I have been designing and programming for almost half of my life, and during the past 15 years, I have tried various methods of managing and creating products such as Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, Kanban or Extreme Programming. However, none of these methods were effective enough, they did not bring much improvement, or we could not apply them to most projects. At PLATFORM, we work on a wide variety of projects - sometimes it is an experimental mobile app, other times a website with hundreds of subpages for a leading bank, or a simple marketing website for a startup. With such variety of projects, the ideal process can be difficult to find. However, we believe we have found the solution! We started creating prototypes in weekly cycles. Until then, one could say we did everything wrong.
Approximately three years ago, we changed our process dramatically and started creating digital products in weekly cycles. It's certainly the most effective way I know today. One of the most important aspects of this approach is the creation of realistic prototypes at regular intervals, ideally weekly. We have experimented with monthly, every three-weeks or bi-weekly cycles, but they never worked as well as the weekly one. At this point, you may be wondering why?
One reason is that the weekend tends to cause a loss of continuity and distraction. With weekly prototypes, ideas are materialized every week and assumptions are tested before the next week begins. The product comes alive on a weekly basis, either in the form of a prototype design or a developed part of the project. In weekly cycles, it is not difficult to maintain focus. The motivation and enthusiasm for working on the project stay high, and the progress is effortless to follow. Every time we have moved away from this weekly schedule, we have seen exactly the opposite effects. That's why I would like to share with you how you can make your process extremely effective with weekly prototypes. Whether you are working on launching your startup or creating projects for clients, I believe you will benefit from following this process.
Sprint 0 (Discovery phase)
Of course, it is not possible to get into production right away during the first week without understanding the concept and the business model behind it. That would not be a good idea. Therefore, for the first week, we are busy addressing business issues (see below) to create a list of features with the highest market value.
The goal is to build and test the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) as soon as possible - a completed product that can be presented to users and evaluated. It has to be a solution to a real problem that brings actual value to the target group. One of the tools I have found very helpful in answering the most important questions is the Lean Canvas which provides you with an actionable and entrepreneur-focused business plan. It focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics and competitive advantages. In most cases, about an hour of your time is enough to create the first version of this business plan, and with a few more hours and several iterations you can answer the most important questions and create a meaningful business plan.
In the first week, we are looking to answer questions such as:
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- What are the solutions for this issue?
- What are the alternatives to solve this problem today?
- Who is your competition?
- How do you differ from your competition? What is your UVP (unique value proposition)?
- Who are your customers and what groups of users exist (UX archetypes)?
- What personality does your brand have or what personality are you striving to develop?
- What communication channels do you use today?
- What key metrics will you be using?
- What does your business funnel look like?
- Is the flow of information clear?
- Is there a way to somehow simplify the product? etc.
After responding to critical business questions, we can better evaluate how we can improve the proposed solution. Together with the client, we prioritize individual features and immediately take the sketches of the most important parts. At the end of the week, we have a tangible prototype in the form of wireframes.
Sprint 1 (Lead Design)
After answering these business questions and creating wireframes, we continue to work on UX and visual design. The goal is to create a prototype resembling the final product and test it as soon as possible. The project literally comes alive, and our clients and our team can visualize it for the first time in its full beauty at the end of the week. The result is an animated or clickable design prototype that is sometimes undetectable from the real application.
After two weeks, we have a prototype that can be presented to investors, partners or even first-time users.
Even though it is not a real product yet, you can get critical feedback that is also a powerful motivator for the whole team. With conventional processes that are still used by many developers, you will see the first prototype often after a few months of writing specifications, cost estimates, and creating design subjectively without any real feedback. Even after this long time, the specifications are often only rough estimates. To avoid this long process and to save you time, we have prepared a calculator tool for you to help you estimate your preliminary costs. Based on our many years of experience, we believe this rough estimate is sufficient for a client to start working on a project. In fact, it is not a good idea to spend your months fine-tuning the estimates (even if you spend all this time, you are unlikely to get a precise cost estimate due to the changing nature of your needs based on feedback from real users). We believe, it is more important to create the MVP as soon as possible, and for this, a cost estimate using our tool is sufficient.
During the second week, we will seek to get answers to questions such as:
- Do all the features have a high value added for the users?
- Can the product be further simplified?
- Is your design in line with your brand's personality?
- Is the GUI intuitive?
- Is it easy for users to understand the app's value added?
- Is it easy for a user to get the information they are looking for?
- Are the animations, transitions, and interactions effective and do they help improve the UX?
- Or do they interfere with the task at hand?
Sprint 2, 3, 4 … (Design and Development)
After defining the visual direction and creating a prototype design, we begin to program the most important parts of the project. We are programming a real product, but focusing on the front-end "facade" that the user - your potential customer comes into contact with at first. We only spend a limited time implementing sophisticated algorithms and background processes at this time, so that we do not get stuck on technical issues before we test the product/service. It allows us to do it very quickly and answer big questions before we go into the full-blown development.
“Focusing on the "outer facade" allows you to move very quickly and respond to critical questions before you go full speed into a costly implementation.”
Our goal is to create a real product as quickly as possible (a minimum set of features) that we can have the users test and we can then evaluate their interactions. More importantly, we know you have a real business, and you need an actual product, and that is why customer feedback is crucial to make sure the product is hitting the right spot.
The ability to test a real prototype gives you superpowers. It will help you get a glimpse of the future and what your product will look like and more importantly, it will let you assess the reactions of your potential customers. You will get answers well before you spend several months working on your project, isolated from the real world. The return on investment is huge if your prototype is successful. However, the return is even larger if it is not successful because you avoid spending large sums of money on an idea that does not fit the needs and desires of your target users.
“Understanding the shortcomings of your idea early in the development process is painful but incredibly effective.”
Weekly sprints push you towards efficiency and also allow you to troubleshoot technical issues effectively. It is an ideal tool to create a sense of urgency; it shortens unnecessary discussions still giving you enough room to create a meaningful portion of a solution for your product or service. Besides, you will get feedback very quickly, from real customers, regarding a real product. Based on my extensive experience, I can tell you that even with sprints lasting three weeks, we saw a real departure from our original plan and the projects were more difficult to keep on time and within scope. If you make plans for several months out, you will see even greater swings away from the original plan, you do not have the flexibility to promptly react to the changing needs of the market, and you will not be able to innovate.
“It is incredibly naive to think that you will be able to estimate the ideal functionality of your product months ahead of showing it to your customers.”
The ability to make small changes and adjust the product based on a real feedback loop in short cycles is critical when you are designing new products and services. My advice - create prototypes of your ideas and test your assumptions. Forget thinking of your project in terms of a fixed schedule, fixed budget and fixed scope that are only used by firms that are failing to adapt to the needs of the ever changing world or businesses or companies that have a well-established business. Following such approaches will prevent you from innovating, and it will prevent you from getting the most important aspects of your idea right, before moving on to other features.