Insights from the FirstMark Hardwired series, a monthly event in New York covering the intersection of hardware and software, including Internet of Things, 3D printing, robotics, and virtual reality. With more than 4,000 members, Hardwired surfaces the stories behind some of the most interesting companies in the world.

We don’t always know what’s in our food, which is a huge problem for people who struggle with food allergies and sensitivities. 6SensorLabs is trying to solve that problem with its first product, Nima, a discreet and portable sensor that allows consumers to test their food for unwanted ingredients like gluten, peanut or dairy, anywhere, anytime.

Testing, obviously, is core to the company, so it’s natural that 6SensorLabs architected a smart process to gather product feedback before they even produced a physical product.

In a talk at FirstMark’s Hardwired NYC, Founder and CEO Shireen Yates outlined the market research and prototyping techniques used to bring the Nima to life. In particular, Yates shared how her team considered market, price, the ecosystem in which the product lives, and product features. The lessons of thoughtful testing, while certainly applicable hardware startups, have great potential across industries.

“I knew it was going to take some capital, a big team and likely years to get to a point where we can get our final product out there and start getting user feedback,” Yates said. “But all along the way, we’ve figured out how to hack not only the prototype of the product itself, but the environment in which the product exists.”

Testing your market
The first step in building the Nima was a simple outline of the team’s assumptions about the market:

1. People are stressed about avoiding certain foods and find it challenging when eating socially.
2. Millions of people with food allergies and sensitivities want to test their food when eating out.
3. People are willing to pay to test their food.
4. People would want to test multiple foods each week.

Next, they rolled out a simple survey via a Facebook ad campaign, attracting about 600 responses to quantify pain points and address assumptions.

This process helped give the team confidence that they were on the right track. But, it also helped highlight areas that needed further analysis.

The survey wasn’t too helpful with pricing — with responses ranging from $0 — $2,000. So, to test multiple prices, the team created a product promotion landing page featuring a concept of what the product may look like.

In all, they tested 25 variations, including five sensor prices and five disposable prices. By evaluating conversion data for each variation, they were able to better gauge consumers’ willingness to pay for the product.

“Price is really important and often overlooked, so we did a lot of research on pricing,” Yates said.

Ultimately, the team landed on a $250 starter pack that includes the Nima device and three one-time-use testing capsules.

Where the product lives
The team understood a pain point existed and people were open to the idea of testing their food, but they wanted to see the frustration of food sensitivities played out in a natural environment.

They launched what Yates calls “gluten-free online dating.” They took 10 gluten-free consumers out to eat to study how they order food, the questions they ask the server and the anxiety they have about the eating experience. They also wanted to discover if testing food at the table create more or less tension.

To gather additional data, the team turned a conference room into a 4-star dining experience, complete with candles, white table cloth and menu. They then asked subjects to circle the items on the menu they would want to test.

This led to a better understanding of the consumer’s concerns, such as the need to test sauces and marinades. This turned out to be important data that had an impact on the product design.

Product Features
Next came testing the actual product form and features. To do this, the team created clay and foam models in multiple shapes and sizes and carried them everywhere. They gave similar models to consumers to carry around. And, ultimately they were able to settle on two variations that consumers loved.

The data was incredibly valuable when they began working with an industrial design firm to start building true prototypes.

Still, the team never took a break from testing. As often as possible, they put the prototype in the hands of consumers to observe how they interacted with the device at a restaurant table.

Because the Nima is chemistry based, it needs to be upright to run properly. It was this early user testing that helped the team learn that a triangular shape for the device resulted in a more intuitive experience. Users naturally set the Nima upright.

The testing never stops
“It’s really important to understand that need even before you know if it’s doable,” Yates said.

That concept persists as 6SensorLabs grows as a company. The methods for obtaining feedback are often cheap or free and the resulting information is invaluable.

“There are so many different ways you can go about hacking this,” Yates said.

To hear more about 6SensorLabs’ plans to alleviate the stress around hidden food ingredients and to see Yates’ presentation in full, check out the video from FirstMark’s Hardwired NYC.