Whether you are a tech entrepreneur, a small startup or a large brand, we’ve all wondered where to begin when you are designing a new product. The onboarding? The CEO’s wish list of features? A detailed prototype?
At Prolific we are often tasked with helping partners pinpoint ideas and features for a mobile app that will not only resonate with a set of customers, but also reflect the brand and meet business objectives. Our solution is to start with an innovation team.
What is an Innovation Team?
The main goals of an innovation team is to understand the mobile user for a brand, define a problem, test ideas rapidly and iterate on feedback. The end result is a fully vetted mobile product idea that is ready to go into production. The entire process ranges from two to three months with a team of five to six people composed of UX Designers, Product Designers, Strategists and Product Owners (the brand’s stakeholders).
Iterating on Innovation Teams
At Prolific, we are always aiming to learn and iterate. This blog documents some of my attempts at reexamining, testing and refining how we run brainstorms and innovation projects. The book Sprint talks in depth about how Google Ventures (GV) helps funded startups lead, test, and measure success when it comes to ideas.
Recruiting a Day-to-Day Team
As a mobile agency that operates on our own flavor of agile, recruiting a star team is the critical first step towards success. We focus on choosing individuals from diverse backgrounds and experiences that work well together to maximize opinions and perspectives in the process. Next, we add in the product owners and stakeholders from the partner’s side who serve as great resources and champions for the product and brand. Product owners are required to be involved in the day-to-day team, and while we encourage stakeholders to be as involved as possible, they are often just involved in weekly or bi-monthly check ins.
The key trait of GV’s way of composing a team is that they require a “Decider” or a high level stakeholder to be present in all sprint related activities, and hold the authority to veto ideas or get behind them. This allows the team to move quickly in a limited period of time and prevents the team from going down a path that may not pan out for reasons such as legal hurdles or cost.
Prolific meets regularly with high level stakeholders (often the “Deciders” in our innovation process) using concept check-in presentations or sharing UX summaries weekly. Having a top decision maker involved in all the steps can help save weeks of time when in a crunch.
Gather Data & Stakeholder Interviews
Our internal innovation team starts gathering data, meeting and sharing knowledge about the partner internally a week or so before the innovation team kicks off. In this process, we dive deep into the core values of the brand, read any persona research that exists, learn the business goals and evaluate competitors – all from a mobile lens.
The key difference here between GV Sprints and Prolific Innovation teams is that GV is often brought into help a startup solve a very specific part of the puzzle, and often have the user journey mapped out before turning to stakeholder interviews – allowing them to really streamline the process. Whereas at Prolific, we tend to keep our focus broad, then hone in on mobile specific questions when interviewing stakeholders.
One aspect about the Prolific process, that GV doesn’t mention, is trying to determine what the definition of a successful innovation team is to each stakeholder. In my experience, stakeholders often have varied answers, but it’s incredibly useful information to build on. If I were to incorporate one thing from GVs process into ours, it would be to assess the product further through the lens of market conditions and risk at time of product launch, in addition to the opportunities and risks from a user, brand and competitive perspective.
The approach to structured thinking was my favorite part of the Sprint book. It included quick tips that we were able to implement during a two-hour reformed brainstorm for a specific problem we were working on for one of our partners. You can see some of the action in the video below:
The most surprising, but effective tip, was not to brainstorm collectively, but to brainstorm on a singular topic individually in a time boxed manner. Research backs that solutions individuals come up with are less censored, more creative, and often much better than solutions that are agreed upon in groups.Another great piece of advice was to structure assumptions and unknowns in a “How might we…?” question. Rephrasing assumptions as questions helps shift the team mindset from uncertainty to curiosity, and I found that it increases team morale. At Prolific, validating assumptions through UX happens naturally later in the process, but I love the idea of adopting this upfront.
No Idea Left Unsketched
The Prolific process, similar to GVs relies quite heavily on sketching out ideas. We find that the more abstract an idea is, the harder it is to evaluate. So after a short time-boxed brainstorm, and affinity mapping similar ideas, each team member adopts a feature or solution to roughly sketch out a few key screens to capture the essence of the concept.
Here is where the GV approach diverges. Instead of pitching ideas to the team in a Shark Tank-esque fashion, the sketches and explanations are stuck on a wall and voted on using stickers. The argument is that it’s easier to choose the best ideas and critique them when individuals are not thinking about if they came from a CEO or someone less experienced. While the sticker method may have biases, like people being drawn to ideas with the most votes, we are interested in testing and incorporating our own version of sticker-voting into future sprints.
Finally, once we have narrowed down two to three winning ideas, the Product Designer designs the screens using Sketch, then the UX designer turns them into interactive prototypes using services like inVision or Flinto that allow us to show the prototype on a phone and mimic what a real app would react like.
Test & Iterate
Over the course of a few weeks, the UX team helps recruit what we believe to be the target user for the app. The UX researcher starts out by writing a screener that will point us to individuals who fit the target user. After which, we work with our partner and often an outside recruitment agency to find the perfect fit. The initial stage of recruitment is based on any persona work, analytics or customer insight data the partner has available.
We closely observe everything from what other competitive apps the users are fans of, to if they get the navigation of the app, to if the concept fits a need in their life. Based on the responses, we are constantly evolving the prototypes each week, sometimes within the same day to move rapidly in determining the winning concept that sticks.
Doing the testing over a few weeks, instead of in just a day like in a GV sprint, we not only get a larger breadth of users, but are able to iterate on the user testing process. The process not only helps us validate for a good product market fit, but helps define the initial marketing direction.
From this point onwards, we are very close to having all we need to start development on a great mobile app!
Have you read the Sprint book and applied any of the ideas? Did you feel skeptical of the process? We’d love to hear how other teams are refining processes or coming up with great ideas using the concepts and structure explored in the book, so leave us some comments below.