There’s a moment when you’ve been creating something for months, and it finally starts to work. Kind of, just a little bit. Not in every way you had hoped or maybe not in any way originally imagined but it does start to come together just enough…or so you think.

When you know your craft, you look for patterns.  When you have written half a dozen novels, worked on half a dozen films or launched half a dozen products, the journey is familiar and offers some clarity.

And there’s usually that point you can look back on, when you first knew you were working on something special. For me it was when I saw the Green Army Man sequence in “Toy Story” the first time. Or when I read Andrew Stanton’s first draft of the script for “Finding Nemo.”

But what about when you’re creating something new?  You’ve been working on this thing for a long time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You know where it’s broken; you know where it isn’t finished; you know where it’s rough. You have plans for all the things you’re going to get to before launch and the spreadsheets to prove it.

But without the benefit of hindsight, it’s confusing at this point. The excitement of doing all the little things can overwhelm. And the Kool Aid is tasting suspiciously good. It has to, you’ve been drinking it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for months because it’s what got you started in the first place.

You’re too close to the project to be objective, so where do you turn?

The Team

You can’t ask the people you’re working with how it’s going. The echo chamber is a complex mixture of nourishment and deception. Instead, try silence. Stop talking, and start listening. Spend even more time with your audience, your customers, your users, early adopters, the people willing to give it a try.

In “The Start-up Owner’s Manual,” author and lecturer, Steve Blank often comments that if the founders of a startup aren’t personally involved in user testing, they’re probably making a mistake. Contact with real customers is too important to delegate, so do it yourself.

But doing it alone presents other risks, especially when you come back to the office and talk about results. Communicating what worked and what didn’t, talking through solutions, and deciding what to build next involves the whole team. So involve the whole team in testing, and give everyone a chance to listen.

The Truth

But what do you ask them? Nothing. Look at their faces. Look at them in the moment and really see them. Don’t ask questions, don’t interrupt. Just sit and watch carefully. Are they futzing, eating popcorn, checking Twitter? Are they blindly poking things, asking what to do next, or looking back at you? You’re wasting their time.

Or are they sitting still, quiet, leaning slightly forward, and “in it.”  If they are “in it,” you’ve got them and their attention. You are not wasting their time. You’ve made a connection.

With ToyTalk, I’ve learned at least one thing. Kids have no filter. If we blow it, they just walk away without hesitation. Brutal and humbling. And then there’s that day when you see that first child lean in just a little bit, and then lean in a little bit more…

[Image Credit: Connecticut State Library on Flickr]