May 25, 2018


Having a clear product direction – and understanding the value you provide to clients through your products is the cornerstone of a company’s success.


However, this is not always enough to guarantee success but there are a number of fool-proof ways to make sure to you’re going in the right direction.


But first, here’s a tale of how not to approach product development:


John is the Product Director for New-Retail-Direct Ltd (NRD), a small fashion retail company of 500 staff. The company is successful, but they have challenges around customer engagement, due to the fact that the vast majority of customers use the “guest” checkout journey. John created a new strategy to improve customer engagement by adding a new channel to their Business – an App – which provides additional features that are not available on the web. Internally they have completed App designs that John signed off, followed by the board and the senior team.


John has pitched a new feature called MyNRD, which allows customers to add items they would like to buy in the future, like a wish list. The key to MyNRD is that customers need to sign in to add items to this space and this will lead to NRD creating an account for them. John is aware that the new App will cannibalise sales from the web traffic, but he believes the new MyNRD feature will close the gap on accounts and the additional value is worth it.


They set aside £2m in app development budget and hire a team from a well-known software delivery company, who estimate the design and development as a 1-year project and suggest it is phased for the customer to gain immediate value from the App. NRD, in belief that their approach is correct, request a big bang launch, so they can provide marketing across TV, YouTube and digital marketing platforms.


The App is built perfectly by the software company, on time and on budget.


On the 1st July the project goes live with a large amount of marketing spend. Initially there are a high number of downloads, but customers are still using guest checkout in the App. In a final attempt, John forces a log in at the start of the App journey which reduces sales conversions from 15% of total sale, to 1%. The company now has the maintenance costs of both Web and App, but with a cost-per-acquisition of five times of what the same customer would have cost on the web.


After 3 months in the market, the MyNRD feature is removed as it was unused and the App was a native version of the web site. Apple and Android updates are released and the App deprecated (due to a lack of maintenance). The company moves back to a web strategy only, still with very little understanding of their customers.


Was it the design, the marketing, the management? Or something else? Fundamentally, there were two major issues with John’s approach:


1. John did not focus on the company’s single most important objective (that of creating accounts for Customers)


2. John did not fully understand the customers or the market


These issues are to blame for a high percentage of all project failures but are surprisingly easy to avoid.


Let’s wind back and examine what went wrong:


The great thing about project objectives is that once set, they are unopinionated, direct, measurable and act as a strong project guide. For instance, if the objective on a project was to “increase the amount of times customers pressed X button by 10% within the next quarter”, then making the button more obvious by making it bigger, in plain view and of a primary colour would support this objective. If a suggestion from the board was to hide the button behind a log in, then this would immediately go against the primary objective and the new suggestion could simply be disregarded. Objectives protect all parties in a project and everyone on the project team should be aware of them.

Ok, so now our project has objectives, but are they measurable? ’Develop an App that provides fast product information to our customers in a cost-effective way.’ How fast? To what degree should the App be cost effective? Within what time period? Having this as an objective will not help the project team or the senior stakeholders. Use the SMART framework to ensure you create well stated objectives.


1. Gain agreement from all stakeholders on measurable project objectives.


Once the objectives are agreed, the project team needs to drive them. Looking back at John’s challenge, one suitable objective of this project for 2018 would have been to ‘increase Customer account creation through the App to 500 new accounts per month.’ The App John built to do this may not be transactional, instead it could have been a curated list of items in a glossy magazine-style App, offering discounts on products if accounts are created. This could have been built at a fraction of the cost and would have proved the App strategy. Once proven, Phase 2 may have included transactional elements within the App.


2. Prove your highest risk objective as early as possible


Finally, let’s unpack John’s lack of market knowledge in relation to the other actionable points. John did have some project goals but did not have agreement from the Board or prove his highest risk objective first. Could it be argued that because he did not know the market, the project was going to fail anyway? Possibly. However, it’s important to recognise that in the digital space the market changes in far shorter cycles and whether you’ve been in the business for many years or a few months, your accumulated experience merely reduces how wrong you are about customer behaviour. Only customer interaction with your product will prove the visual and technical design – and by the way, customers are always changing.


If John had completed a very early release, his knowledge of the platform and market would have been far less important, as he would have had real insight of the customer base.


Let’s review the same objective example again – ‘Increase Customer account creation through the App to 500 new accounts per month.’ John’s first release may have reached 100 additional accounts, so change must be identified to grow this objective. After 6 releases, John might be averaging 600 new accounts per month and his objective achieved. However, with the same functionality these statistics could drop over time, so constant evolution must be considered to suit the current user base. This is referred to in certain methodologies as Build, Measure, Learn in a continuous cycle.


3. Release very regularly and ensure releases move you closer to achieving your objectives.


In conclusion


Your business success is not about features, it is about driving business objectives. Anything else is just noise.