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!