Whether your business is large or small, nascent or established, there are continually questions you need to answer in order to improve your offering. One quick and low-risk way to answer these questions is to run experiments. Designing small market-facing prototypes or tests can get you closer to solving a market need. This method is not restricted to small startups.

In fact, Finland's government is currently running an experiment to make life better for the people it serves--an entire country. To find ways to lower Finland's high unemployment rate, the government is conducting a two-year experiment in which 2,000 randomly selected unemployed Finns receive a set sum of money each month (an experiment with basic income). Here are four things every company can learn from Finland about how to design and run experiments.

1. Create a culture of experimentation

Finland's income experiment didn't come out of nowhere. It is run by the prime minister's experimentation unit, which was created a few years ago after the Finnish prime minister decided he wanted to design legislation the same way companies design products or services. This experimental unit currently has 26 national projects it is designing experiments for. Anyone can read about the projects and initiatives on the government's website (the process is transparent) and the country has worked to ensure that its experimentation mindset is constitutional (and doesn't infringe on privacy).

Before starting experiments, its important to help your organization understand its value. Encourage teams to approach their design challenges as opportunities to experiment. When we think in terms of experiments, we put less pressure on our ideas. Whether we "succeed" or "fail," we still learn. A culture of experimentation makes it easier for teams to move quickly through the process of building prototypes, measuring results, and iterating based on what they learn.

2. Be specific about the question you want to answer

Finland's experimental unit is intentional about its initiatives. The income initiative is focused on a fundamental problem that impacts citizens (in this case, unemployed citizens). Their experiments explore ways in which problems might be solved. As Roope Mokka, founder of a Helsinki-based think tank explained to NPR, the "big question" for this particular unemployment experiment is, "will receiving basic income make people more or less active, whatever the activity is, whether it's just walking around or whether it's taking care of your neighborhood's kids or apply for work?" While the team has many questions, this experiment is only meant to answer one.

Experiments are most effective when you design them to answer a focused question. Think about one question you need to answer about your product, service, or organization and come up with a quick experiment that could help answer it.

3. Start small

As Finland experiments around huge legislative innovation, critics of the program argue that 2,000 people is too small a sample size. Two economists even published an opinion piece in the New York Times about why they believe the experiment will fail. But Finland's experimentation unit doesn't posit that this one experiment will have all the answers. "We cannot just consider that, you know, let's give this amount to some thousands of people and then we'll know for sure. It's going to be other experiments before we can find out how to renew social security," Mokka told NPR. The key point is that this experiment is one of many. It will help the government start to get an idea about the best way to solve the problem at hand.

Whether you're making systemic changes or launching new ideas to market, start with small experiments that test the water. Large scale initiatives may touch more people, but they are riskier (for example in the case of Finland, including more people in the study would cost the government more money, when instead, they can gather high-level data from their 2,000 respondents then design a deeper follow-up experiment).

4. Gather data and user feedback

Finland's experimentation process is that it is built on continual feedback from participants--the citizens they are designing for. The team iterates by getting feedback from participants of the experiment and monitoring their behaviors. They look at outcomes--what actually happens--then improve their experiments and policies accordingly. For their experiment, the team in Finland are comparing the two groups of unemployed citizens (those who do receive the monthly stipend and those don't) for two years and comparing their behaviors.

The main purpose of an experiment is to learn from your users. It doesn't matter if you were right or wrong about your hypothesis so long as you learn something that helps you make your design better. The way you gather feedback is just as important as your experiment as well. Consider quantitative methods like surveys, behavioral methods like tracking website activity, and qualitative methods like interviewing participants.

Experimentation is a great way to continually improve your offering and fuel organizational growth. Start small and test frequently. After all, good design is never Finnished.

Published on: Oct 3, 2017
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