Standing on the Edge of Failure

Standing on the Edge of Failure

What will you do when standing on the edge of failure?

Quit? Lie? Scream? Drink? Cry?

Or maybe, you’ll reach out to your partners, team, investors, mentors, significant other, friends, etc. and share the issues you are facing. Chances are they’ll help you through it.

Facing failure alone is scary and challenging. Asking for help makes it easier. And if you’re going to start a company, you’ll stand on that edge often.

Under Promise and Over Deliver? Not Always!

Under Promise and Over Deliver? Not Always!

When you are in the digital product delivery business, you must decide how to communicate with the business and commit to deliverables on a roadmap. The best scenario for everyone is to accurately estimate the scope of work and deliver against it. Almost impossible in a fast changing business with agile development.

The question then becomes whether to over promise and under deliver, or under promise and over deliver. We’ve consistently been taught to do the latter – it’s the safer and less stressful road.

However, when we over promise, we often end up getting much more done. It’s a truth that if you try to get more done, you often do. It just doesn’t always feel that way. When we over promise, we often miss dates, end up cutting promised scope, and risk burning out the team. That’s why we need to partner with the business to over promise together, with a clear set of expectations.

Together we can decide to overpromise. If the time comes where it is clear we won’t meet all the deliverables in the allotted timeframe, we decide together. Cut lower priority deliverables? Miss the date? Or just reduce the scope on current deliverables?

This is why at DGDean we believe in over promising and almost delivering. Specifically, we believe that in working with the business as a team we can:

Get more done over the short term — Market opportunities may be short-lived, and getting there as quickly as possible is imperative

Get more done over the long term — Provide a realistic view of the team capacity, without burning them out

Get the right things done — Knowing that some things won’t make the launch will help prioritize what’s most important

Launch it and learn from it — Getting leaner product features out more quickly allows for earlier learnings to drive product development

Make mistakes and move on — Not all initiatives are winners, so it’s better not to take too long to find out

The only way to be successful with this approach is to collaborate with the business. To set these expectations and own the process, together. Both business and technology must understand that there needs to be flexibility in the process, that there will be trade offs throughout, and that mistakes will be made. When we agree on this approach the entire team wins, and the business is better positioned for success.



Culture is Key to Start-up Success

Culture is Key to Start-up Success

by Chris Dowling

One of the best things about starting your own business is that you get to (try to) build whatever type of company you want — including the culture. Everybody has been in organizations where the overall culture and values — or at least certain management styles — were more toxic than not, and a lack of leadership undermined employee morale and performance. So why would you want to see that in your own business?

Surprisingly, start-ups and closely-held businesses often fail to instill values and foster a culture conducive to a positive and productive working environment. I’ve seen many small businesses where the organization’s culture was defined by the dynamic and dysfunction of its founders. In start-ups, where long hours, tight deadlines and high stress are the norm — and where high-performance and passion are critical to success — low morale and high turnover can be a recipe for disaster.

In a start-up, it’s easy to place the focus on whatever the shortest path is to get things done and meet critical deadlines, launches and milestones. But if you’re not careful, you can end up with an organization that lacks a clear set of cultural values or leadership practices, and a staff that’s not motivated or empowered to do their best work. Here are some ways to prevent this:

Write it down — think about what kind of culture you want for your organization, and write down a set of cultural principles and company values you want to aspire to for your employees, customers and partners

Include the team — communicate your cultural principles and company values to your employees, and take steps to get feedback and buy-in from them

Show you’re invested — commit to actions the company will take to instill and uphold cultural principles and values

Empower your employees — allow them the freedom to perform in the roles they were hired for, and give them room to make mistakes and learn from them

Foster accountability — establish standards of trust and independence among employees, and strive to weed out those who consistently fail to live up to it

Hire carefully — when hiring for key roles, especially those in management positions, make sure have you a clear understanding of a candidate’s leadership style and skills, and that they align with your desired values

Walk the walk — strive to embody the values you want to instill in your organization in your daily actions and communications

Celebrate success — take the time to recognize great work and contributions

Taking the time to define, communicate and instill your start-up’s cultural principles may seem like a luxury compared to launching, marketing and selling your products and services. However, if you don’t take the time to do it up front, you may not get a second chance.

Start-up Success is Higher With User Research —  5 Things You Need to Know

Start-up Success is Higher With User Research — 5 Things You Need to Know

Marketing organizations big and small are talking about data-driven design and decision making — leveraging user research and analytics to optimize user experiences, increase marketing campaign effectiveness and improve products — with the ultimate goal of winning and retaining new customers. For start-ups with digital products or those reliant on digital marketing, where platforms are new and resources are limited, putting user research processes and analytics tracking in place can be overwhelming and get put on the back burner in order to meet launch deadlines. Unfortunately, this can have immediate consequences in the form of poor customer experiences, poor conversion rates, negative user feedback, and business requests for user behavior for which there is no data available. Understanding what makes up user research and where it belongs in the process can help start-up organizations build it into their culture from the start.

Objectivity is the Goal

First off, what is user research? Put simply, user research should help drive design decisions and can consist of any feedback, observations, research results or user data that helps provide an understanding of how users behave and their needs, motivations and expectations. User research — the cornerstone of every good UX design practice — is observable, objective and actionable. Whether incorporating usability studies, leveraging web/mobile analytics, performing A/B testing, or looking at survey results, the key word here is objective. It is all too easy in a start-up environment — where product team makeups may be less formal or sophisticated and input may come from various sources — to respond to anecdotal or subjective feedback. Often confused with market research (i.e., what people say or want), user research findings are based on what people actually do when they interact with an interface.

Informal Efforts Can Uncover Big Findings

For start-ups, user research doesn’t have to be formal or sophisticated to be objective or effective. For example, when putting a product flow or digital marketing flow in place, getting feedback on paper printouts or PDF prototypes are easy ways to find out if a user experience is intuitive or not. Gathering feedback in this way can be done without investing time or resources in testing technologies or leaving the office — simply by asking co-workers outside of the project team or a few customers in the local Starbucks to walk through a flow and provide feedback. It doesn’t take more than half a dozen people to uncover issues and get meaningful feedback that can greatly improve a digital or product experience (a small sample size of 5-7 people will generally uncover a large percentage of standard navigation or functional usability issues).

Know What You Want to Test and Keep it Simple

Whether formal or informal, it is important to have specific objectives about what you are trying to learn. What part of the user flow is most critical to your marketing or revenue goals? How simple is it for users to get through it? Can they find what they are being asked to look for? Can they get through the tasks they need to in order to complete a transaction? Knowing the specific questions you want answered will provide more meaningful findings, and will enable you to filter out more subjective feedback (for example, “I don’t like that color” or “I don’t like that font”). Also, don’t try to test too many different things in one study. Keeping tests simple will keep participants focused on the critical areas you need feedback on, and make reporting the findings more efficient and effective.

Connect Study Feedback with User Analytics Data

Once user behavior metrics are available (via third-party and or internal analytics platforms), connecting usability feedback with user analytics will provide the clearest insights into user behavior. It’s possible for user analytics data to contradict study or anecdotal feedback, showing that critical flows or functions are in fact being completed at high frequencies, even though study participants (or family and friends) provided negative feedback on a user flow. Some user experience flows will have a learning curve, requiring some (though ideally minimal) trial and error on the user’s part before the behavior becomes second nature. It’s easy for negative feedback from the field or during sales presentations to set the alarm bells ringing, but it doesn’t always align with the real story. While numbers can tell you what is happening, user research can shed light on the reasons why it’s happening.

Better Early Than Late

In a perfect world, user research and analytics processes are incorporated up front during the design and development process. This is easier said than done in start-ups, as limited resources and tight deadlines can lead to this work effort being deemed less than critical. However, not accounting for it up front ALWAYS creates more work or rework in the end. Knowing whether a design flow actually works before implementing it sounds like a no brainer, but this is all too often not the case in organizations of all sizes. When it comes to user analytics, it is also important to have up-front discussions on key success metrics, to understand benchmarks and set targets, and then to make sure pages or screens are instrumented correctly to capture the data. Analytics software packages can only do so much on their own, and too often experiences are launched with no mechanisms in place to capture data critical to understanding business success or failure.

For start-ups, it’s important to remember that robust and accurate reporting on user behavior doesn’t happen overnight. Different platforms and databases will need to be integrated, and there will be limitations of certain platforms in providing a complete picture. It is therefore important to start out with the core behaviors and metrics that are critical to business and marketing success, and make sure they are being measured and reported accurately. From there, as existing product features are being updated and new product features are being rolled out, more formal and regular user research processes can be put into place, with additional resources and capabilities added as necessary. Ultimately, the ideal end-state is to build research, testing and optimization into the day-to-day culture of the organization. Your customers, and your business, may depend on it.




I Wish I had that idea....

I Wish I had that idea....

“I wish I had that idea.”

I often hear people say that when talking about the latest start-up that got acquired or went public. The reality is, in most start-up situations, many people already did. But only a few have what it takes to make it successful.

What does it take to turn a great idea into a successful business? It takes dedication, sacrifice and relentless execution. It requires believing in yourself and your idea in the face of failure and critics, and convincing others to do so as well. It takes having the right relationships, partners and friends. It takes risk, and it takes a little luck. Above all, it takes the passion to live your idea every day.  The next time you say, “I have this great idea”, ask yourself if you’re willing to go all in. If so, start looking for the right partners.

PS - The good news here is that you don't have to be the first person to have an idea. You just have to be one of the best to bring it alive.

Your customer sees one digital experience — so it better be seamless

Your customer sees one digital experience — so it better be seamless

By Chris Dowling

A few years back I was admiring a friend’s new paddleboard — and the deal he got on it — and he sent me to I went to the site and discovered The Clymb, a provider of outdoor goods, apparel and adventure travel and basically an awesome place to get cool gear at a discount. After registering to become a member, I began to receive their marketing emails. After a few months I still hadn’t found the board I was interested in, and this was typically the point where I would have unsubscribed from their email list. But for some reason I didn’t. I have since received over 1,000 emails from them, and have only ended up making a handful of purchases — tee shirts, hats, and most importantly an Arbor Fish Skateboard (at 50% off). So what is it that keeps me opening their emails and clicking through to their site on a regular basis?

It finally occurred to me one day. Sure, their value proposition was aligned with my interests. But they nailed something more powerful and effective: a seamless digital customer experience. I click through their emails from my desktop or from my mobile device, and I access their ecommerce experience from the Web and their native app. I have referred their site and shared their products via social and email. While their brand is consistent across all these channels, including their various social sites, it’s the seamless look, feel and navigation of their email, onsite (both pre- and post-registration) and app experiences that I find most impressive. It could not have happened by accident.

As a start-up, you must differentiate your brand and product with a superior customer experience. While your primary product may be offered on a single channel or platform, such as a web-based or mobile app, your product experience doesn't start and end there. It starts the moment your customer sees your first ad, arrives on your homepage, and begins interacting with your brand. So even if you optimize the user experience for your primary channel, your prospects and customers are going to engage with your brand and product across multiple digital channels — and to them, it’s all one experience.

Your prospects and customers are searching on Google, browsing the Web, using native apps, receiving emails and engaging and sharing on multiple social media sites — and they are doing it from their desktops, tablets and mobile devices. Whether or not you are in control of the user experience for these channels, your customers are interacting with you there. Too often, however, businesses still treat these various channels as silos, with different teams and vendors managing them. The product team may be focused on Web or mobile apps. Digital marketing may be focused on email and social. Sales and marketing may be focused on the company Web site. Different tech teams may be supporting each channel, or the same tech team may be interacting with each business team separately.

So why do brands struggle to deliver integrated cross-channel customer experiences? Creating a modern and seamless digital experience for your customers is hard work, and requires the following:

  • Developing a long-term vision of the entire customer experience — understanding how and when users will interact with the brand and products across all channels, and from what devices
  • Up-front and ongoing collaboration between Product, Marketing, Sales and Tech
  • Integrated and flexible UX and visual design processes, with a mobile-first mindset
  • Understanding up-front what data needs to be captured for each channel, and how data from individual channels and platforms will be integrated
  • Gathering and leveraging user research for ongoing optimization

Essentially, a focus on customer experience must be a part of the company’s core strategy, mission and culture.

Most digital professionals today would agree that a Web site or digital product should be architected with a mobile-first approach. But it doesn’t stop there. In a modern customer experience, your mobile-friendly Web site should be seamless with your native app. Your marketing emails should be seamless with your onsite and mobile experiences, with little or no disconnect on click-through. Customers should be recognized and experiences should be personalized across onsite and native. Customer referral and user registration processes should also be seamless across platforms. Users who find you through search, social, sharing and paid advertising should follow a consistent conversion path, and pre-and post-registration experiences should feel connected.

The customer is not the only beneficiary of an integrated digital experience. Siloed customer experiences for different channels will lead to siloed customer data and analytics. Providing a seamless cross-channel customer experience will ensure that you have a single view of your customer across all channels. This means richer user profiles and better insights on user behavior and interests, allowing for more personalization across channels and more profitable campaigns and interactions. Don’t make assumptions about how your customers will engage with your brand, content or products. Understand each possible user flow within and across each digital channel and commit to making it seamless. And wear a helmet when skateboarding at night. 

What's (Not) Next?

What's (Not) Next?

As a start-up, you have a million things you think you HAVE to do. Choosing the ones not to work on will determine your success.

Almost Ready? To Release or Not to Release

Almost Ready? To Release or Not to Release

by Chris Dowling

That killer feature you’ve been working on is almost ready. That's right, almost. Almost ready can be more frustrating than not ready, because when something is not ready, at least you know where you stand. With almost ready, you're not sure if you're going to make the release schedule, or almost make it.

At a start-up with a digital product, there are always going to be situations where a feature is scheduled to be released, but isn’t quite ready. Whether some of the functionality hasn’t been fully completed, or there are known bugs arising that will impact end users, the business and technology teams will be faced with a decision on whether to release the update or push the deadline. It is important to consider several factors when making this decision, and taking the following steps will provide a sound basis to make the right call.

Articulate and communicate known issues

Product releases are rarely perfect, and even with the most rigorous QA and UAT there is always some level of risk when pushing product updates live. The first step is for the technology team to outline and understand the known issues and work with the business to define which are showstoppers. A quick prioritization of the critical nature of each issue and a high-level estimate on the level of effort for the high-priority issues will make these discussions more productive.

Weigh the impact to the end user

When determining whether an issue is a showstopper, the business and tech team will need to work together to define the universe of end users that will be impacted, and to understand exactly how the user experience will be impacted for that user base. What is the exact user flow that will be negatively affected? How common is the use case? How does the use case relate to the critical flows of the product experience?  Are the core flows of the experience compromised? The answers to these questions will help identify whether the issue is a fringe case or part of the core user experience. When quantifying the overall universe impacted by a known issue, it is important to understand the platforms and product versions that are impacted and to pull data on the actual number or percentage of users — ideally being able to distinguish active users in the process. Also to be considered is the estimated adoption of the updated version by the current user base or new users before it can be addressed in a future release.

Weigh the exposure in the field

The next thing to consider is the how long the version will be live in the field until the issue can be resolved in an upcoming release. Understanding how long it will take for the development team to resolve and test the issue, and when the next opportunity is for a full or patch release will provide this answer. Delays with certain platforms and channels — such as an iOS mobile app which depends on turnaround time for the iTunes Store review and approval process — must also be taken into consideration.

Weigh the impact to the technology road map

One of the critical risks of holding up a release is the impact it will have on the delivery of the product development roadmap. If a release is held up for the further development, testing and resolution of a showstopper issue, time and resources will be diverted away from the next release, causing a ripple effect and putting future delivery dates in jeopardy. Even if it’s just one issue that needs to be resolved, QA will still need to functionally test the entire feature set of the release again and perform a full regression test to ensure that fixes don’t impact other product areas. The business and technology team need to understand this ripple effect and weigh it accordingly.

Make an educated decision and take calculated risk

At the end of the day, a start-up needs to get a minimum viable product into the marketplace as quickly as possible, and continue to roll out the features and functionality that will allow it to compete, differentiate, and position the company for success. When it comes to product releases, the ability to separate acceptable known issues from showstoppers that hold up a release will be critical to long-term success. In the short-term, done is better than perfect — especially in an agile environment where gathering learnings from the field and applying them quickly to future updates should be the norm. Having the process in place to make educated decisions and take calculated risks during the release process will lead to a better product faster down the road. 

Want to know how to network? Some simple steps

Want to know how to network? Some simple steps

I always find it a bit ironic that the advice given to someone looking for a job is to network. The time to network is when you don't need something. This becomes obvious when you look at the steps to building a successful network:

1) Truly like and enjoy talking and listening to people.

2) Call someone and invite them to lunch, dinner, drinks or just have a conversation over the phone.

3) Ask them about their business, their family, their life.

4) Listen

5) Identify opportunities where someone you know can help this person with one of their issues or problems. Ask permission to connect the two.

6) Call, email or otherwise introduce the person who can help to the person who needs help.

7) Expect nothing in return.

Think about what you've just done. You've helped two people. Do you think they will be more likely to take your calls in the future? 

Expect nothing back, because often, that's what you'll get. That's OK. You'll get something out of it anyway.

Do this enough and you'll have built a powerful network.



Start-up Success is Higher with the Right Product Person

Start-up Success is Higher with the Right Product Person

by Chris Dowling

“Our competitor just added this feature.” “This prospect won’t sign up until this feature is in place.” “Can we add more pictures or video here?” “My wife thinks it would be better if it worked like this.” “I don’t like this color.”

How do you cut through the noise and keep your product development and delivery resources focused on what’s important? As a start-up with a digital product, the investment in and optimization of your development resources will be critical to your success. To get the most out of your finite resources and development efforts, it is important to dedicate the right business resource to the product development process.

While you are likely to have a dedicated digital producer or technical project manager, it is important to have a strong leader on the business team who can speak for the business as a whole. A strong product person will drive and prioritize initiatives that are in line with strategic business objectives, and will serve as an evangelist for the customer experience. Their role will be to process the various inputs and feedback, filter out the noise and keep development efforts focused on what’s important to the business and customers.

Without this dedicated person in place to provide cover, the floodgate of technology requests, requirements and feedback will be open — from executives and advisors, clients and sales reps, marketing and customer support and even friends and family of executives — without the proper priority attached to them. This often leads to an overwhelmed and unfocused development team, slowing down their ability to deliver.

A strong tech lead/digital producer/technical project manager will always ask ‘Why?’ when receiving feature requests or requirements, and push back when they don’t seem in line with business priorities or customer needs. However, without a product owner, the process usually breaks down over time. The product lead and tech lead must have a collaborative relationship with strong communication, always staying in synch on objectives and priorities, to ensure the most effective use of development resources.

In a start-up, failure to prioritize around key business objectives can be fatal. The resulting costly delays and poor product experience can doom a new company. While employees in start-ups will invariably wear many hats, it is critical for the business to put a strong product leader in place to work with the technology team on executing the product roadmap. Your customers, and your business, may depend on it.