If you're a smart designer, you aren't just designing products; you're designing fast, cheap tests to assess the viability of those products. 

Case in point: The pre-launch adventures of Coulter and Kristy Lewis, the 34-year-old founders of Quinn Popcorn, a Boulder-based maker of organic popcorn sold in Whole Foods, Target, Wegmans, and elsewhere. Before they moved to Boulder for both personal and organic-food-community reasons, they lived in Arlington, Mass. In the company's early days, their household kitchen became a test kitchen.

Initially, they tested new designs for microwavable popcorn bags. Having worked for five years at the renowned design firm IDEO, Coulter was no stranger to the process of rapid experimentation. For three straight evenings in 2012, he and Kristy tested new bag designs in their kitchen. 

The initial hope was that their bags could become a fun, marketable point of product differentiation, in both appearance and function. Could they make a bag that expanded accordion-style, or whose shape drew inspiration from origami?

They tried. Kristy sat at an old-school Singer sewing machine. She took stabs at sewing together parchment paper in various patterns. She sewed about 10 bags on each of the three nights. One by one, they filled the bags with kernels and tested them in the microwave. But nothing worked quite as well as the conventional bag shape.

After three nights, they realized pursuing innovation around the bag's shape was not worth the time or trouble. It would've meant a "multimillion dollar" investment up front, says Coulter, in order to own both the bag-manufacturing materials and bag-making machines. 

Method to the Madness

There are two big takeaways here for innovators: The first is that you can learn a lot from a fast, cheap, homemade test. For a small expenditure of time (three nights in the kitchen) and materials (30 bags, plus kernels), Quinn Popcorn learned key pre-launch lessons about its flagship product. 

The second takeaway is that a less-than-stellar testing outcome does not mean you had a bad idea. For Quinn Popcorn, there were still plenty of opportunities to innovate toward a differentiated bag. In fact, today their bags are markedly different from those of their competitors--just not by dint of their shape.

For instance, the only thing that comes in the Quinn Popcorn bag is organic kernels. Oil and seasonings come in separate pouches; you add them later, after the corn is popped. By putting only kernels in the bag, the company was able to use a bag made of compostable paper. The chemical coatings and plastic normally found in bags was not necessary; the bag didn't have to accommodate microwavable liquids or butter-flavored coatings. 

So, in the end, Quinn Popcorn was able to create a marketable, differentiated bag. And their path to this innovation changed after just three short nights of low-cost testing. Their approach, a form of rapid beta testing for bag prototypes, was similar to the one that Candice Cabe took when launching Day2Night, a shoe accessories company.

The Art of Observation

Having observed that many women wear flat shoes during their commutes and switch to heels at the office, Cabe raised more than $16,000 on Kickstarter to start a shoe company whose products came with sets of interchangeable heels--each a different height--allowing the wearer to swap out one heel for another. To test the product with actual heels would've cost $30,000, Cabe told Inc. So Cabe used 3-D printers to crank out 20 affordable, rapid prototypes.

For Quinn Popcorn, testing the bags was just the beginning. Once the actual product--bag, kernels, flavors--was ready, they mailed them out in care packages to six sets of friends and family. In the packages they included small video cameras, and asked their friends to record every step of the making and eating process. 

Including the cameras allowed them to get an honest look at what was going on, in a way that would be more unedited than any verbal feedback their friends would provide. For example, there were times when their friends would declare that they liked the taste of one of the flavor packets. Fine and dandy. But Kristy and Coulter felt even more assured when the cameras showed their friends sticking unpopped kernels in their mouths so they could continue tasting the added-in flavor. Now that's evidence. 

The videos also taught the founders to include more specific instructions about how to prepare the popcorn. "We saw every type of misuse happen," says Coulter. Their friends did not always know the basics of microwaving popcorn, like which side of the bag to place face-down. In addition, the concept of adding flavors after the popping was a new twist; friends didn't always open the flavor packets correctly or add proper amounts. Having seen footage of all this, the founders revised their packaging. They made it exceptionally clear which side of the popcorn bag needed to be face-down in the microwave; they included details on how to open the packets and calibrate how much flavor to add. 

All of this was possible because they could trust what the cameras told them. In this respect, Quinn Popcorn followed another key tenet of idea-testing: Observe how your potential customers behave. Their actions will usually tell you more than their verbal responses will. 

Don't Stop Listening

Designers Chris Michaud and Kevin Young, the cofounders of Felix, a $1.5-million maker of stands and cases for phones and tablets, are also big believers in behavioral observation. They didn't conduct any focus groups to learn what consumers wanted in their cases and stands. It was obvious to both of them--from watching countless people struggle to prop up their iPads on the seat-back trays of planes and trains--that consumers were frustrated by difficulties in setting the tablet at a proper, stable reading angle. "Once you spot a problem, you don't have to keep testing," says Young. In designing Felix's FlipBook, which serves as both a case and a stand, the design brief was simple: "You should be able to set it with no thought, and it has to hold," Young recalls. 

Going forward, Quinn Popcorn continues to rely on customer feedback. The six-employee company routinely invites customers to the nearby Upslope Brewery in Boulder for beers and beta testing of one concept or another, whether it's what flavors would be best for its farm-to-bag products or the verbiage on its packaging. "It's a no-brainer way to do this," says Coulter. "It makes the customers feel like they're a part of this, and we use the insights."