Workshops (picture by Dall-e)

A topic which I used to find myself talking about a lot more is ‘rinsing’. A few people have asked about it recently so I thought it was worth digging out some reference points and going over it again.

The core idea of ‘rinsing’ is having a relatively rapid way to assess ideas for products and businesses. There’s lots of good reasons to want to do that:

  • To work out what the idea really is – even at surprisingly advanced stages, you sometimes find the idea is ‘hollow’. Sometimes it is a collection of intentions or of half ideas pinned together, or of ideas that already exist sort of merged together. Forcing idea creators to frame ideas in a meaningful way is important.
  • To create rigour – Sloppy generalisations hide poor product thinking: ‘We want to help people understand politics’. Which people, which politics, why, how? Without any framework, we get to hold on to our vague and unqualified ideas indefinitely, because they can’t be evaluated.
  • To quickly move on from ideas which won’t work – people don’t really like having their ideas rejected. But having bad or poorly defined ideas hanging around is terrible for product and innovation. Face facts and get rid of half baked ideas as soon as possible, so you can find better, newer ones. (It’s brain crack again)
  • To work out what to test – one of the best things about the rinsing formula below is that it sets you up immediately for what you have to do next, which is testing hypothesis. Because it forces you to show your working very early on.

So your starting point is a bunch of ideas. How to do you generate lots of ideas? The answer to this question is unusual, in that I can give you an ISBN reference to the answer. Specifically a very short book by James Webb Young. Of course, there’s other ways to do it. You can probably do something with scented candles or LSD. But the whiteboard, stimulus and synthesis is almost certainly the way to go.

And at this point I should probably also include my favourite blog post ever: Brainstorms, the trojan horse of mediocrity.

So, anyway. You’ve got a pile of ideas by whatever method. There’s loads of them, some are silly but someone said there was ‘no such thing as a bad idea’ when you started the brainstorm so you kept them in!

Stage 1: Filter out the absolutely meaningless

The first stage of rinsing is to simply try to make sure that the ideas are really ideas. You need to filter out ‘noise’. Someone will invariably have put in ‘Put it in the cloud’ or ‘More personalised’ on their post it notes. This is what I’d refer to as happy talk. It’s a kind of brainstorm (or shower thought) catharsis to include things that are either meaningless or pointlessly obvious.

To go forward you need to specify what the idea would actually involve:

  • It’s a handheld device to turn cheese into biscuits
  • It’s an online service that tells you what your porn star name is.

It doesn’t have to be extremely detailed but it has to actually spell out what the idea is. You can ask the ideas creator to simply describe what the product or service would do to an audience. The poor sod who came up with ‘YouTube for pets’ will probably fizzle out in a sentence two and quietly drop the post it note in the bin on the way out.

Some find this stage cruel but it’s important to weed out non-ideas as soon as possible or you risk jamming up the system in Stage 2. As you’ll see, hopelessly vague ideas, can seem to pass assessments they should fail. Try arguing that ‘More personalised service’ is not ‘better’ (or worse) than something else.

Stage 2: Relate the idea to a consumer problem

Or rather, relate the idea to a set of consumers, and a problem that they currently experience. Problem here means a serious issue that an identifiable group experiences which causes them significant inconvenience or poor outcomes.

A good analogy here for a problem is what would get you to go to the dentist. That tooth ache you get occasionally might make you a bit more careful the next time you’re brushing, or in the sweetshop. But it’ll probably pass. Wobbling tooth? You might see how that shakes out over a couple of days. But blood gushing from your gums and you’ll likely be searching for the nearest dentist. When you come up with a consumer problem, ask yourself, is this the toothache or the bleeding gums?

The focus on the problem, rather than the solution is absolutely essential. Because it prevents us from getting stuck on developing amazing solutions to non-existent problems. Now, history does provide us of a few examples of solutions which were developed first and only related to problems later (Viagra, Post it notes, WD40, Velcro) but these are the exceptions. When we are solving consumer problems (rather than inventing them), we have a lot more to go on.

OK so, let’s take the first idea off the pile.

Jenny from finance has suggested a service to find people nearby who have the same breed of pet as you so that you can meet up and chat. There’s a cute name too: puppy love. She’s added a little heart on the post it.

There’s a number of formulations for the rinse stage. But I find the simplest one to remember is CPSAAR. It stands for ‘Customer Problem Solution Alternative Advantages Return’.

So for each letter in the abbreviation, you have to supply an answer.

Customer: who is it who has the problem? Well I think we’d have to conclude that the target market here is dog owners. Or perhaps owners of pets. But clearly it’s not quite as broad as that. We’re looking for people who at least know what breed their pet is. So let’s say pet enthusiast. We could probably find out quite easily how many people in the UK fall into this category. Would they go to pet shows? Or perhaps buy pet merchandise. It would be good to know a bit more about them.

Problem: OK, So what problem do these people have that we are looking to solve? Now this is really the main point. The problem we are identifying needs to be discernible by the target market. So, for example, it cannot be a problem that their dogs have (e.g. loneliness), unless the owner also experiences it. It also cannot be a problem they should feel. This tends to come up a lot with Financial Services apps, where you’ll hear: ‘Customer A has a problem that they don’t understand long-dated investment products …’. That may be a problem for the UK economy, or for Barclays bank, but if the customer doesn’t perceive it as a problem, it’s no good to you here. Try and find a different problem (or a different customer). So does Jenny give up at this point? Let’s say she comes up with ‘wants to know more about how to care for their pet’ or ‘wants to spend more time talking about their pet to someone who is interested’.

Now, assuming a group is working on this together, let’s get one thing absolutely clear: this is not an example where there are ‘no wrong answers’. Without being mean, it is absolutely the job of others in the room to challenge the existence of both the customer and problem. We want these discussions to be as robust as possible. If no one else is buying the idea that this customer exists, or has this problem, there is a very clear next action. Jenny must carry out some form of research to show that there are people that match her MO.

Solution: Write out how the solution would work so people can understand it. Really this is just a sense check that it’s broadly possible to build the solution and that it actually addresses the problem. It might help us also to understand just how difficult the solution is. So let’s say in the doggie friends case that this is an app. You put your details in and your pet, and matches are made. and then you chat on Facebook.

Alternative: This is absolutely the most overlooked part of new product development. If this problem exists, and is serious enough to motivate the customer, what else do they do about it? What are they doing about it right now? This is normally where the wheels fall off. So, take Jenny’s Pet Project (get it?). Well if the problem is understanding the breed, then the alternative is Google. But we have a competitor many times more powerful than Google here. And that competitor is…. Nothing. Often we find that the choice that customers have rather than using your product, is doing Nothing At All. Need education on Lifetime ISAs? Perhaps, but I think I’ll watch cat videos on YouTube instead.

Advantages: This is the bit where you explain why your solution is better than the alternatives. So Jenny can tell us why her answer is better than Google (in respect of finding out about looking after certain pet breeds), or better than doing nothing (in respect of talking to people about her pet), or bumping into people in the park, or whatever the alternative is.

Return: I should probably have a version of this for accountants which is ‘Return, Consumers, Return, Problem…’. I’m not putting return last because its the least important. I’m putting it last because if you can’t get through the first five, return is totally irrelevant. Not just a bit irrelevant – because flaws in CPSAA will mean you can’t make a return. But, assuming you’ve made a reasonable stab of jumping the first five hurdles, see if you’ll make it over return. There’s all sorts of models of course, way too much to go into here. You need at least something basic and plausible to show how you might turn a profit. But remember that you will be constrained by the customer number you gave earlier. You can’t say there’s 10 dog enthusiasts in Lancashire and then assume 100,000 customers in the basic business plan. Business products must be clearly profitable over the medium term so there’s not point moving on without this one and DO NOT assume you will solve it later.

So, you’ve made it to the end. Unlike Jenny.

You should have a substantially smaller set of ideas. You’ll likely be a lot more confident about the ones that are left.

What you’ll also have is a bunch of assumptions to test – just how many pet enthusiasts are there? Do they really experience these problems? Would they be willing to pay for a solution that does xyz? And so on.

All of this brings me back to a presentation I used to give after Unthinkable was published (there’s a lot on this stuff in that book). Luckily one of the shorter versions was captured by the wonderful people at Adaptive Lab. Not quite the same language and obviously a bit simplified, it is mostly the same points: