The best and most successful digital products go through a cycle of building, analysis and iteration over time to become what they are. Remember what Instagram was like when it first came out? Do you find the user experience to be significantly different now? Let’s hope so. That’s because Instagram’s product managers have continued to iterate over the years and delivered continuous value to users based on feedback, especially as their needs and desires for the product have transformed.
So why is iterating so beneficial? In a nutshell, continuous iteration gives product managers, solution owners and developers the ability to:
- Visualize, review, test and enhance.
- Pivot when necessary.
- Reprioritize quickly.
If you use any digital products or services regularly, you’re already keenly aware of the benefits to end-users.
To explain it in a little more detail, let’s look at the analogy of cooking. If you’ve ever cooked before, you know that the process goes somewhat like this:
- You’re looking to solve a problem. You’re hungry (or are cooking for family or friends).
- You look for potential solutions. You find a few recipes, ideally some with pictures.
- You validate whether the solution is feasible and marketable. You check if you have all the ingredients (or if not, where and how you can get them). You also determine if you have enough time and get confirmation from “users” if they want it.
- You conduct some tests. You will try the food while cooking to make sure it’s well seasoned. You may ask the “user” to taste test along the way.
- You use feedback for enhancement. Based on feedback from the taste test, you adjust the seasoning or process as necessary.
Now let’s dive into the three stages of continuous iteration, and the benefits of each, when building products that customers will love.
1. Visualize, Review, Test and Enhance
Clearly, the process of making food isn’t very different from making digital products. You’re solving a problem for which you hypothesize some solutions, narrow down ones that you feel will be best, confirm with potential users and check technical feasibility. You share designs (or wireframes) to test and collect additional user feedback and enhance as necessary.
Unlike in cooking though, the key difference — and primary benefit — is that, once your product is built you can continue to iterate, quickly adapt to users’ needs and make it better. Once the product is out, unlike food, it’s not perishable. On the contrary, products that go through this process often become better over time.
One example of this is a product that’s gained adoption due to the pandemic: Miro. The virtual whiteboarding tool, which allows users to contribute and share notes in real time, has seen impressive uptake since people shifted to remote working and lacked in-person collaboration. According to a recent survey of 4,100 designers, Miro went from 5 percent to 33 percent usage from 2019 to 2020.
But if you used Miro a year or more ago, you might not even recognize it now. The company’s product teams are quick to continuously collect user feedback and test updated solutions in beta to monitor performance and feature adoption. As an active user of Miro over the last few months alone, I’ve seen the product evolve with new enhancements, which have made it easier for my team to collaborate actively on a number of different boards.
For instance, Miro’s use of a community of users to add newer templates for many different types of processes saves users the time required to create new frames for guided discussions. This shows how product managers can utilize direct (surveys, contact forms) and indirect feedback (social media, bounce rate), using tools like Pendo, Full Story or other product analytics solutions, to iterate on their product.
2. Pivot When Necessary
Airbnb started as a provider of housing during conferences so attendees could get cheaper accommodation. But the founders soon realized that the market wasn’t large enough and the business wasn’t sustainable. As they iterated through the product, they understood the real opportunity wasn’t in providing accommodation to conference attendees, but rather offering accommodation to travelers looking for a unique local experience.
The three founders of Airbnb never would’ve reached this conclusion and pivoted had they not started Airbnb as a platform for conference attendees. It was only after iterating through the product that they discovered the tech-enabled service that Airbnb has become today.
Iterating does not always lead to such drastic pivots. Smaller pivots, in terms of original features being researched and planned, are not uncommon. If users aren’t very receptive to the solution or indicate (directly or indirectly) the provided solution isn’t the best fit to solve the problem at hand, it gives the opportunity to businesses, and in particular to product managers, to rethink the solution. This saves valuable time, money and effort, which may have otherwise been wasted on building something that the customers won’t buy.
3. Reprioritize Quickly
I previously worked on delivering 3G mobile internet products for the second-largest mobile phone service provider in Bangladesh, Robi Axiata Limited. Prepaid subscribers would type a short code to activate a mobile internet pack (thereby allocating some megabytes of data to their cell phone account). We were delivering products to the market that hit different price points and hypothesized that the majority of our subscribers were digitally immature. Therefore, we gave them cheaper products, lowering the barriers to entry.
After seeing quick success with a portion of the subscriber base, the growth rate declined due to a lack of education. A significant number of subscribers were unaware of the uses of the internet, how to access content on the internet or even just how to activate a mobile internet pack.
But that was just a secondary problem. The primary issue was making subscribers realize the value the internet adds like the different types of content available to subscribers and the ability to use internet-enabled mobile solutions to solve problems like access to different local and international news sources.
In response, we reprioritized our roadmap to deliver more relevant content in addition to low-cost mobile internet packs. At the time, Facebook was trying to get a foothold in the Bangladeshi market. So we partnered with Facebook, which offered content and mobile applications based on user feeds, to release products that focused on the use of its mobile app on Robi’s network.
One such product was a Facebook pack. It allowed users to access the Facebook app free of charge, removing some user fears around getting charged due to an action they could take without understanding it. When the user realized that, with products like the Facebook internet pack, they were not going to lose money from their prepaid account, they were more willing to experiment and learn.
This, along with releasing retail products, allowed the growth rate to increase again. The use of rural retailers to sell products was important for product strategy because these retailers could educate users about how to activate a mobile internet product.
Because we had broken down aspects of our entire solution, we were able to shift from what we originally thought would be a priority (lower-priced internet packs) to becoming more reactive to user needs (education on digital products). It was therefore through iterations that we attained necessary feedback, by putting the product in front of the customers quickly and seeing the results through adoption numbers.
Keeping the User Experience at the Heart of All Operations
Product managers don’t normally have revolutionary ideas straight out of the gate. Instead, we break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable ones and find simpler and executable solutions to those specific challenges. Throughout the process, we iterate to better understand problems, enhance solutions, discover new issues and improve the user’s experience. That is why the best and most successful digital products go through that cycle of building, analysis and iteration.