Over the last decade I’ve built digital products for banks, retailers, transport companies and newspapers. Oh, and three companies who make shampoo.
I’ve worked on teams that shipped their product in days and in organisations that took over a year to deliver to customers. The teams releasing earlier built better products. However, it’s not speed that helped these teams succeed. It was a common mindset that linked them: they saw shipping v1 of the product not as the end-goal but the beginning of the journey.
Once you realise that’s true, it completely alters your approach to product development - and radically improves your product’s chances of success. I’ll explain why.
1. Shipping the product releases value
A business doesn’t achieve any value until their customers have and use a product. You can take a year constructing an all-singing, all-dancing, feature-rich product but it’s all cost and no benefit until the day it’s deployed. Shipping something, however small, is helpful to customers. As soon as a product’s in their hands, the value return begins.
Building a business banking app for NatWest at my previous company, our first iteration was as simple as they get: login, check your balance and see your transactions. Of course, making payments and many other features followed soon - but shipping the fundamentals fast unlocked those key use cases for everyone.
2. Shipping the product builds the processes and finds the problems
Great apps and websites don’t live in isolation. Digital products live or die by the services, processes, people and operations that support them. The temptation is to spend time planning the processes and operations in minute detail upfront. Beyond slowing the speed to value, that also means the service interactions are designed in abstract, not grounded in reality and fail to deliver the experience required.
The best way to create a successful wrap-around context is simple: ship the product. Forcing the product through to live, even for a single customer, quickly reveals the gaps to be bridged and the processes that actually matter for the product to succeed. Plus it means you find the problems early, rather than late, when they’re cheaper and quicker to overcome.
For one of Loomery’s early clients, The University of Exeter, we built a digital guide to help freshers prepare for term in an unusual year. Building the website was only half the challenge: the content was key to delivering a great experience. Given the pace required to hit A level results day we stood up a new team to generate content for the site and designed a new process for approving it. Shipping v1 built the team and process we needed.
3. Shipping the product is the only way to get to the truth
The argument for testing visual prototypes with users was you could prove a proposition or validate a route before allocating the resources needed for implementation. The truth is creating accurate tests is expensive: you need a representative sample of recruits, looking at prototypes with realistic data that’s meaningful to them, in the real world context the product would be used in (not a sterile research lab!) Tests also assume that people know how they behave and are honest about it when asked. The way most teams approach it, testing builds false confidence.
The latest generation of low-code tools make it quicker than ever to create a real product with live data that can be used in context, so this argument no longer stands. For the first time, building and validating the actual product is the cheapest and fastest approach to reveal whether a chosen route is the right one to pursue. A live product means real usage and behavioural data - you can learn so much more and make better decisions.
In lab sessions for a 60-minute delivery service for one of the world’s biggest grocers, participants told me how helpful the app would be for rapid food orders. We designed the product to cater for those who needed a quick meal or had forgotten an item for their dinner party. When the app went live, the most ordered item was bottled water.
4. Shipping the product early gives ultimate freedom to pivot and change
Shipping early makes people scared because they think they’re committing to something which won’t be changed. Actually it helps to embrace the opposite mentality: shipping early means you have to change it - and getting something out quickly gives you that freedom.
Customer feedback from a live product lets you course-correct in minor ways, or even pivot completely if you missed the mark first time around. Like a lorry rolling down a hill, a change of direction is much easier sooner than later. There’s less lock-in from design and technical decisions, early customers are more accepting of it, and it’s lower cost to switch focus to a new target market. Shipping becomes the start of the iteration journey. You can use everything you learn to grow in the right way: towards what’s proven and you know customers want and need.
Silicon Valley folklore is filled with famous pivots. The first incarnation of Instagram was Burbn - a Foursquare-like app that allowed users to check in at their favorite spots, make plans to meet up, and share photos. It wasn't much of a success, until cofounder Kevin Systrom noticed which feature users were using the most: photo sharing. This early pivot launched Instragram onto the success path that saw it sell to Facebook for $1 billion just two years later. Facebook may have revised their famous mantra “move fast and break things” to the less catchy “move fast with stable infrastructure” but the iteration mindset still runs deep through their culture too.
5. Shipping the product gets customers involved
Finally, my favourite thing about shipping is it’s the start of your relationship with customers. Customers LOVE being part of the product journey. Early adopters are always happy to join a test group. I never cease to be amazed by the time people will invest in providing helpful feedback.
Monzo is (or at least was) a great example of a company that engages with customers and creates community. Up-voted feature ideas on the Monzo forum were regularly prioritised for development. More fundamentally, the buzz created by their beta release provided a platform for crowd-funding from customers, supplying the investment needed for growth. For Monzo, shipping literally created the company.
Embrace the mindset that shipping is the beginning, not the end. In summary:
- Ship early, uncomfortably early if you can, to kickstart the creation of value
- Build the processes around your product’s path to launch
- Learn in the wild at low cost and gather real data to make more effective decisions
- Give yourself ultimate freedom to tweak, pivot and find your way
- Get your customers involved from day one
I wish I’d known all this ten years ago. The shampoo apps might have been a success!
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