Agile Publishing: Twelve Tips for Agile Product Development
As publishers become increasingly digital, both in workflow and product offering, we will continue to hear more and more about the agile publishing model. Agile is a methodology that comes from the software development industry. Its main components are iterative design, rapid prototyping, minimum viable product (MVP), customer feedback loops which provide behavioral and usage analytics and data-driven decision making.
Essentially, the objective of agile is to push things to market more quickly, and to learn from actual usage patterns. The data collected informs subsequent product releases. While this model has yet to be fully realized or articulated in the publishing space, there are components of it which have been the subject of experimentation among publishers. If your company is just starting in agile or is in the midst of implementing an agile workflow, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Get it all in writing first.
While there is ongoing debate about the effectiveness of strict documentation, I feel it's important to have the framework of your development work documented and available for reference. Efficiency in digital product development is achieved when the development team knows what it is building and how to build it. A written record of product requirements and wireframes for each phase of your product is essential to eliminating guesswork and saving time in the development phase. This is crucial because a publishing workflow does and likely always will (at least in the foreseeable future) entail multiple handoffs from different roles in the production process. And these handoffs are where elements of logic or approach can get lost in the shuffle. Clear documentation is a means of sharing the latest information with everyone across your organization.
2. Follow the concepts of minimum viable product (MVP) and incremental iterative improvements.
Digital products are not like physical products: They need to be nurtured after launch and, in many respects, the work on a product is never fully complete. Instead of pushing a product to market and seeing if it's a success, begin planning metered releases, starting with an MVP and subsequent improvements. In the software world, this is called versioning. When planning an MVP and later versions, keep in mind that at each step along the way you will be collecting user data and letting that data inform your next step. This is an essential piece to successful implementation of an agile process.
3. Be ruthless.
Cut any "nice to haves" until they become "must haves." If you can't immediately justify a feature, you don't need it. It will become either essential or unnecessary later.
4. Learn to love data.
Collect data wherever you can find it. Become strict about data. Only make decisions based on data. Data is what makes a successful product. It is easy to let your customers show you (though data collection) what they want and need. Trust this over opinion and individual preference.
5. Stay flexible. Stay current.
Plans should be based on data that you have available to you at each step along the way. If, after release, the data suggest a change in course, follow the data. Plans should be a road map, but as you gather new information, adapt to it. Few products end up exactly as they were conceived during the planning phase.
6. Leave nothing to chance.
Never fail to research an idea or topic. If you begin making decisions based on consensus, you've lost. The goal of agile product development is to always know what your options are. Many times we have to make difficult decisions that force us to compromise on a feature or a piece of functionality. That is okay. In fact, it's inevitable. The decisions you make may not always be optimal from various user perspectives, but the having the ability to make an informed decision is always optimal.
7. Find an equitable balance.
Decision making in an agile context should be about balance. It's important to find the balance between offering the best user experience and responding to your business needs. Sometimes business decisions trump user experience, and vice versa.
8. Establish a direct connection to your customers.
Digital products do best when companies establish and maintain a direct connection to their customers in various ways. For many publishers, the shift from B2B to B2C is a difficult one, but essential to success going forward. And remember, B2C is not just a sales thing. Forging and maintaining a direct and ongoing connection to people who purchase your products is an essential strategy for any business today.
9. Have a point of view about user experience (UX).
User experience is not a set of defined rules that you must follow. Rather, your company should establish your own informed best practices for UX. Start by defining the type of experience you want to deliver to your customers. Make sure everyone on your team is working toward providing a superior experience to your customers in everything they do.
10. Digital is not right for everything.
Just because you can make something digital, does not mean you should. Any digital products your company produces should make sense for your product mix. Each product, digital or not, should have a compelling story of how it fits into your offerings and works toward your bottom line. Formulate a coherent digital strategy.
11. Eat your own dogfood.
This expression comes to us from Microsoft and tells us that we have to use our own products. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer; see what they go through to be your customer. You will never truly understand what a customer feels until you've used a product for yourself.
12. Finally, be agile about agile.
Unlike some other business processes, agile is such that change is not only expected, but encouraged. If something is not working, ditch it. Don't try to cling to processes that don't work for you, as it will just slow you down and make your workflow less efficient. Instead, change, experiment and try new things until you find the right configuration for your organization. BB
Brett Sandusky is the Founder and Principal of bdigitl Media Labs, a consultancy helping companies build smart digital products. His expertise is in user experience design, agile product management, research and data analysis, eCommerce, and mobile applications. Formerly, Brett launched and ran an innovation lab for a major educational publisher focusing on bringing new products to market, usability and user behavioral data. More at bdigitl.com.