Last weekend I participated in TechNode’s MeshUp Workshop here in Beijing – the goal being to rapidly generate ideas for mobile apps which could make life easier in China.
My team actually won the day, which was a nice surprise and the whole thing was a good experience for a bunch of reasons, which is funny because I almost didn’t attend, and I went in with the expectation that I probably wouldn’t get a lot from it. How much can you do in 90 mins?
As it turns out, more than I realised!
Our only guideline was to come up with something that could “make life easier” – it could be in any vertical from helping poor farmers, to students, to expats etc
I find brainstorming to be really difficult and I know I work better when it comes to thinking critically about what is a good idea. It was obvious that brainstorm wasn’t a strength for anyone in our group as while we were able to generate half a dozen ideas, nothing was ‘out of the box’. We ideas we came up with were:
- something for language learning
- something to help find an apartment (HT Jen)
- something to find restaurant specials (HT @MikeBoyd)
- something to compare prices in store vs online
- … and a few others
The good thing about fewer ideas, means that you don’t have to spend so much time trying to work out which one to explore further.
… and without really discussing it, we went with an app to compare prices in store vs online, as this is something we had all experienced and understood the problem clearly.
It’s really annoying when you need to shop for a physical product (like a vacuum cleaner) which you know very little about and really need to go to a store to inspect it before you feel comfortable making a purchase. The only problem is, once you’re in store and have decided which vacuum, you now have the problem of choosing where to buy it from.
You know you will pay a premium if you buy in store, but sometimes this is ok as you can get the product right away, but how much of a premium are you prepared to pay?
Ideally you want to know all your options, what price is it if you order online and does the saving justify the wait? Having that information at your fingertips prevents post-purchase dissonance – no one likes to buy something only to discover they got ripped off.
This idea also easily ticks the boxes of:
- who is your customer?
- why would they use this?
- can it be monetized?
UPDATE: After talking about this idea with a friend, he suggested I look at ShopSavvy… which seems extremely similar oh well…
Thinking clearly, getting to the core of the idea
After some open discussion around the idea, we began to drill down on exactly what we were trying to do. China has an interesting e-commerce landscape, there are a few big players, or online malls similar to Amazon and fewer small specialist retailers. There isn’t one stand out place to buy from, which is the core difference from Amazon’s Price Check app. In China there are at least 5 different “Amazons” so our app would need to be an aggregator.
Mapping out the user experience as simply as possible was the next challenge and broke it down like:
- Capture product data (like taking a photo of the bar code)
- Display aggregated search results
- Make selection and show detailed information
- If happy, make the purchase
It was really interesting to note how hard it was to simplify down to these steps, we kept on getting distracted by possible features such as comparing to other physical stores, or social network integration, and it was clear from some of the other teams’ presentations that they had also struggled with keeping things simple.
In 90 mins you cannot map out and consider every possible function so it’s critical that you stay focussed on the 1 core problem you are trying to solve and ignore anything that doesn’t directly address this.
For instance I kept on thinking about shipping and how that affects the reliability of online pricing – we could use the GPS location of the phone to get the postcode, and then calc shipping but what if the customer lives a long way from where they were using the app…. this level of detail is simply not important in early stage brainstorming!
One of my favourite parts of these events is seeing other people pitch, and hearing what they have come up with. Amusingly, 1 group had chosen to do a language learning app, and another had chosen a restaurant deals app. And another guy was independently working on an apartment finding app. I suppose great minds think alike…
I love the art of the pitch, and my group nominated me to get behind the mic and I tried to stick with the proven method of opening with a simple story and basically walking through a case study of how the app would be used, using a clear real world example.
I pretended that my vacuum cleaner had exploded last week in a puff of smoke and that it was really frustrating going to the local home electrical store and trying to find a new one, especially when I don’t know anything about vacuum cleaners.
I think I did a reasonable job of selling the pain, and explaining how we could solve the problem.
And we were lucky enough to be selected as the team with the best idea!
The biggest take away from these kind of events though is the opportunity to meet and work with like minded people. If I ever had to recruit in this space I would be going to these events all the time as there were clearly some smart people in the room.
I’ve got a couple of coffee and lunch dates booked later in the week with people I met to find out more about what they’re up to and I’m sure that they will spiral into going to more events, and meeting more people.
You learn about yourself
Finally, putting your hand up for these sorts of events teaches you a lot about how you work and who you work well with. It also gives you a chance to play with leadership and public speaking, which you might not get a lot of practice with in your day to day work.
It takes a lot of practice to recognising the situations where you need to assert yourself and make decisions vs when you need to let other people take the lead. I’m not great at this and know that I need more practise.
It also allows gives you a starting point if you’re looking for a new project or an idea to develop. While no one in my group was particularly interested in taking the price check app any further, I can see how the idea might feed into a more extended “hackathon” style event, where you might be able to cobble together a functional prototype in a couple of days.
So that’s what I did on Saturday afternoon.