Innovation leaps: Piloting to learn

Associate Design Director

What is a pilot and how do you run one? How can design research be used to optimize customer experience and define key value propositions?

Smart Design hosted a Fast Track as part of 2019 Fast Company Innovation Festival on how to strategically make innovation a business reality within organizations. Presented in break out sessions at the event, we focused on 3 areas essential to moving an innovation program forward:

Part three focuses on piloting and how it can be used to optimize the consumer experience and define key business value propositions. In “Piloting to learn”, Steffany Tran and Peter Schwartz lead attendees through their research process and how building a focused hypothesis around who Gx customers were and what value the Gx Sweat Patch could provide to them.

Their advice to other designers looking to incorporate piloting into their product process — “Focus on core assumptions or hypotheses and avoid getting lost in the land of too many opportunities. Design research  and other forms of research—generative, customer discovery, exploratory—can also be used to define value propositions and narrow into a specific customer segment.”

Pilots are great inflection points for choosing a direction. By testing something real you are able to learn from making and implementing by validating core assumptions and getting a glimpse at what a commercial launch might look like. Read on to learn about their top 5 key recommendations on piloting and how it can make a significant impact on the customer experience.

Set expectations for what a pilot can (and can’t) do

Given all that a pilot can be, it’s easy to think it can do everything. It’s simply a method for rapid learning in which you build and trial a product in context to test hypotheses and prioritize further development — all within a condensed time-span. In other words, it’s a great inflection point to choose a direction. As such, remember they will not solve everything and will leave unanswered questions and uncertainty. The key is communicating this to help set stakeholder expectations.


Start with an informed, focused hypothesis

Piloting should never be your first round of research. Start with other types of research (eg: generative, customer discovery, exploratory) to narrow into a specific customer segment and the value you provide to them. Without a focused hypothesis on your customers’ identities and your value proposition, it’s impossible to know where and what to pilot. For example, our Gxl pilot was the fourth round of research, during which we narrowed down 100 concepts and 50 features to one concept with just five features.


Build real experiences, not show and tell

Unlike other research methods, your pilot can’t just show users your product or explain your value proposition. You’ll learn more by having participants integrate your product into their daily lives in a realistic way. Focus on building the most real-world version of your product for the user. Embrace shortcuts or hacks that help you get there.


Meet people where they are, literally

By nature, pilots need to be in-context to give users the most realistic experience. Partnerships will help you get in touch with communities and reach pilot users. For example, we partnered with a gym to have an in-context experience with access to a range of everyday athletes. Be prepared for participants requiring additional onboarding support. After all, you’re introducing them to something new.


Be iterative, be scrappy, and be open to change

During the pilot, you may need to change your research procedure, product, or support systems on the fly. You may learn you need to change your premise or uncover something totally unexpected. Be iterative, learn, and change as you go to pursue what’s most meaningful.

While piloting, embrace misinterpretation. Participants may understand your product differently than how you envisioned. Resist the urge to correct them. Instead, continuously ask why, digging deeper into their point of view.

Tucker Fort
Executive Director and Partner at Smart Design