An emerging approach to building tech products
In startup land, there seems to be one “right” way to launch a product. It usually involves shoving a product into market as fast as possible. Move fast and break things, right?
When I had the idea to build my company, Wonderly Software Solutions, I knew this prescribed way of building a startup wasn’t in my DNA. I’ve spent the last 20 years in technology. I have seen many problems introduced by moving too fast and not involving customers.
I am more of a methodical turtle. I move a little slower to ensure that both my and the company’s growth is sustainable. When people ask me how things are going, it is common for me to say “I’m turtling along”.
I’m building a company where customers are at the heart of the product. We’re using a human-centered design approach to build our company and our product Bella Scena. Under this framework, customers engage in each step of the product creation journey with us, where possible. I don’t want to tell my customers how to think. I want to understand how they think and see how we can apply good design to accommodate them as much as possible. To do this, we don’t move quite as fast at the beginning to allow time and space for the process. It’s methodical and intentional and a path we walk alongside our customers.
So what is human-centered design? A discipline from the design world, it begins with empathy for and understanding of the problems our customers are experiencing, and often, doing this prior to launch. IDEO has brought this framework to many people, and we are steadily seeing it applied to solve different types of problems.
We are now starting to see a new series of companies emerge with a deep-rooted philosophy of listening to and working with their customers. For those who follow what’s happening in Silicon Valley, the company Superhuman is a great example of a startup adopting these philosophies. All of their language is around product market fit, but as you look deeper into their methodology, it is all about working with their customers to improve their product. It’s about deeply understanding the pain points for the customers and solving those problems.
I’ve had a lot of help along this journey. I’m sharing the cliff notes version of the 7 steps we followed to get our new product, Bella Scena, ready for the market:
Step 1: Identify an initial problem you are trying to solve
Bella Scena started with a belief. I believed there were many problems with how meetings were being conducted or scheduled. In reality, meetings are a three-step process: pre-activities (such as planning), the meeting itself, and follow up activities. However, most meetings are simply set-up as a time on the calendar. This results in lost productivity, repeated conversations, stalled progress and frustrated participants.
At this point, we put together an initial prototype to use as a discussion point for review.
Initial reviews were done with an audience of 12 people. This list of feedback received was incredibly long. I had no idea how I would get from the initial prototype to the market. At this point I realized something wasn’t right. We had missed something. This led us to step back and dig deeply into the original hypothesis.
Step 2: Design structured research to understand the pain from the customer perspective.
Let’s be clear- this step is not just putting yourself in their shoes and pretending to be them, because you will end up with a biased pair of uncomfortable shoes. The best way to do this is to survey and interact with actual potential customers. We designed a survey with questions to understand the topic more deeply. We had a third party firm run a structured interview with 8 different people. Our audience represented different generations, genders, and races. We learned about the problem from their perspective. Our interviewees confirmed our hypothesis. They also helped us understand there was more to the problem than the meeting. Prioritization and planning were endemic problems that were getting worse. Meetings were one piece to a larger puzzle.
I am often asked: how did I find these magical people to interview? I asked people in my network if they would spare some time to answer questions. People are generous with their time when you are working to solve a problem they care about.
Step 3: Wireframe or draw out your proposed solution(s) to the problem.
We now had a clearer perspective on many of the problems, and it was time to propose our solution and approach. They say a picture is worth a thousand words for a reason. Wire-framing helps you get the picture out of your head and on to paper. We spent two months with UX designers creating our initial solution. At this stage I absolutely believed this was the product I was building.
I was wrong.
Here is an example initial wireframe we created for one part of our product:
Step 4: Review proposed solutions with customers using a structured review process.
Time for us to gather additional feedback to measure and understand how well we were solving the problem. This process occurred over two weeks. I did reviews with 30 people. It was very difficult to take product crafted from my soul, explain it, and have them rate it. It was brutal! But also an incredible learning opportunity. By about the tenth person, any pre-conceived notions about my product were gone. I became extremely curious about how my customers thought. What would they do with the envisioned product?
As founders, we want to believe what we are building is perfect and many levels of wonderful. In the end though, it doesn’t matter what we love and build if our customers hate it and won’t use it.
We learned multiple things about our product by going through this process, from identifying major problems (like our initial color scheme!) to highlighting top features.
An example of a top feature we hadn’t expected was something we call Instant Meetings. It is a digital blank page to store your own personal notes or invite others to share collaborative notes. When the meeting is finished, notes are saved on the calendar where the meeting occurred. In our surveys we discovered this functionality was incredibly helpful. Here is the feedback we received from customers, helping us identify that Instant Meetings is one of our sticky features.
Next, before we passed go, we had to understand if we could not only build a product but build a viable business. We tested willingness to pay for the solution. If they didn’t have willingness to pay on the product, there was no point in proceeding. Customers helped us understand what features they would be willing to buy. This helped me build a product road-map I felt confident in and chart our path to the market for a product that I should be able to monetize.
Step 5: Iterate again on your designs – reviewing and measuring updates along the way.
Based on our initial feedback, we knew what customers loved and what we needed to improve. We began testing updated wireframes with a broader group of people. We took the opportunity to really focus on the areas that tested strongly, to see if we could make them even better. And we fixed some of the fundamental problems such as the color scheme. Here is an example of how we had updated our design:
As we finished this phase, we began building the product. The time invested upfront helped us be clearer about the product we were trying to build and the detailed designs made it easier for us to speak the same language with our development team. We now entered into the phase of bringing the real product to life. That journey, of course, has had its own separate set of challenges.
Step 6: Complete closed alpha launch. (We used time-boxed structured exercises.)
We would put an exercise out to our customer testers, and give them two weeks to test it out. Exercises measured what was most important for us to launch in the market. For this part of journey, we recruited new testers. Our new testers were not familiar with the previous versions of the product. 67% of our alpha testers had never participated in the previous reviews. This was by design. It helped us make sure we were getting fresh perspective.
We continued testing our designs. We are now to the point where we are brave enough to ask how disappointed a customer would be if we took the product away. We are using these benchmarks to help us continue to improve the product.
What kind of things did we learn during these tests? Some of our alpha testers were getting stuck on our sign up process. Given that were planning to initially market to freelancers and small businesses, this was a problem. We revisited our sign up versus sign in processes to make improvements to our process and eliminate a few bugs we found along the way.
We also learned the way we had integrated Google calendar was visually overwhelming. Here’s a final wireframe showing how we updated our design (note we are still finalizing the features in the build road-map so keep this a secret, okay? *wink, wink*):
Step 7: Beta market launch (which for us was the beginning of August)
This one is hard to write, because it is just in process of happening while I write this. We may need another article for that one later. What I do know is we have a process and a methodology to continue working with our customers to improve our product. In the end, the goal is to create a product that cannot be pried out of your hands.
In the end, this process was not fast. By now, the product in one form or another has been put in front of approximately 150 people. It would not have been possible without their generosity and feedback, and using the princples of human-centered design. We know that we will continue learning, growing, and iterating with our customers. Do I feel like the product and team are ready for the launch? As a true Minnesotan, I say ya you betcha!