Tom Harman is a Designer

Craft Fair Learnings

A few Sundays ago, Tash and I migrated Coasterica from a small window-less room in the SVA IxD studio to one of Brooklyn’s finest craft fairs, Artists & Fleas. The weekly market was established in Williamsburg in 2003, creating a platform for craft-related makers (such as Mast Brothers) to reach like likeminded audiences.

After a near-sleepless night finishing off our promo video, we managed to set up shop and remain coherent enough to learn a ton from the experience.

Nowadays, we’re spoilt for choice with the amount of online resources available to help launch and analyze new products and services. So being in a physical space, designed for the presentation of ideas for impartial feedback was a surprisingly refreshing, not to mention obvious, thing to try. Part advertising, part user research and part concept validation, here are my takeaways from the day:

1. Instagram penetration is lower than you’d think

Seriously. We were located in what I assume to be one of the most densely populated Instagram-communities in the world and less than half the people we spoke to knew what Instagram was. If they did, it was something they’d heard about Facebook buying, or understood as being related to photos, but were far from using it on a regular basis.

2. Design for the physical world

We spent time carefully constructing the stand to present our coasters in as favorable and aesthetically pleasing light as possible, only to realise that we’d put an iPad, complete with giant ‘buy now’ button right in the middle of the display. Face. Palm. No one wants to use an iPad at a craft fair, at least, not to do a fiddly personalised interaction selecting images. The other problem this fueled was having a mixed message, are we selling pre-made sets? Or allowing people to make their own? Both are valid but the messaging was not articulating either path particularly well. The one pleasant surprise from our display was the number of people who picked up business cards and signed up for our mailing list, these items are clearly more important than I gave them credit for in today’s world.

3. Observe first

One aspect we’ve struggled to convey online is the weight and feel of the coasters. In person it’s simple, people pick them up and intuitively grasp the things we struggle to articulate in words. This, like many other learnings from the day was the result of putting together a display and simply watching how people interact with it, without trying to lead or encourage a particularly type of activity. We’d wait for questions to be asked, rather than jumping in to make a sale. The most valuable insights were often in throwaway comments between friends, walking past the stand.

We’re so used to conducting this type of research by sitting someone down in front of a screen or paper prototype in an unfamiliar environment, but observing in a natural context made so much more sense, Nate would be pleased.

4. Community building

As an online company, it’s easy to get wrapped up in designing and building a functioning system, but the sooner you can put something out in front of an unbiased audience the sooner you can learn what people actually think and want, rather than investing time in arbitrary assumptions. I’m sure this will be obvious to any lean startup fan, but the thing I found was that it’s not just about the customer. The people who ran Artists and Fleas were incredibly helpful and supportive, introducing us to a ton of good people, plus there were all the other vendors who were curious to learn about Coastermatic and share their craft fair tales. Aside from being informative, it made for a really supportive and encouraging atmosphere to take risks and try things out.

Next time

We plan on doing more craft fairs throughout the summer. With the benefit of hindsight we’re going to focus on a couple of refinements for next time.

Physical A/B testing

As I mentioned previously, translating a digital message into a physical space is not necessarily a straight forward process, so having a collection of signs with different calls to action will be a great way to test what works best. Plus, we can switch them in/out/around once we learn what’s working.

Practice articulating the product

Speaking to potential customers is clearly important, but aside from customer acquisition, getting into the habit of just talking through what the product is and why it’s interesting is just as valuable in helping you figure it out for yourself. People can see through faux responses so it needs to be genuine.

Tash & I are curious about making things for the home that leverage technology and encourage interesting conversations. We think coasters are a forgotten format in homely chitchat and are excited to explore what possibilities they might hold, and as such, our interest is less in printing Instagram images, but in giving people the ability to customise their teatime conversations.

If you could use a new set of coasters, check out or follow @coastermatic on twitter.

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