The winner of multiple Tony awards, a Pulitzer, and two Grammies pulled off his biggest Broadway hit last year: Hamilton. The show achieved record-breaking profits, and won over a dozen awards. But writing the piece didn't come easy, even for the brilliant Lin-Manuel Miranda:
It took eight years before theatergoers were able to see the show in its entirety on the Broadway stage.
The years of work that are poured into a great product are often underestimated. Few people will know the brunt that Miranda bore to make a rap-musical of a biography successful on a Broadway stage. And, strangely, the same goes for great products. When we're taking advantage of the endless scroll on our Facebook app, or ordering an Uber, we rarely think about the hours of work that made these products massively successful.
The web is filled to the brim with one-hack-wonders, but the less-sexy truth is that there's no cutting corners to building a successful product. The product teams at the best startups (think Slack, Glassdoor, Vevo) have maintained momentum thanks to non-stop testing, small improvements, and an obsessive attention to detail.
The testing experts at Apptimize have seen this first hand:
"To us, it's incredibly clear -- product teams that consistently win, are the ones who continually test their roadmaps. It's precisely the small wins, compounded over time, that drive the mobile growth KPIs businesses are chasing.”
Pursuing the big-swing projects isn't going to make your product a success. It's building the focused, small habits into your product development process that will get you there over time.
Here's how to instill the right habits and focus into your own product development process.
A Customer-Centric Discipline
All of the small habits that you develop have to be working towards one, single higher-level principle. For SaaS products, that's a customer-centric discipline. Every product decision, no matter how small, should be made with your customer front-of-mind.
This is easier said than done. In fact, most product teams think they're already doing this—but when you put a microscope to their development process, the customer is only considered at the beginning and at the end of the process. So, for a new feature, the process will go something like this:
Every product meeting, you inevitably make adjustments to your product roadmap. This usually is to account for the technical or logistical barriers that come up along the way. But too often, adjustments are made for the internal team, without the needs of the customer in mind.
Every adjustment could veer your entire operation more and more off course from what the customer actually needs. It's a great example of the “one degree off course” axiom.
"We don’t have to change that much for it to make a great deal of difference. A few simple disciplines can have a major impact on how your life works out in the next 90 days, let alone in the next 12 months or the next 3 years." — Jim Rohn
Most founders gather a ton a feedback when they're launching their first product. They look for validation of product/market fit, so they involve the customer early, and often. As the product team grows, however, the same level of scrutiny is rarely applied to new features or updates.
But making sure every decision is customer-centric is the foundation to a great product. From there, a customer-first culture will form that will ensure that every decision, test, and adjustment is made for the right reasons. This will allow those small improvements to the development process to snowball and make a difference in your bottom line.
Start with Usability Testing
A great way to validate the feature you're trying to build is to get a working prototype into the hands of your users. Many founders do this with their first product and then don't pass down the habit to PMs that work on big features and upgrades.
There's lots of different types of usability testing, but here's a basic set of parameters to get you started:
- Bring in a sample of your users. Preferably this is 5-10 of your real customers. Offer rewards or payments for participating in the testing.
- Provide a list of functions that you want them perform. See how intuitive the new feature is for users to figure out and see whether it's useful.
- Gather quantitative feedback. See how successful your sample was at using the feature and accomplishing what you asked. Also, measure how long it took them to get there.
- Solicit open ended feedback. Ask how the users felt. Was it easy for them to use or figure out? Could they imagine accessing this feature on a day-to-day?
Have your product team take notes and use the feedback to inform their development process. This small calibration makes sure that you're on track from the get-go.
It's important to note that you can't rely on usability testing alone. The lab environment puts unnatural constraints on the users. It's not good for testing things like UI or copy—just usability.
Many product teams try to perfect a feature before putting it in the hands of their customers. They think that spending more time on the product increases their chances of success. But Kissmetrics founder and product expert Hiten Shah recommends to have a “minimum viable everything.” This means that your production cycle is focused on iterating, rather than perfecting.
So for every new product or feature you want to roll out, have your team build the most basic form of it quickly, in order to test the concept. From there, give beta access to customers who are already familiar with your product—the seasoned users and the power users. The more feedback you can get, the better the next iteration will be. Not to mention, you'll be building a stronger relationship with your customers.
Here are some tools that can help you gather and make sense of feedback from your beta users:
- Centercode. This is a full-on beta management platform that helps you onboard participants, orchestrate tests, and prioritize feedback.
- Usersnap. This is a less-conventional form of gathering feedback during beta. It lets users leave notes right on your app, and collaborate with you in real time. This is great if you have a small user base, who you feel is willing to go the extra mile to give you detailed feedback.
- FullStory. This is a happy medium between the two. It's “like a DVR” for your users' behavior. Any feedback that you get back from your beta users will be paired with a video that explains what went wrong.
Want more resources? We put together a list of 60 of our favorite user engagement tools.Check Out the List
A beta test is the final stamp of approval that will ensure that you've been on the right track all along. It'll be an extra layer on top of your internal QA to help clean up bugs, and make sure that everything is running as smoothly as possible.
A/B Test to Keep Improving
A/B testing is the best way to keep involving your customer, even after a product or feature was launched. But while most product teams perform A/B tests on things like design elements, CTAs, and copy, few of those tests give statistically significant results. In fact, 80-90% of A/B tests don't do anything at all. The reason is simple. Most product teams base their A/B test hypothesis on gut feelings. They think that a certain copy, or a certain layout will perform better, and just test their guesses, one after the other.
The best way to perform A/B tests is based on existing user behavior. This informs what Sean Ellis calls a cyclical process. You start with data, make an informed hypothesis, and, regardless of the results, get more data for future testing.
So let's say a portion of new users don't try out your new chat feature, but they use the email platform to send internal non-urgent messages to the rest of the team. You:
- Test out an in-app prompt in the inbox that suggests sending the message as a DM.
- It boosts adoption 5%, but also tells you that users that are in your inbox might prefer the chatroom.
- You use those insights to test out replacing the inbox feature with chat.
- That decreases adoption, so you learn that the chat and the inbox are used for different things.
- You test a prompt that sends users to the inbox from that chat.
Every experiment lets you get to know your users a little bit better, and gives you more data to work with next time around. And all those boosts in conversions add up over time, making a big difference in your bottom line.
Lean is Forever
Getting your customers involved at earlier stages of your development process keeps your systems lean and focused. You're building a culture of precision and quick iteration, which sets you up to build great products, forever—not just for now. So instead of aiming for a one-hit-wonder, create the right culture in your workplace to secure long-term success for your product team.