In the start-up community, it's common to hear variations of the mantra, 'Ship early, ship often!' Startups come up with a new idea, slim it down to a minimum shippable product, launch it, analyse the data, and then iterate.
Don't be too quick to follow the mantra though. As with all of rules, you can't apply it everywhere and all of the time. Here's our guide to streamlining your product launch.
01. Test your hypotheses
On the surface, the 'ship early, ship now' idea seems like an excellent way to build great products. But, having worked with many startups at Google Ventures, it has become clear that this methodology is riddled with problems:
- Testing hypotheses by shipping products is time-consuming and expensive. Even at a nimble startup, shipping a major product in a month is considered really fast. And inevitably, some will then fail.
- Launches are hard to abort. Once you invest time in engineering a solution, it is difficult to step back to reconsider a risky product rationally.
- Analysing post-launch data is a messy business. Even if you can decipher if a product is successful or not, it's very difficult to interpret why that's the case.
- Bad features are hard to roll back – at least a few users will embrace them. Even if you successfully remove them, code remnants will litter your work for years.
Iteration is often de-prioritised in the face of new challenges, so people frequently leave products to fester instead of improving them.
At Google Ventures, we shortcut the typical 'ship early, ship often' cycle in a way that keeps the benefits and mitigates the problems: we skip over the build and launch phases and rely on prototyping with user research.
In five days or less, a small team ideates, prototypes and tests significant hypotheses. At the end of a week, it is clear which ideas work, which need improvement, and which are a waste of design time. We call this a ‘design sprint', and there are few keys to the process.
02. Get the right people
We try to get between five and 12 people in the room. They're a combination of the people you'd expect (design, product, engineering) and people you might not, like your CEO, business development and customer service reps.
Your business development person knows what it takes to close a deal, your frontline customer service people hear about inefficiencies in your product, and your CEO can see the big picture in the marketplace. If possible, we gather everyone in a secluded war room for the duration of the sprint so we can avoid distractions.
03. Create time pressure
One of the reasons that startups establish a shipping culture is to create time pressure – it's easier for people to rally towards a date. In a design sprint we try to create the same sense of urgency … on steroids.
On Monday, we schedule five user studies to take place on Friday. At this point, we don't even know what problem we're going to tackle but a bomb is going to go off on Friday and the fuse is lit, so we have to hustle.
04. Choose a smart problem
With the fuse lit, it's time to choose what problem to solve. We sketch out the user story like a comic strip that illustrates the product flow and look for big question marks like, 'People will probably be confused by X'.
Areas of great risk are also excellent ones to prototype – for example, 'If people don't comprehend our pricing structure, we'll go out of business'. By the end of the first day, we have a nice meaty problem in hand.
Next page: five more tips that will streamline your product launch...