How to Validate Your Napkin Sketch

This lesson introduces techniques for validating your ideas very early, before you have a demo or an MVP. Focus on understanding customer pain, particularly in applications different from your personal experience. Then get feedback on your intended approach to the problem before showing a mockup, wireframe or demo.

What’s a Napkin Sketch? 

You are in a restaurant with friends, complaining about a problem and the lack of solutions. Someone suggests a great way to solve it. The team gets excited and starts shouting out ideas. You draw it all out on a napkin. Voilà: your napkin sketch!

Alan Eustace space suit sketch

(napkin sketch of Alan Eustace’s space suit from his record-breaking jump)

Why Test Your Napkin Sketch with Customers? 

The highest value information you will ever get from customers is the opinions you gather about your napkin sketch. This is because you have invested relatively little time and money, but you can still get quality feedback that can guide your earliest business decisions. And the reality is, you haven’t though of everything. Testing your ideas now will fill out your product plan with features you never considered. 

Here are the steps: 

Step 1: Start With the Pain

The most important thing to test with customers is always the Pain. Even if your founding team has been struggling with the problem for many years, your understanding of the pain is limited by the context of that experience. By exploring the problem with prospective customers, you will gain a broader and deeper understanding of how the problem impacts different businesses and users.

Example: A startup team with ideas about how to handle IT help desk tickets faster and more efficiently asked 20 different companies about their help desk problems. One-third of the companies described trying to use their IT help desk to solve other support requests, including HR problems, supply requests and even ordering lunch from local restaurants. When the startup expanded their thinking to include non-IT requests, they discovered that MOST potential customers wanted a more global help desk rather than using separate systems to submit requests to each department. Their product was the first configurable, enterprise-wide help desk solution and they grew very quickly until they were acquired.

Use these customer questions to help understand customer pain:

"How big a problem is..." (managing software licenses/keeping samples cool in transit/tracking hardware assets)?Asking "How big" is the problem you propose to solve allows them to describe their situation in their own words. No matter how they answer, follow up with, "That's interesting. Many companies say (the opposite). Why do you think your company is different?"
"How do you handle (CRM/bug tracking/software licenses/biological samples/hardware assets) today?"Ask an easy question to set the stage. You may already know the answer, but ask it anyway. Sometimes you are wrong!
"How have you solved that?" (for small problems) "How have you tried to solve that? (for big problems) Explore their thought process about solutions. Learn about the alternatives they've considered, and their opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of each.
"How would a solution have to work, to fit into your (ERP/asset management/sample tracking/pricing/management) systems?"Explore exactly where and how your solution must fit. Startup solutions are typically purchased to solve a specific problem, even if your goal is to eventually deliver a broader solution.
"Have you evaluated..." (competitor, technology, approach, hack)? What was your conclusion?"This can tell you how actively they are seeking a solution, what evaluation criteria they used, and how they made their decision.
"Why?"Ask "Why?" anytime a customer gives you a declarative answer. "We only purchase left handed smoke shifters." "We standardized on IBM." "We won't evaluate magnetic sensors."


Step 2: Test Your Concept or Approach

You are probably dying to tell the customer all about your brilliant idea at this point, but hold on just a while longer. Next you want to test your solution concept. This is the approach you have taken to solve the problem. For example, if you propose to offer company credit cards to reduce the complexity of purchasing, ask, “How would it impact your purchasing complexity and backlog if every manager had a credit card with pre-set purchasing limits and approved vendors?” This allows the customer to comment on the concept, rather than critiquing individual features.

Here are more examples that explore the concept instead of the feature:

  • “How would it change things if you could eliminate the first few steps and start here instead?”
  • “Where should that data come from?” “What’s the best way to access that data?” “Why aren’t you using this data?”
  • “How would it impact your process if we could connect A to B?”
  • “Of all the issues you’ve described today, which one is your highest priority to solve? Can that be solved alone, or solved before the others?” (to rank priorities)

If you skip this step, you won’t know whether your most basic assumptions are correct, or how to create your MVP.


Step 3: Super Short Presentation of Your Idea

Why super short? Because you want to get their instantaneous reactions to the most important parts of your solution. Just show that the top-level solution diagram, taking no more than 1-2 minutes, then pause to get their first reactions. “Just to get your first reaction, how well does that address your problem?”

Once you are satisfied you understand that first feedback, spend as much time as they want exploring the rest of your ideas, and ask for even more feedback. You don’t have to hold back any more!


Step 4: What Did We Miss?

After you’ve discussed every possible problem and feature and explored their answers, ask one last question. 

“What did we miss? Have we ignored something important?”

You will be surprised how often this reveals something useful, and sometimes revolutionary.


Questions to Avoid

If you find yourself asking any of these questions, stop. These waste everybody’s time.

  • Do you like our cool product?
  • Should we add this cool feature?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10…
  • What do you think, Mom?

Exercise: Validate Your Napkin Sketch

The steps above describe what to do. Test your napkin sketch or block diagram or solution statement with your first customer prospect. What did you learn? 

Step 1: Did they recognize the pain you are trying to solve? Did they become more aware of the problem during the conversation? How serious is their pain?

Step 2: How did they respond to your concept or approach? Do you want to change anything about your approach, or the way you describe it? 

Step 3: What was their instantaneous reaction when you presented your idea? 

Step 4: What did they suggest? Will you act on that immediately, file it for future reference, or ignore it?