, and if you'd like to be one of the first testers of our app, sign up at to be a beta tester!




 Michael, Jack, and Loren

Michael, Jack, and Loren