Sep 05 2012

The Joys (and Challenges) of Building Products

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It’s the start of another day, but I can’t seem to get my mind to stop running from the events of other day. Our product leadership had just met and brainstormed a new exciting concept: THE product that would “tie them all together.” And so I went home and found myself lying awake in bed all night thinking, “dang, is there any way I could squeeze a few more hours into our week and actualize this awesome idea?”

And that’s how it works… Lots to think about, and even more to do.

As a company, dt has a non-stop desire to help make the web a better place by understanding users’ needs, reducing friction, and creating elegant and useful design. As avid explorers, users, and consumers of the web, we build products because we love what we do. Yes, we work with clients and we really enjoy solving complex UX/UI challenges with them, but we’re also really attracted to the idea of making tools that designers and developers like us can use to bring ideas to life. Frankly, there’s something magical about “doing it for yourself.” It’s a ton of fun… and a lot of work.

So how do we do it? That’s a question that comes up frequently when we talk to people about our products. And the truth is? Well, there is no clairvoyant, magic 8-ball that gives us all of the answers. Our method is one forged from a lot of experimentation and learning, and let me tell you, it changes based on each product’s individual need, vision, specs and user base.

That being said, there are some common threads in the form of best practices and philosophies that we’ve found work well for us. Interested? I’ve broken these common threads into a list for you to explore and experiment with:

  • Choosing What to Make: From Ideation to Execution
  • The Energy: What it Feels Like
  • Finding Your Secret Sauce?
  • Product Launch and Lift Off
  • Management and Team Structure

(By the way, did you know that our latest product, SlideDeck 2, is fully responsive? Come check it out and find out more after you’re done reading this article!)

Choosing What to Make: From Ideation to Execution

Coming up with new ideas is really exciting. It’s easy to get caught up in that excitement, and want to create everything….big mistake!

It’s hard to say no to EVERYTHING.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the following questions (and their answers)…big troubles lie ahead.

  1. Is there a demand for your product? Do people want or need it?
  2. Can you turn your idea into a reality? Do you have the ability to create it?
  3. Do you know how to get the word out? Do you know how to sell it?

These guidelines should serve as the foundation to each step of the development process – they will help to structure your research, feature set, creation and marketing efforts.

In addition to the above guidelines, you’ll also want to be sure that you understand (1) product-market fit, MVP, (2) dev scope, platforms, technologies, and (3) launch and marketing strategies. These are principles we seriously consider before we move ideas into the execution phase.

The Energy: What it Feels Like

Creating an environment of goal-oriented, open innovation and collaboration is absolutely essential to the success of your company atmosphere and ultimately your product. People on your team will have different perspectives and these perspectives, when properly channeled into critical thinking, strategy and execution, are a powerful force in taking your product from good to great. When we begin working on our product, we enable our leaders and team members to help determine critical components of the product design and development process. After all, it’s OUR product.

It’s awesome to know there is a whole team of people who are collectively dedicated and focused on a common goal. I love working hand in hand with designers, developers and managers to push a project forward – sometimes, there are two or three teams of people hovering over a design, working through a use-case strategy, or vehemently discussing best practices for code implementation. It’s vibrant, dynamic and exciting. Plus, it’s great to have an expert group of your peers and friends to help you solve problems and provide support when you get stuck (which will happen!)

Finding Your Secret Sauce?

There’s a cardinal rule for every product that has been conceptualized and built: “Build it and they will come only works for sex or drugs.” As long as you’re not selling drugs or sex, this rule applies to you (it certainly does to us).

Secret Ingredient photo from Shutterstock

What does this rule mean? It means that you should never expect an idea (or product) to be a slam-dunk winner the day that you launch. The many steps from ideation to market-driven success are often unclear and require lots of iterations and testing, using both qualitative and quantitative tools (Qualaroo, survey.io, CrazyEgg, Google Analytics, etc). For us, this means that we strategize, build, deploy, test and iterate….again and again. It’s definitely more involved than “wash, rinse and repeat.” As a matter of fact, it’s much more interesting; it’s real-world feedback that drives iterative and innovative design.

The path to success is simple, yet difficult to achieve: measure your product against what your customers want, and make your product more desirable for them. Raise awareness for your product and get the word out. That’s how you find your true secret sauce.

Product Launch and Lift Off

And after all of the work that’s gone into research, planning, design and development, the holy grail of building a product is definitely the launch day. Believe me, it’s not an easy day to get to. If I were to sum up a product launch in one word, it would be “planning.”


Cape Canaveral Shuttle photo from Shutterstock

Launching a product requires all of the core product teams to be in sync. The product needs to be completed and QA tested. There needs to be final checks and verification that all ancillary systems (i.e. hosting, external service providers, API links) are functioning correctly. Marketing for launch is also critical, and needs to be carefully timed and executed. Here is a sample list of some of the pre-launch/launch planning that we do:

(1) Product
  • core product functionality
  • copy/content
  • checkout (if applicable)
  • account creation and management systems
  • cross-platform compatibility
  • download/package delivery
  • form submissions/processing
(2) Marketing
  • launch emails
  • blog posts
  • PR
  • public marketing website QA completed and live
(3) Support
  • support staff resourced and ready/trained
  • user feedback mechanisms in place and tested
  • FAQs in place
  • support ticketing system tested
  • developers ready for any emergency fixes required
(4) IT Infrastructure
  • hosting servers stable
  • external service providers stable
  • all DB links tested

Management and Team Structure for a Products Company

Depending on the way your company is structured, it’s also important to create core teams (usually after the product’s launch) that have set goals of continuing the success of your product. We’ve created four teams that operate in concert with each other to push our products towards success. The structure of these teams is designed to achieve four primary goals: increasing traffic, improving conversions, improving the products and developing new products. Our teams are lead by strategic managers who are responsible for a part of the total equation. Each of the managers leads a team of designers and developers, and each team has a set of goals and tasks which are centered around getting the job done.

(1) The Marketing Goal - increase traffic to the site
The marketing team’s primary responsibility is to raise awareness for our products and drive traffic to our site. This can happen in a myriad of ways: from outreach and PR, to contests, blog posts, affiliate programs, and social engineering.

(2) The Conversion Goal - improve conversion (sales, upgrades) percentage
If the marketing team’s done their job, it means that we’ll have visitors (traffic) to our site. This is where the Conversion team takes over. Overall design, messaging, information architecture, features, examples, FAQs and pricing are just a few of the items to consider when trying to convert visitors to a purchase decision.

(3) The Product Development Team - continue innovation and product development that compels users to purchase
This team focuses on making the product better and more compelling. A lot of the product development decisions are made based on user feedback and support requests. Having this team closely connected to our support staff is critical, as this relationship frequently uncovers bugs and identifies needed features.

(4) The New Product Team - the next big thing
This is the group of people who work on “the next big thing” in our company. They read the marketplace, consider our client projects (you can learn a ton from clients), and work to determine the feasibility of new concepts and ideas (see the above section on “Choosing What to Make”). They also work to determine what a MVP might look like.

In Conclusion

Building products is both amazingly rewarding and pretty darn challenging, all at the same time. If you’re considering making a move into products, I hope that this post has provided some insight into our experiences. Here’s the place where our products live, DT Labs. Feel free to check them out. If you have any questions, let us know in the comments!

About the Author:

Arnold Yoon is the President and official coffee maker for digital-telepathy. A technologist and engineer at heart, his love for design helps to fuel service and product development in the company’s quest to change the web.

Leave a Response

8 Responses

  1. Sep 06 2012
    Jason

    Well said, Arnie! Of all the points you raised here, I think the most valuable that I’ve learned is you cannot simply put a product out there, and expect it to sell. While it can be hellaciously difficult to get to Launch Day, you have to factor drumming up interest into your planning.

    Just like a good golf swing, the follow-through is critical!

    • Sep 07 2012
      Arnold

      Thanks, Jason! I agree…marketing in all of its various flavors (PR, buzz gen, etc) is super critical!

  2. Sep 07 2012
    Chuck Longanecker

    Wow – great post Arnold. You nailed the process perfectly (at least the way it is this week).

    I hope this means a mini-series of even more detailed posts are coming next. I want to hear more!

    • Sep 10 2012
      Arnold

      Thanks, Chuck!
      I’m planning on getting some additional, more detailed posts written about the high-level outline that I presented here.

  3. Sep 14 2012
    jared

    Really great post, I remember with my first company and how hard it was to get to our launch but how it was worth it at the end.

    • Sep 18 2012
      Arnold Yoon

      Hey Jared-

      Thanks! Building anything worth doing certainly has its challenges and rewards. The thrill of entrepreneurship and making a dent is great motivation. I’d love to hear about your experience, if you wanted to share?

  4. Sep 18 2012
    deep som

    Heya are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and set up my own. Do you need any coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    • Sep 18 2012
      Dave Shepard

      We do indeed use WordPress as our platform for not just our blog, but the entire website. WordPress is a pretty powerful platform for managing your content regardless of your coding knowledge. If you aren’t well versed in PHP or web hosting, you might want to consider taking a look at WordPress.com for a free blogging solution.

      If you aren’t afraid of writing a little code though, you should look at a self-hosted installation of WordPress as you will have much more control of your site’s appearance and configuration. Most web hosts provide one-click installations of WordPress for easy setup. We host most of our products and websites through Media Temple, but Host Gator and Dream Host are also some good low cost hosting solutions. Once WordPress is installed, check out the WordPress plugin repository to add functionality to your site and the theme directory to change your site’s appearance. You should also look at resources like Smashing Magazine’s WordPress section or WPTuts+ for tips, tricks and recommendations.

      Hope this helps. Good luck in your new WordPress endeavors!