Teaching Customer Discovery and Rapid Iteration
David Angelow is one of many university professors who uses Balsamiq is the classroom. He teaches in the Computer Information Systems department in the McCoy School of Business at Texas State University. He recently used Balsamiq in a course about entrepreneurship called "Starting a Software-based Business."
Here's a description from the course catalog description:
Topics include an introduction to entrepreneurial mind-set, managing a start-up firm, development of business models, use of development methods, creation of cost/volume/profit models to address capital funding needs, and tools, techniques and methods for testing new venture hypotheses.
I spoke to him on the phone about why he chose Balsamiq for his class and what messages he wanted to get across to his students about starting a software business.
In our conversation he talked a lot about customer discovery - the process of learning what your customers want and will actually pay for. He feels that this is something too often overlooked by students and young entrepreneurs. They're frequently so focused on building something they want to use that they forget to validate if it's actually something that people will buy in sufficient volume to support a business.
He told me that in his class he cautioned against falling into the trap of jumping straight to a working prototype before getting the rough concepts out in front of potential users. The tale of the Apple Newton came up as a useful lesson. It may have been good from a functional perspective, but the "feel" was off - it was too big to be personal, among other things.
The Palm Pilot succeeded where the Newton failed because its designers spent time designing the physical experience early on, in particular the shape and size, which they tested with blocks of wood.
The take away here is that iterating over and over using rough tools pays bigger dividends in the long run over spending time building something that looks good and works right away.
Read on to learn a bit more about David and his advice for others looking to make it as software entrepreneurs.
Q&A with David Angelow
What is your specialization and what is your background?
David said that his focus as an instructor is to teach students "how to apply technology and help businesses maximize value for their customers." Before that he worked with several major companies in industry and consulting primarily focused on innovation and operations.
What kinds of things are you excited about in your industry?
David mentioned several trends that he's excited about, including:
- Cloud computing
- Globally available development talent
- Rapid prototyping
- The Internet of Things (IoT) which will provide new sources of data
- A.I. systems that are becoming more robust
What suggestions do you have for someone looking to succeed in your role or industry?
David's number one tip is "ABL - Always be learning!" Technology is always evolving, which creates opportunities if you're looking for them. David described the connection this way: "New technologies enable new business models, new business models change industries, and new industries drive opportunities. Look at the sharing economy - Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, SpareFoot... a long list of businesses in various sectors all driven by technology."
Why and how do you use Balsamiq Mockups?
David told me that he really likes it for the customer discovery process - to show prospective customers a simple design and get feedback before starting any development. He put it this way: "I use a riff on one of the 7-Habits from Steven Covey to reinforce to students the value of gaining customer insight - 'Before you start climbing the ladder, make sure it's leaning against the right wall.'"
He excitedly said "within 2 days they created 7 screen mockups for mobile apps!"
Do you have any feature ideas or suggestions for how we can improve our product(s)?
David's only suggestion would be to make it easier for students to work together on projects and collaborate more easily. The good news is that new collaboration capabilities are here in Balsamiq Cloud!
What should be done in the customer discovery phase before building a full MVP Prototype?
As I mentioned above, David was clear that building an MVP without sufficient iteration and thinking time beforehand is a mistake. He mentioned two things specifically that people don't do enough of:
- Ethnographic research. He stressed that it's important to get your ideas out into the wild early on, using wireframes or sketches, just to get reactions to it. And it's ok if you don't have the perfect testers, a random group of strangers is better than nothing.
- Diagram the customer journey and experience. He told me that it's crucial to consider all of the customer touch points and what the experience should feel like at each. Don't overlook the emotional component from the customer's perspective. It's not just about the features.
Tell me about the course you created. Would you consider it a success?
David really wanted his students to understand the breadth of activities that startup founders need to do in order to be successful, even if he wasn't able to go in-depth on all of them. Some examples he mentioned were accounting, conversion rate, elements of cost, and how to attract people to market. He said that all of these are critical, beyond having a good product.
A highlight was bringing in outside judges from industry to watch the final presentations and ask questions. It showed the students that all the questions they were being asked to address during the class were questions that real investors would be asking.
What do you think that students got out of it?
David feels that learning from experience is the best way, so he gave them a lot of room to try things on their own. Even if they had an idea for a product or business model that he knew wasn't viable, he said he'd "let them run with it" so that they could benefit from the experience.
He told me that one of his students said to him "the concepts are easy, but the class is hard," which seems to be one of the main lessons that he wanted to teach. As an example, David said "creating a financial model, you can do that in a hour. Creating one that doesn’t fall apart [in real life], that’s really hard."
Thank you, David, for sharing your experience with us and your students!
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