Two years ago, I cofounded a company called Soma. We create and sell a sustainable glass water filter that has received accolades for its innovative design. We sought out to create something beautiful, healthy, and functional. Instead of using petroleum-based plastics to filter and hold water, Soma employs a natural, coconut-based filter housed in an elegant glass carafe.
We developed the Soma water filter quickly—in 18 months, from idea to product launch, which is considered fast. For our next product, we allocated nine months for product development, which is considered insanely fast.
Two weeks before starting development on Soma's new product, we got an idea for a proprietary technology that would greatly enhance the product. The problem was that this technology would typically add three months of development time. We didn't have three months. We needed a working prototype in three weeks. Our timeline went from insane to impossible—until we met Tom Chi.
Chi was a co-founder at Google X, the semi-secret lab that created Google Glass, Google's self-driving car, and a number of other game-changing inventions. All of which were developed in record time. With his new non-Google team, Chi helped Soma develop working prototypes of our new technology that somehow fit our tight deadline. More importantly, he taught us a technique to ensure we were developing the correct technology.
Chi introduced us to Home Team / Away Team, a rapid prototyping technique he developed. In his TEDxKyoto talk, Tom shows how it can be used not only to help businesses, but also to address social issues. For example, iterating on a business idea eight times and starting three businesses that created real jobs, all in three hours. (Start the video at 8:15 to hear the story).
The job of the Home Team is to quickly create designs, then update them based on customer feedback, which is gathered by the Away Teams. Our Home Team—made up of two industrial designers, one graphic designer, and one person who managed communication with the Away Teams—stayed in the office.
The day before we employed Home Team / Away Team, we tested the core technology we were prototyping with real customers. Knowing that it worked well, we needed to understand which features to add as we continued product development. We also wanted to increase our knowledge of user behaviors and get feedback on how much customers would spend on our new product to set boundaries on how much we could spend to produce the product. This is where Home Team / Away Team proved incredibly valuable.
Each of our six Away Teams included two people: one with product designs on an iPad and one with a notebook to record customer feedback. Each Away Team was given a customer profile to ensure they were interviewing the right people.
Prospective customers were shown designs of the new Soma product and asked a series of questions regarding product features, daily habits, and purchasing decisions. The customers’ answers were quickly streamed back to the Home Team via text messages and phone calls. Based on this feedback, the Home Team updated the designs so new iterations could be tested.
The goal of Home Team / Away Team is to get as much customer feedback on as many iterations of a concept in as little time as possible. Using Home Team / Away Team, we were able to test multiple iterations of multiple designs with over 100 people in just three hours.
So, what were the results?
In addition to getting more feedback on multiple designs in just three hours than most companies get in months, we also noticed trends that we would have easily overlooked otherwise.
For example, my Away Team partner and I found that 75% of the people we interviewed did not like a specific feature. Initially, we wrote this feature off as a clear loser. Fortunately, at a debrief two hours later, we learned that 80% of the total customers interviewed by all Away Teams loved this feature. The small sample size of our customer feedback may have led us to the wrong conclusions (which happens often with product development), if we hadn't used the Home Team / Away Team technique.
We solved our primary challenge of getting a working prototype quickly, and we also gained a new framework through which to move quickly, and reduce risk by testing assumptions. We learned what to build, and what to let go of.
Home Team/ Away team allowed us to ask the public what they wanted, and let us adapt to those desires in real time. This is a framework that can be applied to almost any business, social cause, or emerging idea.