On my first day of orientation at IIT’s Institute of Design (ID), Dean Patrick Whitney introduced us new students to the idea of designing platforms. The success of the iPod within the ecosystem of iTunes was presented as a lesson to us from day one, and throughout the semester. That orientation week fired me up about the impact design could have: to solve wicked problems, to create new industries. To disrupt.

But as a novice designer still learning to use the pen tool in Illustrator without crying tears of frustration, I now had my own wicked problem. “Simple” was dead to me. The shimmering potential of each design problem was overwhelming. Specifically, I was having trouble getting past research to the confident feeling that I had a good solution.

Meanwhile, the startup world was continuing its love affair with “lean.” I was attending Agile UX meetups and reading books by experts that assured me there was such a thing as “just enough” research. I knew I was overthinking things, but I didn’t know what to do about it.

This Spring, out of school and researching a promising business idea, I found myself stalled again. So I called a design professor and a VC.

In search of a repeatable process

Assistant Professor Tom MacTavish teaches “Observing Users” at ID, and he described for me some of the techniques and concepts he covers in the course. He made the process sound surprisingly not intimidating. And he has worked with startups throughout his career (prior to ID, he was VP of Motorola’s Human Interaction Research Center, and he has his own interactive design consultancy), so he has had plenty of opportunities to apply what he teaches.

For another pragmatic perspective, I spoke with George Deeb, Managing Partner at Red Rocket Venture Partners. I saw Deeb speak at the Chicago Ideation Bootcamp hosted by the Founder Institute in April. He emphasized the need to arm yourself with numbers and data when you pitch your business.

Both described a process to first make sure you’ve got a valid problem and an economically-viable solution, and then to test and refine that solution with users.

First: user research to frame the problem

“User research is focused first on ‘What’s the problem space out there?'” said MacTavish. “How do you frame the problem in a way that can be resolved through smart design?”

For this beginning exploration, you can do what he called shadow visits: quietly observing users while taking notes and photos. Or you can conduct ethnographic interviews to learn about the lifestyles and beliefs surrounding the problem you are solving.

Deeb also goes to users first. “I would use surveys or focus groups with the potential customers within the industry to ask them very specific questions. ‘Here are some market dynamics we’ve identified. Do you agree that these market dynamics exist? These are the problems we’ve identified within the marketplace, do you agree that those problems exist?’ That’s typically done within research and focus groups before the product is even conceptualized.

Next: market research to validate the economics of your idea

“The second step,” said MacTavish, “is to see if there is a meaningful market that has enough economic value, and where the sources of value are going to come from.”

Deeb agrees. “I’m trying to figure out the dynamics of the particular industry that I’m operating within. How large is that industry? How fast is it growing? Who are the key competitors? What are the different dynamics that make that market unique?” You want to discover how your business or service fits into the marketplace.

Google is a good place to start looking for whatever data you can find to quantify the industry. Deeb recommends finding research reports by analysts who cover your industry. For more advanced information on market research, MacTavish recommends Crossing the Chasm or Dealing with Darwin by Geoffrey Moore. Moore developed the Category Maturity Model to describe the process of surviving past the early adopter phase.

Don’t get too specific too soon

“One thing you have to decide in your approach to the market is whether you want to have a generative discussion or an evaluative discussion,” MacTavish said. “Typically the way you approach it is to start off with a generative approach.”

A generative discussion gets the user involved in generating ideas. Show them a sketch model, a low-fidelity prototype, that lets them feel comfortable making broad suggestions.

Once you have iterated based on that input, you can move on to evaluative discussions. Using a higher-fidelity model, you can ask more close-ended questions. Do they prefer this feature or that feature? At that point, as Deeb puts it, “You’re trying to sharpen the pencil in terms of the product that’s launching.”

Waiting too long to get a prototype in front of users, or starting with something too specific, is a missed opportunity. If you just approach somebody and say, ‘Do you like this widget or not?'” said MacTavish, “you never find out what they really want. You never give them the chance to really generate some ideas and glean the best of all ideas from several people.”

How do you know when you have enough information?

According to Deeb, it depends on the complexity of your business. He named StyleSeek as an example. “Before they coded one line of code for their website, they individually interviewed 400 men. They spent two to three hours per person to really get their arms around men’s behavior around buying clothing.” StyleSeek wanted to cover many variables such as age, income level, and clothing for different activities and lifestyles. “They just did their homework and made sure they got it right.”

Chances are, you can start smaller. MacTavish recommended 8-12 people within the category of consumers you are targeting. “Let’s say bus drivers,” he said. “If I create something and I can get 8-12 bus drivers to agree that it’s a useful entity, that’s really valuable information.”

“Follow that up with some sort of survey,” he continued, “or some larger-scale quantification. That may be to survey 50-100 bus drivers in a particular region, or who fit some kind of attribute. And just ask them, ‘I’ve got a solution that does x. Is that interesting or not?”

“And that’s it. That’s pretty good confirmation.”

You can do this, right?

If you’re not trained in research techniques, consider hiring someone who is. Deeb points out that a third-party researcher or marketing firm can provide objectivity you may lack.

But if you have zero budget, you can use free tools, like SurveyMonkey, and the extended networks of your family and friends. Find people like your target consumers and get some ideas in front of them.

Well, I’m ready to get back to work on my business idea. How about you?