Getting your hands dirty

I’ve always been driven by the desire to make things. As a child, I spent a lot of my time writing and illustrating terrible books (mostly about princesses named Sarah who rode around on pet elephants) and building my little sister’s LEGO sets (she’d let me to build them for her if I’d play with her afterward). As something approximating a grown-up, I spend my days making things. I still love building IKEA furniture, which is basically LEGO for grown-ups. Same all-caps four-letter brand name, even. (And my sister still manages to get me to come over and build all her furniture for her as though it’s her doing me the favour. Clearly negotiation is not a skill I possess.)

Anyway. Building stuff. I really like it. Check out my sitting room at this exact second:

I’m attempting to build a huge window seat with built-in storage. Every time I need to cut a piece of wood I have to traipse down two flights of stairs with my circular saw and my work bench and try not to blow sawdust all over the cars on the road and/or terrify young children walking home from school. I’m sure my neighbours adore me.

It’s also how I’ve always learned best: by doing. It’s why I like training courses that include hands-on exercises, but I can’t sit still through an endless series of videos. The absolute best way for me to learn a new skill is to build something with it.

So when I started working on a new product for small businesses, I wanted to get my hands dirty as soon as possible. I started backwards, by imagining what a small business website might look like. I had a vision in mind, but I wanted to know if the vision in my head was actually going to be useful for businesses—if it would help solve their problems.

So I started building. The hardest part was finding some businesses to work with, but once I’d sorted that out, I just kept on building sites. In total, I built around twenty-five sites using our product. Some of them were successful, some of them weren’t. But I got to see and interact with a lot of small businesses, and I got to test out our knock-kneed product in its infancy. I ran across some frustrations and a whole slew of bugs to be fixed. And I’ve had a chance to preliminarily test some of my assumptions.

Once we have a prototype that’s a little bit further along, I’ll do testing on a larger scale, which will yield even more answers (and more statistically significant answers). If I got a few answers from building twenty-five sites, think of how many answers I’ll get from building a hundred!

Building is a fantastic way to test your assumptions, to try out your product, and to experience things the way your customers do. When you’re working with meaty problems, it can be really easy to be caught in a cycle of thinking and talking, and not actually doing. That’s all well and good (and thinking is a great tool) but sometimes, you can learn just as much by going out and doing.

By sarah semark

Sarah is a designer who codes. She likes building things and fixing things, and believes that good criticism is vital to making the things you love better. She is most likely to be found working in an airport, cursing at her screen and making odd faces.