Building the Product Right

The foundation of a product company is in its IP. An idea is only as good as its implementation.

Start-ups face twin pressures of building the right product and doing it in time. The broad contours of the product may be quite clear, but specific features change shape regularly. Things happen simultaneously. While the product is being built, it’s being pitched to prospects, advisors and investors. Based on this learning, entrepreneurs keep tweaking or adding features. There is urgency to build an early prototype for demo purposes. At the same time, everyone’s end objective is a high quality product that is released quickly to generate revenue.

With time-to-market and funding issues, start-ups often take short cuts. Repeated changes in functionality are disruptive. This leads to a defective implementation, requiring substantial revisions or a complete change. Such modifications can ultimately prove too expensive. There is no easy prescription to manage this problem, and we will limit ourselves to a few basic suggestions.

Set up a product management team, consisting of the founders and key architects. The team must spend sufficient time upfront to defi ne key requirements, high level product features and design. A common problem is the tendency to over-design a product. Engineers fall into the trap of ‘feature creep’ in which they attempt to include too much functionality because it is technically exciting. Meetings with prospects and experts lead to demands for new features, and changes to existing ones. Set up a process to register and approve all change requests only through formal review meetings. Limit the scope of the initial release to those features that are critical to sales.

Start-ups should adopt the agile development model, consisting of a series of intermediate releases spaced by a few weeks. Each must have incrementally more features that are fully functional. This enables testing of completed features, in parallel with ongoing development of new ones. Being able to play with intermediate versions brings about confi dence that the fi nal release will be on time and to the desired quality. Other than for embedded products, the user interface (UI) is a critical element of the product. It is also the most neglected. Defining and implementing the UI upfront is the best way for everyone to understand exactly what the product can do and how it will look. A good UI speaks louder than the most detailed requirements document.

Your initial selling will rely on screen mock-ups. This can be followed by UI only demo version, which is invaluable in showcasing the solution to prospective clients and to the investors. User feedback helps refine the product, while it is being developed. This will help it meet the user expectations.

Relying so much on UI means that it should have the highest priority. Engineering teams are not good at UI, but still end up doing it themselves. At most,  they get visual designers who help with screen layout and style-sheets. However, what you really need is a Usability expert as consultant. His job is to understand how customers will interact with the product, and conceptualize screens and navigation, to ensure it’s user-friendly.

Reprinted from From Entrepreneurs to Leaders by permission of Tata McGraw-Hill Education Private Limited.