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My product management toolkit (17): Assess market viability

Whether you’re a product manager or are in a commercial or strategic role, I’m sure you’ll have to assess market viability at some point in your career. For that reason, I wrote previously about assessing markets, suggesting tools that you can use to decide on whether to enter a market or not.

A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast interview in which Christophe Gillet, VP of Product Management at Vimeo, gave some great pointers on how to best assess market viability. Christophe shared his thoughts on things to explore when considering market viability. I’ve added my sample questions related to some of the points that Christophe made:

  1. Is there a market? – This should be the first validation in my opinion; is there a demand for my product or service? Which market void will our product help to fill and why? What are the characteristics of my target market?
  2. Is there viability within that market?  Once you’ve established that there’s a potential market for your product, this doesn’t automatically mean that the market is viable. For example, regulatory constraints can make it hard to launch or properly establish your product in a market.
  3. Total addressable market – The total addressable market – or total available market – is all about revenue opportunity available for a particular product or service (see Fig. 1 below). A way to work out the total addressable market is to first define total market space and then look at percentage of the market which has already been served.
  4. Problem to solve – Similar to some of the questions to ask as part of point 1. above, it’s important to validate early and often whether there’s an actual problem that your product or service is solving.
  5. Understand prior failures (by competitors) – I’ve found that looking at previous competitor attempts can be an easy thing to overlook. However, understanding who already tried to conquer your market of choice and whether they’ve been successful can help you avoid some pitfalls that others encountered before you.
  6. Talk to individual users  I feel this is almost a given if you’re looking to validate whether there’s a market and a problem to solve (see points 1. and 4. above). Make sure that you sense check your market and problem assumptions with your target customers.
  7. Strong mission statement and objectives of what you’re looking to achieve  In my experience, having a clear mission statement helps to articulate and communicate what it is that you’re looking to achieve and why. These mission statements are typically quite aspirational but should offer a good insight into your aspirations for a particular market (see the example of outdoor clothing company Patagonia in Fig. 2 below).
  8. Business goals  Having clear, measurable objectives in place to achieve in relation to a new market that you’re considering is absolutely critical. In my view, there’s nothing worse than looking at new markets without a clear definition of what market success looks like and why.
  9. How to get people to use your product – I really liked how Christophe spoke about the need to think about a promotion and an adoption strategy. Too often, I encounter a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of mentality which I believe can be deadly if you’re looking to enter new markets. Having a clear go-to-market strategy is almost just as important as developing a great product or service. What’s the point of an awesome product that no one knows about or doesn’t know where to get!?

Main learning point: Listening to the interview with Christophe Gillet reinforced for me the importance of being able to assess market viability. Being able to ask and explore some critical questions when considering new markets will help avoid failed launches or at least gain a shared understanding of what market success will look like.

 

Fig. 1 – Total available market – Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_addressable_market

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Fig. 2 – Patagonia’s mission statement – Taken from: http://www.patagonia.com/company-info.html

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Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.thisisproductmanagement.com/episodes/assessing-market-viability
  2. http://www.mindtheproduct.com/2013/05/poem-framework/
  3. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/determine-market-viability-product-service-40757.html
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_addressable_market
  5. https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/inspiring-company-mission-statements
 

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Book review: Sprint (Part 6 – Day 5)

The fifth and final day of the sprint is all about interviewing your (target) customers and learning from how they interact with your prototype.

Interview

“Five is the magic number”, is the point that Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz are making in Sprint with regard to the number of people to interview. The value of this number of interviewees was proven by usability expert Norman Nielsen who found that typically 85 percent of problems were observed after just five people (see Fig. 1). “The number of findings quickly reaches the point diminishing returns,” Nielsen concluded. “There’s little additional benefit to running more than five people through the same study; ROI drops like a stone.”

When it comes to conducting the actual interview, having a structured and consistent way of running these conversations is critical. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz write about the “Five-Act Interview”, which consists of the following stages (see Sprint, p. 202):

  1. A friendly welcome to start the interview
  2. A series of general, open-ended context questions about the interview
  3. Introduction to the prototype(s)
  4. Detailed tasks to get the customer reacting to the prototype
  5. A quick debrief to capture the customer’s overarching thoughts and impressions

The book also provides some useful tips for the interviewer, asking open-ended and ‘broken’ questions (pp. 212 – 215):

  • DON’T ask multiple choice or “yes/no” questions – “Would you …?””Do you …?””Is it…?”
  • DO ask “Five Ws and One H” questions – “Who …?””What …?””Where …?””When …?””Why …?””How …?”
  • Ask broken questions – The idea behind a broken question is to start asking a question – but let your speech trail off before you say anything that could bias or influence the answer. For example: “So, what … is …” (trail off into silence)

Fig. 1 – Why You Only Need To Test With Five Users – Taken from: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/

 

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Learn

Ultimately, this is what the fifth and final day of your sprint is all about: finding the end to your sprint story. Once you’ve had a chance to see how your customers react to your prototype, you’ll be able to answer your sprint questions and decide on next steps. For example, if you and your team take interview notes as a group during the five interviews, you should be able to do a good recap of all your learnings, answer the original sprint questions and decide on what to next. For example, a common next step would be to make a go/no go decision about a particular product idea.

Main learning point: In “Sprint”, Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz offer a very cost-efficient way to explore product questions and solutions before committing to an idea (and a large investment of time, money and effort). The reality is that as a product manager you’ll almost always will have to take a punt, but being disciplined about doing sprints and continuous discovery will help you make better informed decisions, based on real customer feedback.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2015/06/24/interviewing-customers-to-explore-problems-and-solutions/
  2. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-with-5-users/
  3. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2014/04/20/how-to-do-effective-user-interviews/
  4. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/julia-shalet-explains-about-user-research-at-the-mobile-academy/
  5. https://marcabraham.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/collaborative-user-research-learning-from-erika-hall/
 

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Book review: Sprint (Part 5 – Day 4)

Once you and your team have created storyboards, you’ll spend the fourth day of the sprint creating a prototype. In “Sprint”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz talk about a “fake it” approach to turn a storyboard into a realistic prototype.

Fake It

The fourth day of your sprint is all about illusion; instead of taking weeks, months, or even years to create the real thing, you’re going to fake it. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz talk about building a facade (see Fig. 1 below). The main acceptance criterion for a successful facade is that it needs to be real enough to test with real customer on the fifth and final day of the sprint.

Fig. 1 – Building a realistic prototype – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

 

prototype-1

facade-1

You and your team are only allowed to spend a single day on creating a facade, and that’s deliberate. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz explain that the more time you spend on creating a prototype the more likely you are to become attached to it, and less likely to make any changes based on customer feedback (see Fig. 2 below).

Fig. 2 – Becoming attached – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

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Similar to what Josh Wexler and Mike Fishbein talk about in their book, there’s an explanation of “the prototype mindset” in Sprint (pp. 168 – 170):

  1. You can prototype anything – If you go into the fourth day of your sprint with optimism and a conviction that there is some way to prototype and test your product, you’ll find a way.
  2. Prototypes are disposable – Don’t prototype anything you aren’t willing to throw away. Remember: this solution might not work.
  3. Build just enough to learn, but no more – The prototype is meant to answer questions, so keep it focused. You don’t need a fully functional product. You just need a real-looking facade to which customers can react.
  4. The prototype must appear real – To get trustworthy results in your test on the fifth and final day of your sprint, you can’t ask your customers to use their imaginations. You’ve got to show them something realistic. If you do, their realistic. If you do, their reactions will be genuine.

I loved the concept of “Goldilocks quality”, which was introduced by Daniel Burka. Burka argues that the ideal prototype should be of Goldilocks quality. If the quality is too low, people won’t believe the prototype is a real product. If the quality is too high, you’ll be working all night and you won’t finish. You need Goldilocks quality; not too high, not too low, but just right (see Fig. 3 below).

Fig. 3 – “Goldilocks quality” – Taken from: https://heleo.com/jake-knapp-jake-knapp-sprint/6499/

goldilocks-quality

Once you’ve created the right prototype, you and your team should do a quick trial run on the afternoon of the fourth day of your sprint. This will give you a chance to fix any mistakes or issues with your prototype, before you test it with real customers the following day.

Main learning point: Don’t get too hung up on the realness of your prototype! It needs to be real enough to test with customers on the final day of your sprint, no more and no less.

 
 

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Book review: Sprint (Part 4 – Day 3)

Once you’ve starting to think about possible solution – during Day 2 of the sprint – the next step is to take your huge pile of solutions and decide on which solution(s) to prototype. In the morning, you’ll review and critique the different solutions and select those solutions which you feel have the best change of meeting your long-term goal. In the afternoon, you’ll take the winning scenes from your ‘solution sketches’ and convert them into a storyboard. The goal behind this storyboard is to have a clear plan in place before you create a prototype to test with customers.

Decide

The main objective for the third day of your sprint is to decide on which solutions to prototype. In “Sprint”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz suggest a number of techniques to optimise your decision-making process:

  1. Art museum: Put the solution sketches on the wall with masking tape.
  2. Heat map: Look at all the solutions in silence, and use dot stickers to mark interesting parts.
  3. Speed critique: Quickly discuss the highlights of each solution, and use sticky notes to capture big ideas (see Fig. 1 for a breakdown of how speed critique works).
  4. Straw poll: Each person chooses on solution, and votes for it with a dot sticker.
  5. Supervote: The Decider makes the final decision, with more stickers.

Fig. 1 – How speed critique works – Taken from “Sprint”, p. 136:

  1. Gather around a solution sketch.
  2. Set a time for three minutes.
  3. The Facilitator narrates the sketch. (“Here it looks like a customer is clicking to play a video, and then clicking over to the details page …”)
  4. The Facilitator calls out standout ideas that have clusters of stickers by them. (“Lots of dots by the animated video …”)
  5. The team calls out standout ideas that the Facilitator missed.
  6. The Scribe writes standout ideas on sticky notes and sticks them above the sketch. Give each idea a simple name, like “Animated Video” or “One-Step Signup.”
  7. Review concerns and questions.
  8. The creator of the sketch remains silent until the end. (“Creator, reveal your identity and tell us what we missed!”)
  9. The creator explains any missed ideas that the team failed to spot, and answers any questions.
  10. Move to the next sketch and repeat.

Rumble

A “Rumble” is a test whereby two conflicting ideas will be prototyped and tested with customers on the final day of the sprint. Instead of having to choose between two ideas early on, a Rumble allows your team to explore multiple options at once. If you have more than one winning solution, involve the whole team in a short discussion about whether to do a Rumble or to combine the winners into a single prototype. Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz suggest a good decision-making technique, “Note and Vote”, which you can use at any point throughout the sprint where you and your team need to make a decision (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 – Note and Vote – Taken from “Sprint”, p. 146:

  1. Give each team member a piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Everyone takes three minutes and quietly writes down ideas.
  3. Everyone takes two minutes to self-edit his or her list down to the best tow or three ideas.
  4. Write each person’s top ideas on the whiteboard. Ina  sprint with seven people, you’ll have roughly fifteen to twenty ideas in all.
  5. Everyone takes two minutes and quietly chooses his or her favourite idea from the whiteboard.
  6. Going around the room, each person calls out his or her favourite. For each “vote”, draw a dot next to the chosen idea on the whiteboard.
  7. The Decider makes the final decision. As always, she can choose to follow the votes or not.

Storyboard

Creating a storyboard is the final activity on the third day of the sprint. The goal here is to create a plan first before you start prototyping. You’ll take the winning sketches – see “Decide” above – and combine them into a single storyboard.

Fig. 3 – Example of a storyboard – Taken from: http://www.chadbeggs.com/storyboards.html

storyboards_02

From experience, creating a good storyboard will take a good couple of hours. What makes a ‘good’ storyboard? Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz list a good set of rules to help you and your team to fill out your storyboard:

  • Don’t write together – Your storyboard should include rough headlines and important phrases, but don’t try to perfect your writing as a group. Group copywriting is a recipe for bland, meandering junk, not to mention lots of wasted time.
  • Include just enough detail – Put enough detail in your storyboard so that nobody has to ask questions like “What happens next?” or “What goes where?” when they’re actually prototyping on the fourth day of the sprint.
  • The Decider decides – You won’t be able to fit in every good idea and still have a storyboard that makes sense. And you can’t spend all day arguing about what to include. The Decider can ask for advice or defer to experts for some parts – but don’t dissolve back into a democracy.
  • When in doubt, take risks – If a small fix is so good and low-risk that you’re already planning to build it next week, then seeing it in a prototype won’t teach you much. Skip those easy wins in favour of big, bold bets.
  • Keep the story fifteen minutes or less – Make sure the whole prototype can be tested in about fifteen minutes. Sticking to fifteen minutes will ensure that you focus on the most important solutions – and don’t bite off more than you can prototype. (A rule of thumb: Each storyboard frame equals about one minute in your test.)

Main learning point: The third day of your sprint is all about ending the day with a storyboard that you can use as a starting point for a prototype, that you and your team will be creating on the fourth day of the sprint.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://uxmag.com/articles/why-we-need-storytellers-at-the-heart-of-product-development
  2. https://uxmag.com/articles/book-excerpt-the-user-experience-team-of-one
  3. http://www.chadbeggs.com/storyboards.html
  4. http://www.sarahdoody.com/3-ways-storytelling-can-improve-your-product-development-process/
 
 

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Book review: Sprint (Part 3 – Day 2)

Once you’ve set a target as part of Day 1 of your sprint, the next step is for you and your team to look at solutions. On the second day of the sprint, you’ll be coming up with solutions, and sketching them. This day consists of two key activities: (1) review ideas to remix and improve, and (2) create solution sketches to feed into your plan for a prototype and customer testing.

Remix and Improve

In “Sprint”, Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Brad Kowitz suggest a good technique to collate and assess ideas: Lightning Demos. With this exercise, your team will take three-minute tours of their favourite ideas or products: from other products, from different domains, and from within your own company. The idea here is to encourage the team to throw everything in the mix, but to do so in a short and snappy way. Each person who has suggested an idea will do a three minute demo, showing the team what’s great about his or her solution. As a facilitator, you might want to use a timer to make sure each team member sticks to the their three minute time slot.

The key thing with these three minute ‘lightning demos’ is that you capture the big ideas from each presentation. Start by asking the person who’s doing the tour, “What’s the big idea here that might be useful?” You can then make a quick drawing of this big idea, write a simple headline above it and add the source underneath. I’ve included an example of a way to capture big ideas in Fig. 1 below.

Fig. 1 – An example of capturing ‘big ideas’ from lightning demos, by Karsten Neben – Taken from: https://medium.com/@karstenn/what-we-learned-in-just-5-days-our-design-sprint-report-b9ada5b7f19a#.27wb5fv4e

Lightning Demos

 

Sketch

In the afternoon of the second day of your sprint, the focus is on coming up with solutions. Instead of doing collective brainstorming sessions – which in my experience run the risk of becoming shouting matches or can be dominated by very vocal people – Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz suggest each team member coming up with ideas on their own. People will work individually, thinking about and sketching solutions. I’ve included a simple example of a sketch in Fig. 2 below.

The sketches that people create will act as an important driver for the rest of the sprint. On Wednesday (Day 3), you’ll critique everyone’s sketches and pick the best ones.

If you’re worried about the quality of your sketches, don’t! Knapp, Zeratsky and Kowitz introduce the four step sketch technique. This approach makes it easy for everyone to take some rough solutions and turn them into a detailed solution sketch (see Fig. 2 below):

  1. Notes  As a first step, the team walks around the room and takes notes from looking at all the post-it notes, whiteboards, flip-charts that you have collated over the first day and a half of your sprint.
  2. Ideas – Each team member individually will look at his or her notes and jot down rough ideas, simply filling a sheet with doodles, headlines, etc. The aim here is not to come up with fully fledged ideas or solutions. It’s purely a way for each person to drop down their thoughts.
  3. Crazy 8s – Crazy 8s is a fast-paced exercise. Each person will take his or her strongest ideas and rapidly sketches eight variations in eight minutes. What I like about Crazy 8s is that it stops you from dwelling on your first possible solution for too long. Instead, the eight minute deadlines forces you to quickly decide whether to move on from your first reasonable solution or to stick with it but iterate (see Fig. 3 and 4 below). I’ve found Crazy 8s to work particularly well if you end up sketching several variations of the same idea, exploring alternative versions. Similarly, you can use Crazy 8s to refine a marketing headline or messaging.
  4. Solution sketch – The solution sketch is each person’s best idea, put down on paper in detail. Up to this point, each team member will have worked individually on creating notes, ideas and Crazy 8s, and won’t have shared anything with the rest of the team. This all changes with the solution sketch; each solution sketch is an opinionated hypothesis for how to solve the challenge at hand. These sketches will be looked at – and judged – by the rest of the team. They will therefore need to be detailed, thought-out, and easy to understand (see Fig. 5 and 6 below).

Once each team member has put together a solution sketch, the sprint facilitator will collate them all and put them in a pile. The team will only be allowed to start looking at these solution sketches on the third day of the sprint.

Fig. 2 – Four step sketch technique – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas

4-stage sketch

Fig. 3 – How to do Crazy 8s – Taken from: “Sprint”, pp. 112-113

  1. Each person begins Crazy 8s with a single sheet of letter-size paper.
  2. Fold the paper in half three times, so you have eight panels.
  3. Set a timer to sixty seconds.
  4. Hit “start” and begin sketching – you have sixty seconds per section, for a total of eight minutes to create eight miniature sketches.
  5. Go fast and be messy: As with the notes and ideas, Crazy 8s will not be shared with the team.

Fig. 4 – Crazy 8s example – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/1672917/the-8-steps-to-creating-a-great-storyboard

1672917-inline-crazy8s

Fig. 5 – Important rules to keep in mind when creating a solution sketch – Taken from: “Sprint”, pp. 114-118

  1. Make it self-explanatory – Your solution sketch needs to explain itself. Think of this sketch as the first test for your idea. If no one can understand it in sketch form, it’s not likely to do any better when it’s polished.
  2. Keep it anonymous – Don’t put your name on your sketch, and be sure that everyone uses the same paper and the same black pens.
  3. Ugly is okay – Your sketch does not have to be fancy (boxes, stick figures, and words are fine), but it does have to be detailed, thoughtful, and complete.
  4. Words matter – Strong writing is especially necessary for software and marketing, where words often make up most of the screen. So pay extra close attention to the writing in your sketch. Don’t use “lorem ipsum” or draw those squiggly lines that mean “text will go here.” That text will go a long way to explain your idea – so make it good and make it real!
  5. Give it a catchy title – Since your name won’t be on your sketch, give it a title. Later, these titles will help you keep track of the different solutions as you’re reviewing and choosing. They’re also a way to draw attention to the big idea in your solution sketch (see the example in Fig 6 below).

Fig. 6 – A solution sketch from Blue Bottle Coffee’s sprint; each sticky note represents one screen – Taken from: https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas

Sketch example

Main learning point: The second day of the sprint is very solution oriented. Instead of long brainstorm sessions, the day is filled with more individually oriented activities, encouraging team members to think about ideas and to come up with their own solution sketch.

Related links:

  1. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3057076/google-ventures-on-how-sketching-can-unlock-big-ideas
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ITJ5lAXQhg
  3. https://medium.com/@karstenn/what-we-learned-in-just-5-days-our-design-sprint-report-b9ada5b7f19a#.atwi36cd7
  4. https://library.gv.com/the-product-design-sprint-diverge-day-2-c7a5df8e7cd0#.7zmlxd9aq
  5. http://www.yaellevey.com/blog/how-to-use-crazy-8s-to-generate-design-ideas/
  6. https://www.fastcodesign.com/1672917/the-8-steps-to-creating-a-great-storyboard
 

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Book review: Sprint (Part 2 – Day 1)

In my previous post I started looking at doing 5-day sprints to discover and test solutions for a problem that you’re trying to solve. This follows my reading of “Sprint” by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz. Once you’ve set the stage for a sprint, it’s time to kick things off: the first day of a sprint is all about agreeing on the challenge that you’re looking to have tackled by the end of the sprint. On the Monday, i.e. the first day of the sprint, the focus is on the following activities: (1) agreeing on a long-term goal (2) making a map of the challenge (3) asking experts and (4) picking a target.

Agree on a long-term goal (‘start at the end’)

You start the sprint by asking the the team “why”, make sure everyone is on the same page about what we’re trying to achieve. Why do we want to create this product? Why are we doing this project? Why do we want to solve this problem? Where do we want to be in 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, even 5 years from now and why? What will success look like? Agreeing on a long term will bring the answers together in a shared purpose.

Once you’ve got a shared understanding of the underlying “why” and have set a long-term goal, you come up with number of specific sprint questions, which you can derive from the assumptions and questions that the team might have. To get the team thinking about some of these questions, you can use the following prompts:

  • What questions do we want to ask in this sprint and why?
  • How will we subsequently utilise the answers to these sprint questions and outcomes?
  • To meet our long-term goal, what has to be true?
  • Imagine we travel into the future and our product or project failed. What might have caused that failure? How can we best mitigate this risk?
  • To reach customers for this product, what has to be true?
  • To deliver value to these customers, what has to be true?

Fig. 1 – Sample long term goal and sprint questions:

Long term goal: More people buying snacks online.

Sprint questions:

  • Are people looking to buy snacks online?
  • What is the experience customers are looking for when buying snacks online?

Map the challenge

Challange Map

Fig. 2 – Example of a Challenge Map: Flatiron Health’s clinical trial enrolment map – Taken from: https://zapier.com/blog/google-ventures-design-sprint/

Creating a map is a great way to understand the steps the customer has to go through to achieve a desired outcome (see a good example in Fig. 2 above). Each map is customer-centric, with a list of key actors on the left. Each map is a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. These are the common elements of a Challenge Map:

  1. List the actors (on the left) – The “actors” are all the important characters in your story. Most often, they’re different kinds of customers.
  2. Write the ending (on the right) – Write the outcome that the customer wants to achieve.
  3. Words and arrows in between – There’s no need for any fancy drawings; the map should be functional, and simple boxes and arrows should suffice.
  4. Keep it simple – Your map should have from five to around fifteen steps. If there are more than twenty, your map is probably too complicated.
  5. Ask for help – As you create the map, you should keep asking the team, “Does this map look right?” or “What are we missing?”

Ask the Experts

Nobody knows everything and it’s therefore critical that you engage with a range of ‘experts’. One of the biggest challenges of running a sprint is that you’ve got to gather a lot of information and make sense of it in a relatively short space of time. Having short conversations – approx. 30 minutes per conversation – with experts will help massively in collating relevant detail quickly.

Pick a Target

Selecting one target customer and one target event is the final activity of the first day of the sprint. The Decider needs to decide on the target customer and the customer event. Whatever she chooses will become the focus of the rest of the sprint – the sketches, prototype, and customer interviews all flow from this decision. Naturally, this can be a group decision, but it helps to assign decision-making responsibility to a single person.

Once you’ve selected a target, take a look back at your sprint questions. You usually can’t answer all those questions in one sprint, but one or more should line up with the target.

Main learning point: The first day of the sprint should really lay the groundwork for the rest of the sprint. Avoid the temptation to dive straight into solutions. Instead, spend the first day of the sprint to agree on a long-term goal and selecting a specific target to focus on!

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://www.nirandfar.com/2016/03/good-products-start-good-questions.html
  2. http://blog.invisionapp.com/inside-design-google-ventures/
  3. https://stfalcon.com/en/blog/post/how-to-quickly-check-startup-ideas-with-sprint
 

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My product management toolkit (13): Continuous Discovery

I know it’s a bit of a bugbear of mine; people coming up with assumptions and jumping straight into solutions to address their assumptions:

“I know what my customers want” 

“I know that I’m right”

“I’ve got umpteen years of experience in this sector, I know what people want”

“We’ve defined all customer requirements, we now just need to implement”

These are some of the comments that I hear quite regularly. Hearing comments like these have made me even more determined to constantly discover.

Discovery is all about about truly understand what your customers want (and why) or validating your assumptions, checking whether what you think is actually true. I learned that “Dual Track Scrum” is a great way to do discovery in an efficient and a continuous way (see some visual breakdowns in Fig. 1 and Fig. 2 below). Marty Cagan introduced Dual Track Scrum, citing Jeff Patton as his inspiration. I don’t tend to get too hung up on the word “scrum”, because one might not always be working in a Scrum type fashion. It could be Kanban, XP or any other iterative development approach that you might be using instead.

ux-in-a-dual-track-agile-world-11-638

Fig. 1 – Discovery feeding into Delivery – Taken from: http://www.slideshare.net/andreaneu/ux-in-a-dual-track-agile-world

Instead, I like talking about ‘Continuous Discovery’, stressing that ongoing learning drives product development. Rather than doing big chunks of customer research at the start and at the end of the product development lifecycle, I prefer to learn ‘early and often’. The key is to spend some time understanding the problem first, before coming up with ideas or solutions to implement. With a ‘dual track’ approach, you’re constantly discovering and validating customer needs which can then be fed into the delivery of working software.

The outputs of a discovery track can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes:

  • A set of user stories and acceptance criteria
  • Design assets or wireframes
  • A prototype of a varying degree of fidelity
  • Learnings about user issues with working software
  • Data from a live experiment (e.g. A/B testing)

I often get asked why and when to best to use this Continuous Discovery approach and I thought to quickly summarise these FAQs:

Question: “Why can’t I just go and build stuff, launch and see what happens?”

My answer: I’d be the last person to stop you from building things, measuring and learn. However, I strongly believe that a large part of ‘continuous discovery’ is about mitigating (product) risk. Instead of spending a couple of weeks or months building something before you get actual customer feedback, I’d rather get customer feedback ‘early and often’, based on an product or a feature that has been used by actual users.

Question: “With these discovery sprints, isn’t there a big risk of ‘analysis paralysis’?”

My answer: No. By time-boxing and fixing the scoping of each discovery cycle, you can make sure that you constantly validate your riskiest assumptions or investigate things that can then go straight into the next development sprint. Each discovery cycle should result in a tested set of customer needs, user stories and/or wireframes which will then be converted into working software the following sprint.

Question: “Aren’t’ we just going over old ground?

My answer: From my experience, even if you have working software, by constantly testing it you’ll be able to fix bugs and develop a better product. It might seem tedious but I feel that this approach is a lot less risky compared to companies just doing a (soft) launch at the end of the development process and hoping for the best. Continuos discovery is not an alternative waterfall type approach,where you create additional stage gates and isolated process. In contrast, since development is still happening in tandem; you’re effectively discovering what needs to developing in the next iteration whilst people are building what you discovered in the previous discovery track.

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Fig. 2 – Dual-Track Development – Taken from: https://confengine.com/agile-singapore-2016/schedule

Main learning point: Instead of gathering customer requirements on a one off basis, I strongly recommend doing this continuously. Having designated discovery tracks that feed into development cycles will help in discovering customer problems and needs ‘early and often.’ This helps you in making sure that you’re building the right product for the right customer whilst you’re designing and building it.

Related links for further learning:

  1. http://svpg.com/dual-track-scrum/
  2. http://www.cio.com/article/3075356/application-development/are-you-building-the-right-solution.html
  3. http://johnpeltier.com/blog/2015/07/12/dual-track-agile-better-products-faster/
  4. http://jpattonassociates.com/common-agile-isnt-for-startups/#more-1105
  5. https://www.quora.com/What-is-dual-track-scrum
  6. https://www.infoq.com/presentations/lean-product-discovery
  7. http://aaron.sanders.name/dual-track-scrum-brief/
  8. http://productwarrior.com/blog/2015/4/9/eliminate-waste-in-your-development-pipeline
 
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Posted by on August 20, 2016 in Agile, Product Management

 

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