People today have an unprecedented number of choices when choosing products and services for their personal life and work. Consumer habits, preferences, and expectations are evolving. The organizations embracing a human-centered approach are outperforming the competition. Businesses can no longer rely on the position, price, features, or pure aesthetics of their product or service to differentiate themselves, it comes down to the experience. The end-to-end customer experience is a value people are purchasing, not just a solution to a need or problem.
Across every industry, product owners and teams across their organization are looking to improve the customer experience; to modernize and maintain relevance with their markets. There is no arguing the fact that focusing on the improvement of your customer’s experience is just good business. According to Dimension Data 84% of organizations working to improve CX report an increase in revenue.
While it is nearly impossible to not hear someone talking about the importance of the customer experience (CX), many organizations don’t know where to start, or even how to approach the work.
Let’s solve that.
What is Customer Experience?
Prior to embarking on customer experience improvements, it is imperative to have a clear and succinct definition and understanding of what people mean when talking about CX. Forrester Research simplified the definition of customer experience down to a single core statement.
“How customers perceive their interactions with your company.”
In other words, CX is about providing a useful, usable, and enjoyable experience to every customer, on every device, across every touchpoint—in a way that fulfills the expectations that you set and the promises that you’ve made.
While there is no end to the conversation on this topic, and folks who love dissecting it, digging deeper, adding, revising and then reassembling this definition, its core meaning remains true.
Designing an End-to-End Customer Experience
Now that we have a shared understanding of what CX is, we can examine the practice. Customer experience design is the discipline of designing products or services with a focus on the quality and thoughtfulness of the entire end-to-end user experience. Teams look at the sum of a person’s experience engaging with a brand. The sum encompasses their perceptions, emotions, attitudes, actions, and the memories associated with each stage of the customer journey.
To help clarify a common point of confusion, people use customer experience and user experience interchangeably. In many cases, the term customer experience can take on a broader organizational view, while user experience is more narrowly focused on a specific product or service. This is an easy pitfall to navigate and circumvent. To ensure that you and your team are using the same terms and have a shared understanding set aside time to discuss and build an alignment continuity.
The Benefits of a Customer-Centric Approach
Every successful customer experience design initiative is about delivering value to the customer. It is about stepping into your customer’s shoes; taking an outside-in customer-centric approach to deliver better products, services, and experiences. Successful customer experience design is also equally about achieving results and is grounded in support of the business strategy. This alignment enables companies to see significant benefits like:
- Improved market position relative to their competitors
- Lower customer acquisition cost
- Increased product or service adoption
- Lower cost of ownership
- Fewer customer complaints
- Reduced attrition rate/churn rate
- Increased customer lifetime value
- Improved customer loyalty
- Reduced operating costs
In some cases, the smallest things can be transformational in driving results. Let’s look at a company called Rackspace. They are a managed cloud computing company based in a suburb outside of San Antonio, Texas. One of the remarkable experiences Rackspace has created is Fanatical Support. This concept has now become their brand promise and it permeates everything they do. One part of delivering on that promise is having a live human respond through their phone lines within three rings, 24/7. The dedicated Rackspace team is empowered to assist callers. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being placed on an eternal hold, being transferred from one call center to another when seeking help. Rackspace differentiates themselves in the marketplace by creating and operationalizing this seemingly small, yet key (distinguished) service for their customers. They provide a one of a kind experience, delivering significant value.
How To Start Improving Your CX Today
To improve the customer experience, you want to identify the moments you can assist, augment, or amplify. Each interaction influences someone’s attitude along their journey. People’s attitudes drive their behavior, and ultimately the results both online and offline.
There are numerous approaches, frameworks, and tools to help you identify the moments in your customer journey and gather insights about your customers. There are also a few critical concepts that are often missing, or woefully incomplete that are invaluable when working to deliver better experiences. If you’re just getting started, these are a great place to start.
Map the Current State through Journey Mapping
Most companies have never mapped their customer experience. Customer journey mapping can be a powerful way to identify each of the moments and the interactions a person has with your brand, product and/or service. It helps document institutional knowledge and illustrates how each function of the business can influence and look for opportunities that align with your business strategy.
This valuable step is important in also facilitating a step back to look at the problem from a holistic point of view. Often customer experience improvement initiatives are set into motion based upon an internal mandate or customer feedback. However, if we don’t step back to look at the complete picture, you may discover you’re only addressing the symptoms, and not the cause of the issue. If in doubt, map the current state and start with the first moment in their journey, to see how improving it could influence the rest of their experience.
Some common digital product customer experience moments and user flows to consider:
- Discover (Organic and Paid channels)
- Demo/Trial/Sign Up
- First Time Use + Configuration
- Onboarding + Customer Success
- Second Time Use + Recurring Use
- Account Management
- Product/Service (broken down by each individual task flow)
- Self Service Customer Support
- Facilitated Customer Support
- Retention + Loyalty
Understand Your Customers At a Deeper Level
Another significant step is the collaborative process of Empathy Mapping. Empathy Mapping is used to visualize and articulate what an organization knows about a particular customer segment. It externalizes knowledge about a specific audience in order to create a shared understanding of their needs, what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, and doing.
It helps you go beyond simple customer profiling, demographics, and personas to a much deeper contextual understanding. This insight allows you to engage customers in a much more meaningful way to both validate your knowledge, challenge assumptions, and unveil entirely new insights. Through Empathy Mapping, a new lens is created to assess how your customer experience can be improved end-to-end. This perspective can also be a powerful tool in understanding your competition, and why customers may or may not choose your product or service.
Get the Right Stakeholders Involved in Customer Experience
The key to any customer experience initiative is mapping out who needs to be involved in the process to develop alignment across the company and support collaboration between individuals and entire teams. Ultimately, the team is able to allocate resources to rolling out the proposed improvements.
Change isn’t easy so having the right people involved, understanding their needs, priorities, concerns, and getting their support is crucial. Your stakeholders will also be central to helping manage potential risks, sharing their unique point(s) of view based upon their experience, and operationalizing the improvements within the business. When working across functions of an organization, it’s important to recognize that each group has different measures of performance to meet, so aligning your customer experience initiative to the context of each function involved is essential.
Focus Your Efforts on Top Priority CX Improvements
Once you have completed the above steps, you will need to start prioritizing where to focus your efforts and start exploring possible solutions. Since you will most likely identify many more opportunities than you have time or resources to accommodate, it is key to prioritize them. If you haven’t launched a customer experience improvement initiative in the past, start with something small and measurable. Focus on building up your capabilities and experience. If the solution is to create an internal or customer-facing digital product or service, focus on your minimal viable product (MVP).
The goal is to ensure your investment develops and drives sustainable improvements. If you have multiple customer experience initiatives going on simultaneously, managing the priorities and interdependencies effectively is even more essential to your success. At its core, each priority needs to provide positive change (value) for both the customer and the business.
Fall In Love with The Problem, Not A Solution
People love answers, absolutes to questions, and having a sense of certainty in a world of constant change. However, when we think about improving the customer experience there are no absolutes. You must continue to innovate, stay relevant, and develop your competitive advantages. You cannot afford to fall into the trap of falling in love with a solution.
The intention of any customer experience initiative is to–in any given moment–provide people with the best possible experience. When you fall in love with the problem, developing a deep understanding of it, and its impact on your customer helps you identify a path to creating value for them and your business.
Key Takeaways for Getting Started with Improving Your Customer Experience
- Improving the customer experience is not an easy endeavor. You will make mistakes. That is ok. Starting with the right steps and sage knowledge will help you succeed.
- Great customer experiences start with empathy and authentically listening to customers. You have to get out there and talk to them.
- Start small, create experiments, learn quickly and then execute at scale.
- Get your customers involved at the onset and often in the process whenever possible. Challenge your own assumptions about customers’ situations, their needs and potential substitutions for your product or service.
- Link customer engagement to ‘real’ business metrics for accurate monitoring purposes. Remember that your metrics are not 1-to-1 and that in most cases you will identify a moment that correlates to the outcome you want.
When creating a mobile application that has both an internal and external audience, the product owner must make some decisions. Do I build the functionality into single or multiple apps? How do I deploy these to my user base? Product owners need to understand and decide how to best build and deploy the mobile app prior to beginning the design and development. These decisions will have a significant long-term impact on mobile UX, security, and cost of ongoing app maintenance and improvement.
Internal mobile applications can range from precision task-oriented apps that will be used by a handful of employees in a single department, to sales enablement tools that provide value to a broad user base. These may be targeted towards internal staff or external resellers, and potentially, end customers. Each use case requires a diligent evaluation prior to beginning the design and development; examining precisely who will be using the application, as there are multiple decisions that are influenced by these factors.
Let’s talk through an example that shows some of the complexity of this decision process. A company already has a mobile app in the iOS and Android public app stores that is used by both their employees and their customers to access public product information. Now they are looking for a way to provide access to proprietary product information for their employees on-the-go. The two most common solutions would be:
- Add a login-protected section in the existing public application, leveraging the existing app and infrastructure. The upsides are that employees likely already have the app installed, and would not be faced with juggling multiple apps. Building on the existing app would also create efficiencies in the short-term expediting the time-to-market. The downsides are that a company login mechanism is now exposed in the mobile app, providing an attack vector that previously didn’t exist. As the employee-only section is updated over time, this would require the entire app to be QAed and re-deployed to the app stores. This would ultimately add QA overhead and require new downloads for all users, including customers. Listing the app in the public app stores also puts a piece of the business operations outside of the organization’s control, since the app could be blocked and removed at any point.
- Create a new employee-only application. Since it could create confusion for customers to see multiple apps from the same company in the app stores, this application might be better distributed through a different channel than the public app stores. Submitting a password-protected app could potentially also run into approval issues in the public app stores. Creating a new app would require more work upfront, as it is a new application altogether. On the upside, the code and data separation of internal business functionality vs. external functionality provides better security and maintainability.
Clearly, this is a complex and multifaceted decision. Laid out below are the factors that weigh on this decision making process with recommendations on how to move forward.
The 5 most important factors to determine upfront
1) Who is your mobile app’s audience and their associated tasks?
First and foremost, it is essential to understand who the users will be that access the functionality of your app. Here are some examples of user groups we’ve seen in our projects:
- On-site employees
- On-site contractors
- Employees across multiple locations / campuses
- Remote employees (e.g. traveling sales staff, field teams, etc)
- Partner companies
- On-site customers
- Remote customers
If you need to further flesh out your audiences, empathy mapping provides a collaborative process to visualize and articulate what an organization knows about a distinctive customer segment.
2) What is the app’s feature set and how much does it overlap between audiences?
There are often cases where the internal and external users require almost the same functionality. In other cases, there may be very little overlap, but there is potential of internal tools evolving to be customer facing as well. For example, we created a sales enablement calculator for a technology-industry client that was initially only being used by their salespeople. The calculator proved to be so user friendly that it was ultimately released as a public tool for their prospective customers. Other examples of features that might overlap between user bases are:
- Product information
- Pricing databases
- Order forms
- Video libraries
3) Will a bulk of the app functionality be hidden behind a login?
The more app functionality you secure with only a part of your user base accessing it, the less value a combined application has. Security concerns are also a factor when bundling access to proprietary information in a public mobile app. Particularly, if you would typically limit access to specific information through a VPN or other security methods that are not available in a public mobile app.
4) Do you have a Mobile Device Management system and if so, which audience segments use it?
Using a Mobile Device Management (MDM) platform may be the best way to distribute your mobile app to internal employees, but acquiring and rolling out such a system requires time and effort. If your company does not currently have an MDM, implementing it as a solution may not be feasible in the short-term. If you do have an MDM, consider which of your target audiences use it, and how does that overlap with the functionality requirements?
5) What is the application roadmap?
As your application’s functionality grows and evolves, the factors that determine the best solution will likely also shift. Having a clearly defined roadmap is vital to ensuring that your decisions today will still be sound in 12 – 24 months. For example, you might plan on adding features to your app in the future that change who the target audience is. Make sure to take these considerations into account when deciding on how to design and distribute your application.
Managing the mobile UX for multiple audiences
Based on the implemented functionality in the application, designing a cohesive user experience to serve multiple audiences can provide a challenge. If the user experience for one of the user groups is no longer effective within the larger application, it may be advantageous to split the functionality for that group into a separate app.
Will the user experience that is split between public information and proprietary information serve the internal users well? This may require a sales person to access a few different locations in the app to obtain all of the information they require. They might be better served with a dedicated user experience in a separate app that is geared specifically towards their needs as opposed to piggybacking on the public app.
Deployment options: Direct installs, testing suites, MDMs, and App Stores
There are several ways to install a mobile app on devices. The optimal method may vary depending on the use case, and your target audience. Here are the most common options:
- Direct installation: If you are only deploying to a very limited number of Android devices, doing a direct installation is an easy option. The caveats are that the device user needs to manually change a setting in the operating system prior to this being possible, and that app updates need to be manually performed by reinstalling a newer version of the app. We see this option mostly used with installations that focus on very few devices, such as kiosks. Direct installs are also possible on iOS devices, but require the device to be plugged into a developer’s workstation.
- Testing suites: If you are deploying to a limited number of devices (think dozens, not hundreds), employing a testing suite could be a sound option. These software suites will typically allow users to install the app via a link in an email. Bitrise allows deploying apps for review on both iOS and Android devices. Testflight is a feature of the Apple App Store and allows up to 10,000 private users, but the app will need to be approved by Apple prior to being distributed.
- Mobile Device Management (MDM): Most commonly used in the enterprise space, MDMs provide a private app store to internal business users. MDMs, such as AirWatch, come with lots of features and a per-device subscription fee. MDMs can be great for internal business users, but are less than ideal for external users. Installing an MDM typically relinquishes some control over your device.
- App Stores: Deploying your application to Google Play or the Apple App Store provides the easiest way for your users to get access to your application. All other options typically require some user training, but everyone knows how to download an app from an app store.
As you can see, there are a lot of variables to take into consideration when determining your mobile app strategy. Nowadays internal and external users often have the same expectations for ease-of-use when interacting with a mobile app, so it can be tempting to combine the experiences into a single app. Hopefully the information in this article helps you find the best approach for your business’ use case. If you are ready to move into the solutions architecture for your app, you might also be interested in how to build a digital product platform for scale.
Today business leaders across every industry are taking a step back and revisiting everything they do, from internal systems to customer interactions both online and in person. Teams are tasked with creating and delivering digital transformation solutions that empower employees, engaging customers, optimizing operations, and transforming products and services.
While the ask in many cases is simple, delivering a successful digital product internally or to market is an entirely different story. You need a way to quickly test your ideas, validate them and ensure the intended impact. This is where a minimum viable product (MVP) comes in.
MVP (Minimum Viable Product) is a term that is thrown around a lot these days, but is a widely misunderstood concept with a plethora of different definitions that range from the smallest possible experiment to test a specific hypothesis, to the tangible realization of a product vision.
At Emerge we define MVP as the best solution that meets the needs of the target audience, with the least amount of risk, while conforming to all the known constraints. It’s the first step towards achieving your long-term digital product vision. This thinking is based upon decades of experience and influenced by industry thought leaders like Marty Cagan and Eric Ries:
Marty Cagan defines MVP as the smallest possible product that has three critical characteristics: people choose to use it or buy it; people can figure out how to use it; we can deliver it when we need it with the resources available. This is also known as valuable, usable, and feasible.
Eric Ries in his book Lean Startup defines MVP as that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.
Many organizations use the term MVP to mean the lowest cost option of delivering the product, or a reduced feature set with less functionality, or version one of a complete product or service solution. With so many different interpretations, your team, like many teams, may find themselves challenged to manage expectations, scope, and resources effectively.
The first step towards a successful MVP is aligning on the definition and your intention.
What is a Minimal Viable Product (MVP)?
One of the best ways to understand MVP is to see the concept visualized. The following image by Henrik Newber illustrates agile and lean product development:
The illustration captures the essence of iterative and incremental product development using the metaphor of a car. Taken out of context however, some significant assumptions may be made that could steer you down the wrong path. It is also imperative not to be fooled into thinking that “minimum” means “easy”. Determining an MVPs top priorities, identifying the core feature set, and asking the right questions along the way is an important part of the process. Let’s breakdown what each part of this illustration represents.
- The top row illustrates a common misconception about iterative and incremental product development, that is often the reason so many projects fail. It focuses on the components in an incremental way instead of the problem to be solved (a.k.a job to be done). Let’s look at this from the user’s point of view. If you deliver a wheel to the end user does it address their need or problem? Is it a valuable, usable, and feasible solution? What insights or feedback could the user provide that would help inform the development of a better product? With each iteration, you are getting closer to delivering a solution, but still addressing the end user’s need, or problem. This approach is another way of looking at delivery of a complete product. It’s not until the fourth incremental delivery that a solution is viable to the user. This approach, while agile, doesn’t allow for the opportunity of user feedback to refine the solution. This opens your product up to risks like user (market) adoption challenges, design, and technical debt, to name a few.
- The middle row illustrates another common misconception about iterative and incremental product development when it comes to defining and delivering a successful MVP. In this example, we start with the same contextual metaphor of a user who needs a car. In this scenario, the focus is on the problem, getting someone from point A to B as quickly as possible. Each iteration (1-4) highlights a possible solution. This approach allows you to validate, and invalidate your hypotheses, to define the solution space, to quickly develop proof of concepts and prototypes.
To be clear, a Proof of Concept (POC) is the pilot project or experiment, which demonstrates an idea, product, service, process, design concept, or integration point (i.e. software to hardware) to ascertain its feasibility. It does not, however, directly address whether this thing is valuable or usable for a user.
A prototype is an early interaction, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process. There are many methods of prototyping and when and how it can be applied to the product development lifecycle. A prototype may be used to determine if a product is valuable, usable, and feasible early in the process depending on the approach and the stage of the product development lifecycle.
Let’s look at this approach of the middle row from the user’s point of view. If you deliver a scooter to the end user, does it address their need or problem? No. Is it a valuable, usable, and feasible solution? No. So did we solve the right problem for the user? Is each iteration an evolution of the product or a different product altogether? While this approach allows for user testing, feedback, and refinement of the solution, it doesn’t address the fact that our user needs a car. Although a valuable approach to define the appropriate solution space for the focus of your product team, this does not deliver on the intention of an MVP.
- The last row illustrates the approach to MVP (minimum viable product). Continuing to use the car metaphor, each iteration is a refinement to the solution that meets the needs of our prospective user. From the first iteration, a user is presented with a solution that meets their needs, providing a minimum viable product that is valuable, usable, and feasible. It is anchored to a strategy, not just an idea aligned to solving the problem, but producing the desired outcome for the user that can be iterated and improved upon. Typically, the MVP is targeted to provide sufficient functionality and value to appeal to early adopters, enabling further iteration, and eventually scaling up of the product or service to the majority of the market.
Benefits of the MVP approach
The three most significant reasons new products and business’s fail are the lack of a market fit, running out of cash, or having the wrong team. At Emerge this amplifies the importance of implementing the right MVP approach, and maximizing the viability of your investment. Taking the right MVP approach was crucial to the success for one of Emerge’s recent clients: The initial digital product we helped to create quickly validated the investment and unlocked millions in previously untapped revenue.
If those aren’t compelling enough reasons or example, let’s explore five of the benefits in more detail. A minimum viable product can provide:
- Insights – Gather preliminary insights to validate if your product is successfully addressing a need or solving a customer problem. This also provides invaluable insights early in the process that can enable you to proactively pivot, dramatically shift focus, or even move on from the product while the investment is within an acceptable risk level.
- Value Proposition – Bring focus to defining the product’s core value proposition and differentiates it from alternative solutions available to the customer. By focusing on MVP, you are required to clarify the value you are building, and ensuring it aligns with your larger strategic vision.
- Co-Creation – Involves customers as quickly as possible in the early stages of the process. It informs the prioritization of features and functionality on the product roadmap. Co-Creation facilitates focus on continuous improvement of your product and building stronger relationships with early adopters, the refinement of your value proposition, and helps to inform decision making.
- Rework – Significantly reduce potential rework, or abandoning features that go unused by quickly validating the product experience, value delivery, and market fit. Great research, user experience design, engineering, and testing can’t replace feedback of a product in the market from your users.
- Speed to Market – Increase the velocity at which you can deliver value. Taking an iterative approach to product development lifecycle enables product evolution, focusing on essential elements of your product or service. It also allows you to refine the business functions that are essential to supporting the success of the product and unnecessary costs.
Tips for Defining Your Digital Product MVP
- Defining the MVP of your digital product or service starts by aligning everyone on your team. This includes the top of the organization to everyone working on the product or service. It informs both internal and external team members on the why behind the product, the intended outcome of your MVP, and the known constraints (i.e. customer insight, time, money, capabilities, etc.). It is imperative to have this shared understanding from the beginning. With this understanding, information, and thorough product discovery process you will be able to identify the right approach to your MVP.
- A successful MVP doesn’t always equal product market fit. When developing an MVP, you are targeting early adopters and it’s rare to get it all correct the first time out of the gate. It promotes validation and refinement of the fit. As you set your goals, confirm that you are clear about this, as it will help to manage expectations.
- Don’t prioritize in silos. Each key discipline has an important point of view in the prioritization process. From product management, to design and engineering. All respective disciplines bring a different point of view and a different skill set that will inform the success of your MVP.
Methods for Prioritization
There are many common practices that can be used to prioritize the features and functionality of your MVP. Regardless of the chosen approach, it is critical that the team not lose sight of your goal, the problem, the opportunity you’re addressing, the context of the user, and the intended outcomes. Here are three popular methods summarized:
- Priority Matrix: At Emerge we often use a prioritization matrix with small to mid-sized projects where we can relatively easily divide features into two oppositions: ‘important – unimportant’ and ‘simple – complex’. Each feature is plotted against two axes = ‘business value’ on a scale of 1 thru 10 and the estimated ‘level of effort’ on a scale of 1 thru 10. There are two important distinctions that should be noted: First, when we talk about ‘business value’ we’re talking about addressing a need of a user that if satisfied will increase revenue, provide a cost reduction, and will provide a cumulative benefit, or mitigate risk. Second, when we talk about ‘level of effort’ we’re talking about the time, financial investment, effort, risk, and complexity of delivering the need of the user. Here’s an example of what that can look like:
For mid to large-sized projects you will have to have a clear picture of the independencies of each feature, which is necessary when ensuring that you can fulfill user stories and target outcomes. This method, in combination with the Opportunities Solution Tree, can be exceptionally effective.
- MoSCoW Analysis (a.k.a The Bucket Method): Another method we use frequently at Emerge is MoSCoW. The term is an abbreviation for the prioritization of features into four buckets categorized as: ‘must-haves’, ‘should-haves’, ‘could-haves’, and ‘won’t-haves.’ The MoSCoW method is a technique used in business analysis, project management, and software development to reach a common understanding with everyone involved. It clarifies the importance they place on the delivery of each requirement. Based on its simplicity, MoSCoW has become a popular method to employ.
Successful implementation of this technique is contingent on the clear and firm distinction of the four categories, and alignment on the importance of each feature through the iteration and refinement of your product roadmap. To avoid some common pitfalls of this method, you must have a shared understanding of the rationale for ranking priorities, and the method for reconciling competing priorities. It is crucial that features requiring continuous improvement are always taken into consideration in this process.
Must-haves are critical to delivering a successful MVP. Project delivery should be considered a failure if even one “Must-have” is absent. Without this feature the user can not achieve the intended outcome and its intended business value. For larger projects, MUST can also be considered an acronym for the Minimum Usable Subset.
Should-haves are important but not necessary for successful delivery of your MVP. While Should-have requirements can be as important as Must-have, they are not vital.
Could-haves are desirable but not necessary and could improve user experience or customer satisfaction with a low level of effort. These items tend to have minimal impact if left out of the product. These will typically be included if time and resources permit.
Won’t have (this time) are agreed upon as the least-critical, lowest-payback items, or not appropriate for MVP. These features are still important to document for the team’s proper expectations and understanding as they may be reintroduced later.
- The Kano Model: This alternative method worth considering is a powerful approach to prioritizing your MVP, evaluating your features based upon the satisfaction and sentiment of your target customers. Professor Noriaki Kano first introduced the Kano Model in the 1980s, focusing on product development and customer satisfaction.
The approach classifies customer preferences into five categories based upon the response to two questions. How does the user feel if the feature is present? And how does the user feel if the feature is not present? The approach promotes an understanding of the customers’ point of view in relation to a product’s features. The responses to these two measures will fall into one of five categories: Attractive, Performance, Indifferent, Must-Be, and Undesired.
If you are going to consider using this approach, I highly recommend you also read Daniel Zacarias explanation of the Kano Model as well as how to implement and fully utilize it. He provides an insightful overview and deconstructs the methodology and application of this approach step-by-step.
Rock Your Digital Product MVP
Establishing a shared understanding of MPV and the right approach enables you to prioritize the right things. You can proceed to maximize the benefits of your MVP approach at each iteration. With focus, it is possible to more effectively navigate the entire product development lifecycle and make more informed decisions.
Each prioritization approach has its place and can prove to be immensely beneficial. But, there are no shortcuts when it comes to prioritizing the right things. The process of gathering continuous feedback and refining your product or service is the core product management. This practice is not only about creating something customers need or even love. It is a business practice that delivers outstanding solutions.
As the owner of a digital product, you know that the requirements for your product will evolve over time. This creates a challenge in how to build a product platform that can scale over time to accommodate new features, different user loads, and changing technology standards. Frequently, this challenge is not addressed appropriately. Without a long-term product platform strategy, platforms will either need to be rebuilt from scratch prematurely, or they become stagnant and ultimately relegated to legacy products. This is often further driven by the pace of business transformation, accumulation of technical debt, and shortcuts taken during the original inception of the product.
Another common quandary today is the speed at which supported devices and peripheral applications (commonly referred to as application endpoints) must change. Traditional product design is device-centric, but today’s marketplace requires companies to be device agnostic. In the age of omnichannel engagement, a single platform may have to accommodate a myriad of endpoints, including responsive desktop websites, progressive web applications, native mobile apps, React Native apps, and smartwatch applications. This is equally true when we think about internal facing endpoints, such as CRMs and other business systems, extending across the entire value chain. It is critical that a modern product platform is built in an adaptable and scalable way to allow for any new devices and clients that will be introduced in the future.
I will outline three key paradigms that may be utilized when planning your product platform strategy for scale. Implementing these paradigms may increase your competitive advantage, business resilience, improve risk management, and increase your capital for growth.
1. Understanding the Lifecycle of the User Experience, Application, and Data Layers
When planning for the long-term, product teams need to consider that their applications are typically built in a way that allows separating them into discrete components, each with its own purpose and lifecycle:
- User Experience Layer
The user experience layer of an application entails all the display logic as well as any endpoint/client-side application functionality. This is the part the end-user sees. It must adapt to the rapidly evolving browsers, devices, and UX paradigms. In the example of a ridesharing platform, this would be the driver and rider mobile apps, as well as any account management or administrative web interfaces. The life cycle of this layer is 1 – 3 years.
- Application Layer
The application layer typically contains all business rules and logic, ideally embedded within an API-first architecture. This codebase will primarily live server-side. In the ride sharing example, this would be the logic that handles user authentication, assigns riders to drivers, calculates travel costs and durations, and handles the data transfer to all endpoints. The life cycle of this layer is 3 – 5 years.
- Data Layer
The data layer contains the application’s data, which typically resides within a database or other data storage system. In the case of the ridesharing platform, this would entail all rider and driver data, ride history, and payment information. The data layer’s life cycle coincides with the business that it serves; as long as the data is relevant to the business, the data layer will need to be maintained and supported. Consequently, the life cycle of the data layer is often 5+ years. The most adept enterprises take the approach of data-as-a-service, consolidating and organizing their data in one place, then making it available to serve new and existing digital initiatives. This unlocks data from legacy systems to drive new applications and digital platforms, without the need to disrupt existing backends.
By looking at your applications from this angle the door to modularizing your scaling requirements opens. For example, having the foresight that the user experience layer will likely be replaced within a couple of years, you wouldn’t want to expend comparable resources establishing your user experience layer for scalability as you would for the other layers. Conversely, the selection of the data layer must allow for substantial growth and change in content, laying the foundation for your platform to scale.
2. API-first approach
One of the most useful developments in modern software design is the emergence of API-first software architecture. Historically APIs were created as an afterthought to existing products that were tightly interwoven jumbles of front- and back-end systems. An API-first architecture strategically decouples them from the onset. This allows teams to quickly create experiences and products which work across a multitude of devices and other end-points.
In API-first methodology, all components of the platform are primarily connected via APIs, using API calls for data transfer. Designing an API involves consulting with stakeholders to collaboratively design the API specification before determining and developing the various applications that will consume the API. A major benefit to this approach is that organizations obtain valuable feedback in the preliminary stages of the platform’s design. This is beneficial in developing a service that delivers value to all of the API’s eventual consumers across the platform. Further, it ensures that consistency is administered across the platform, which is crucial considering the variety of clients/devices that will potentially connect to the API.
There are two ways to approach API service design, each with its unique implications on application scalability:
- A single generic API
A generic API is written in a way that provides access to the most data possible without imposing specific business rules on data access. This provides long-term flexibility by covering the data needs for as many business use-cases as possible. Typically, it is also easy to build, and in some cases may even be automatically generated depending on your data entity model. The downside is that a significant part of business logic is shifted to the client/device, making it more difficult to maintain consistency of that business logic across clients. The client essentially embeds business logic in the user experience layer.
- Specific APIs (microservices)
By writing an API that covers specific business rules the application logic can be embedded in the API. This allows the client/device to primarily handle the user experience layer and remain a de facto “dumb” client/device. The drawback with this approach is that different clients might require the API to be modified to meet their specific needs, or new APIs to be created for new endpoints.
Ultimately, either approach may facilitate a successful migration to an API-first platform. But, keep in mind that it is advisable to dialogue with your team at the onset to determine which API-first platform option best aligns with the projected long-term requirements of your platform.
3. Five Pillars of Product Platform Strategy
When planning for a new digital product platform there are many technologies to consider. To ensure a solid foundation for your platform to scale from, we evaluate them in five categories:
Depending on your platform requirements, the platform’s systems should have high availability while being cost effective and resource efficient. Modern cloud hosting environments offer a variety of solutions that work better for some cases than for others. Find the right combination, and you can achieve exceptional performance at a relatively low cost.
Is there variability in your expected user load? If so, how well can the systems adapt to the changing user load? If you have a customer-facing application that will encounter heavier demand over time, this will be of more concern than if you are serving an internal, predictable user base. When you do need to scale the platform’s systems, you want to ensure this can be performed with minimal downtime.
Over time, your systems need to be maintained to remain competitive with technology standards and security needs. Depending on the system operations (SysOps) and development operations (DevOps) capabilities of your team, you will want to carefully consider if managing the platform systems yourself is the right choice. You may determine that relying on a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provider is a sage decision.
As your platform grows how easy is it to add new applications and components? Adopting an API-first software architecture will further ensure modularity. In particular, a microservices approach lends itself well to adding future application functionality without the need to edit the core application code. This means new functionality can be added without the risk of introducing bugs into the existing application.
Following security best practices, such as the OWASP Top Ten, should be requisite, yet there are a multitude of factors that come into play when approaching security for scale. For example, maintaining your own authentication system may make sense if you are starting out, but in the long run, do you want to be responsible for the personally identifiable information (PII) of all your users? Outsourcing such important responsibilities to a company specializing in authentication security, such as Auth0, could be a better choice for future scalability. When protecting against DDoS attempts and other hacking threats, a service such as Cloudflare can offload responsibilities from your team and future proof your products are they grow in popularity.
The approaches outlined in this article provides an overview of how our team at Emerge helps ensure our clients’ product platforms are designed and developed in a way that allows for future scalability. You can see an example of our product platform strategy at work in our case study for the Mercedes-Benz CLA Instagram Campaign. If you find yourself needing a hand with your digital product platform strategy, feel free to reach out. We’d love to talk.
When done right a strategy articulates the vision, defines the overarching goals you are aiming to achieve, and provides the understanding of the critical outcomes necessary. It provides a collective purpose, acts as the product’s true north, and facilitates effective collaboration across the entire product development lifecycle.
Using this tool you’ll learn:
- What are the 9 elements of a digital product strategy
- Prioritizing your chosen opportunities to maximize value
- Assess what it will take to accomplish your strategic plan
Discover the best course of action for creating a well-defined strategic foundation.
Complete the form below to download the Digital Product Strategy tool:
Digital products and services are increasingly becoming a competitive necessity. However, a significant number of businesses today are faced with an unanticipated and very costly challenge.
Evaluating product ownership is a crucial component of your digital product strategy, and many companies don’t own their product at all. You might find this statement provocative or utterly ridiculous. Let me explain the hard reality behind this, and how it impacts organizations attempting to deliver innovative customer experiences, empower their employees and automate processes through the use of technology.
Digital Product Strategy: Defining Ownership
The first question we need to address is what owning your digital product or service means? And secondly, what are the characteristics of ownership?
Wikipedia defines ownership as: “The state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property, which may be an object, land/real estate or intellectual property. Ownership involves multiple rights, collectively referred to as title, which may be separated and held by different parties.”
By legal definition, most organizations would be able to confidently say that they legally own their digital product or service. However, we have to rethink what ownership means in practice, day-to-day in the context of digital products. The difference between the perception of ownership and reality within our organizations is more often than not very different. The following delineation provides a clear illustration of what this looks like.
Ownership is typically seen in terms of control. As the owner you have control of:
- The direction of the digital product or service, its features, and benefits.
- How it integrates into the business offering.
- Designing a best-in-class user experience.
- The business rules that govern the product.
- How data will flow in and out of the product.
- The source-code of the product.
- Third-party systems we will integrate with to enable our product and the business.
These examples of control assume that you are working in a best-case scenario. While we hope for the best it is rarely a true representation of what is really going on within our organizations or the marketplace. It is important to recognize there is already an abundance of factors that live outside of our control.
When building today’s leading products (platforms) it is imperative to ask yourself questions such as:
- What does control look like in a rapidly changing environment?
- How will the business be impacted when you have a change?
- What happens when there is a change in your team members?
- Will a third-party provider influence your ability to adapt or even deliver your product?
- What happens if you need to rapidly scale up?
Each of these examples can have a cascading effect.
Digital Product Strategy: Ramping Up and Moving Forward Quickly
One of many possible situations that exemplifies this cascading dynamic is customer enrollment into a monthly subscription service, providing access to a digital product. Your enrollment immediately grants personalized access, allowing the subscriber to begin using your online services. As part of this, you have carefully designed an onboarding process to ensure your customer has an optimal experience. It also introduces the customer care team that will provide outstanding, ongoing support.
Let’s expand on this scenario. You are the product manager assigned to a new product team and need to quickly get up to speed. Leadership has critical business goals that are dependent upon key milestones being achieved with your product and you need to get to work right away. You immerse yourself immediately into the work. Diving in to learn everything about the product, you request access to all available documentation. You are informed that the team follows an agile approach, and everything has been documented pursuant to best practices inline within the codebase.
Red flag! Who has control? Does everyone across the team and each function of the business have access to the necessary information to achieve the company’s goals? No. It’s locked in a format that is controlled by development. Is this their fault? No.
Next, you decide to schedule meetings with each person who has been working on the product to learn about their insights. Everyone has been working diligently, but you quickly realize that people have a different understanding of the goals and priorities. Consequently, your concerns grow. You know success is rooted in effectively moving forward quickly as one cohesive team.
In this common scenario critical institutional knowledge is locked away with key people, previous decisions are unclear and need to be revisited. In an extreme situation, let’s assume you need to scale the product, but in order to do so you will need to increase the size of your team internally, or with an external partner. The question of ownership begins to proliferate, becoming more complex and further potential complications and impacts begin to accumulate. The business owns the exclusive legal rights but the implications of losing control are escalating quickly.
The costs of losing control of your digital product
In today’s environment, industries are moving rapidly, business models are more complex, technology-driven shifts are common, and competition is getting tougher. And with soaring customer expectations, the impact of losing control needs to not only be understood, but managed as part of your digital product strategy. The impact of losing control can take several forms.
So what is the impact of a situation like the one above? You might find your team:
- Unable to take advantage of a new business opportunity.
- Incurring unintended design or technical debt as the team is working with an incomplete picture of the critical information necessary to do their best work.
- Performance (velocity) is significantly impacted as they spend more time in meetings, starting and stopping work, re-validating user and business requirements, leading to additional rework deliverables.
- Is over budget, unable to meet timelines with the resources that are available, and unable to manage expectations.
- Being confronted with completely re-platforming the product to regain control, and reach key goals that the business is dependent upon achieving.
Many organizations are taking this hit whether they can afford to take it or not. While in the short-term, it may appear as though there are efficiencies being gained. Possibly, reduced timelines for delivery, or the advantages of a larger feature set. Unfortunately, an expedited upcoming release with skipped steps has the potential of reducing the return on investment to zero.
Taking control back and owning your digital product
To regain control, or to never lose it in the first place, we must shift our thinking to embrace end-to-end knowledge management. Established in the ’90s, knowledge management is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization in the most effective manner to empower its people, processes, and support decision making.
There are several formats this may take. Each discipline on the product team needs to understand their integral role in ensuring this happens effectively. In many cases, the deliverables need to be an integrated part of a more complete and holistic picture. There may be a story you have to build. That story, and the resulting clarity that is generated from articulating it, can come in a multitude of forms. At a minimum, that story should address:
- The context for what the product is and the problem it solves
- The intended outcome(s) for its users.
- The business rules and why.
- The user flows and stories.
- The technology ecosystem.
- The business interdependencies.
- The functional requirements.
Ask yourself this question. Could I rebuild my product or service with the information I have? How much would it cost? How long would it take to do it again?
A company-wide mindset towards truly owning your digital products and services from the top down, empowers your team, permits you to stay focused on solving problems, and facilitates unearthing new insights and delivery of crucial new solutions. Organizations that are embracing this are more adept at being flexible, can move faster, are able to operate at greater scale, and increase their competitive edge.
Inquiring as to whether or not you genuinely own your product can be an invaluable exercise. It helps you look at your product and your service in a different way. It facilitates changes in the conversation around quality and roles. More importantly, understanding the importance of knowledge management and how it empowers people across the team and the organization should be seen as building strategic advantage for the business. It continues to promote sustainable performance. When we look at it from this perspective we are able to create alignment from leadership through to the product team. We are able to de-risk the business and continue to accelerate consistent improvements. Once this has been established, you can affirm that re-creating the product and service are attainable, then you truly do own it.
Clarity has never been more imperative than it is today. With the impact of digital transformation on your organization’s people, processes, products, and services, clarity is not only essential, but mission critical.
More often than I would like to admit, I meet people with a great idea for a new web, mobile or IoT product but there is a lack of clarity to move forward successfully. Frequently, product teams are tasked with challenges that intersect all functions of an organization without the necessary foundation for success. Consequently, thousands, or even millions of dollars in resources are required for successful delivery.
One primary area of clarity is understanding ‘the job to be done’ and how your digital product or service meets that need. Clay Christensen a professor at Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of Job Theory in the book Competing Against Luck – The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. The book is focused on successful company practices and their subsequent growth.
Lack of clarity impacts the entire organization
Without clarity, the scope of potential success narrows and our understanding of what is required to reach our goals is compromised. Ultimately, it presents further challenges in assessing how expediently the objectives can be achieved. The lack of clarity impacts individuals, teams, and the organization.
How much time is being spent articulating the vision or value of the digital product or service initiative to people across the organization? Is it being articulated the same way each time or does it change depending on who it’s being presenting to? Is the audience being educated not just about the aspirations, but about the importance of the opportunity or problem working to solve? Are the right people onboard? Can the expectations be managed across the organization, from the C-suit down to the product and supporting teams?
It is essential when creating new and innovative customer experiences (CX) and more refined tools for employee’s, to have clarity. This enables you to make better decisions and navigate the unknown as you proceed from an idea to a strategy, and ultimately, to an effective execution.
It’s a very intriguing question. What is the job to be done by your product or service offering? In my opinion, everyone in an organization; from the CEO to the Product Team needs to be able to answer this question and understand its impact.
What is Jobs Theory and why does it matter?
Job Theory is another case for the importance of taking a customer-centric (aka user-centric or human centered design) approach to your product or service. At the most basic level it’s about understanding the choice your customers make to hire or fire a product. We can then look at why do customers hire your product over another and vise versa. Why are they making that choice? If they choose to fire our product and hire someone else’s product, what are they telling us? Is our product deficient? Is there a better product substitute?
Here’s how Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon & David S. Duncan. describe it in their book “Competing Against Luck – The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice.”
“It’s not just another framework or marketing approach, but a powerful lens that has driven breakthrough innovation and transformational growth in some of the world’s most successful organizations—in wildly diverse arenas. Jobs Theory transforms how you define the business you’re in, the size and shape of the market in which you compete, and who your competitors are.”
3 Benefits of Understanding the Job of Your Digital Product
Here are three ways understanding the job of your digital product or service can help you create the clarity and strategic advantage that will lead to greater success.
1) Identify how your product creates value and can be differentiated in the market.
Once you understand the job of a product you can look at the experiences – online and offline – that need to be created to support that product, tackling the job to be done better than anyone else.
This approach can have a profound impact on your work. Let’s assume that you have been asked to lead the redesign of your website as part of your company’s ongoing investment into its digital transformation. You understand that the website needs to be something much more than a brochure; more than just a resource for the different departments, partners, and customers.
The website needs to be a platform, an integrated product that can effectively serve the needs across multiple user journeys. You may have over 80+ stakeholders and 200+ contributors (We’ve actually experienced this). You need to find a shared purpose and vision going forward. The first task is to evaluate the current ecosystem, to understand the current state of things. You need to take inventory, and map people’s needs across the organization. It’s easy to see there are many essential jobs. But are they the job(s) to be done? Or are they the things that have to be done to address the one “job to be done”?
Fast forward, between your stakeholder meetings and the ongoing research being conducted to inform the new strategy and direction of the website, you realize that you’re missing vital insight. You are unable to answer the question “what is the job to be done?”
The insight needs to come from having a deeper understanding of the customer. Engaging them to discuss their challenges, needs and the value drivers of their business. As you get a deeper understanding the job of the website becomes clear.
There is one job to be done by the website; be the companion guide to the customer journey. You present this clarity and are able to quickly tie it back to the businesses vision and key performance indicators. This new shared understanding by your stakeholders and contributors aligns the efforts to focus on the right things and deliver better than anyone else.
This clarity completely changes the conversation and trajectory around customer experience innovation and improving operational performance. You can look at how you engage customers, from the introduction, product customization, onboarding, navigating use, and the necessary support levels in an entirely unique and innovative way. We can look at the interdependencies of delivering on those experiences considering the people, processes, and systems. This allows you to not only focus on the highest level of value creation but to further differentiate.
2) Avoid the Feature Trap
It is easy to understand why product teams get stuck in the “feature trap”. Some organizations measure performance by delivery, as opposed to the value created. Others may be missing key processes or access to customer insight. Often, an organization may not have internal cross-functional teams to evaluate the impact a feature will have on users and the business. There may be scenarios where stakeholders stipulate a hard delivery-date or the product is being overextended to do too many jobs.
This is common when developing and evaluating strategic plans, product roadmaps, helping to prioritize features, and grooming the product backlog. Imagine an advanced manufacturing company that has been stagnant. They have been shifting from feature to feature and struggling to balance priorities with limited resources. The competing priorities and the broad range of value varying stakeholders placed on individual features stretched the product team too thin. With the team being pulled in a multitude of different directions, the team’s time to make progress is depleted, slowing down delivery, and ultimately burning out the product team. By understanding the job to be done for the product your team can find a new way to approach prioritization, permitting the team to focus on continuous improvement and delivery. With a shared understanding you can help to ensure the right capabilities, resources and technologies are implemented in alignment with and to fulfill the strategic priorities.
When we understand the vision and job of our digital product or service we can help to avoid the ‘feature trap’. This allows us to maintain clarity and focus on continuous improvement and delivery that can successfully move the needle.
3) Leverage BIG Data and the shift from transactional to consumption analysis.
Not long ago, BIG Data was the only thing being discussed. It hasn’t gone anywhere but how we think about it has evolved significantly. The focus has shifted from the collection of data to the analysis of data. So how does BIG data inform the job to be done of our product? The focus on analysis has fueled the development of advanced business intelligence that enables better decision making, personalization, and automation. Today the major technology themes continuing to drive this forward momentum are mobility, cloud, and machine learning.
As you work to create better digital products and services there are two types of data we are evaluating; transactional and consumption.
Let me give you a very brief definition of the two types. Functionally, transactional data includes financial and logistical information related to customer inquiry, conversion rate, on-boarding time, number of active users, number hour worked, and application availability (Uptime), etc. Consumption data is focused on behavior, examining how the product or service is being used, identifying patterns, and contextually related outcomes based dimensions of time, location, attitude, etc.
When you understand the job to be done you’ll have a lens to analyze the data to give you invaluable context and deeper insights into the people, and processes that will inform the continued evolution of your product.
Can you think of something similar you have experienced, when a deeper level of clarity could have transformed your work? I’m sure you can. Can you imagine the power of having that clarity and the impact? How the perspective transforms the way you work, your processes and the delivery of more impactful products and services. That is the power of understanding the job of your digital product. It pushes to develop a deeper understanding of our customers.