Last week NUMA Paris co-organised and hosted Google Launchpad Week.Thirteen early-stage startups experienced five days of intensive acceleration delivered through workshops, presentations and face to face mentoring with forty international experts from different fields of expertise: product strategy, marketing, user experience and technology.
For each of these areas, the startups were pushed to identify their biggest challenges, uncover their methodological shortcomings and develop an effective framework going forward.
We decided to have a chat with some of them and ask a simple question:“What have you learned?”
From feature-driven to value-driven development
Read, as the name unambiguously suggests, develops an e-book reading application. When asked about their learnings the three cofounders told us their biggest achievement came from realising that their approach to product development had to be inverted: from inside-out to outside-in.
“We started developing the product with ourselves as the target customer, this limited our perspective and created a very subjective and intimate relationship with the product”
Developing a solution to your own problems certainly has its advantages, asPaul Graham puts it: “among other things, it ensures the problem really exists”. As obvious as this may sound, developing a solution to a nonexistent problem is still a common cause of failure among startups.
On the other hand starting from your own needs has its side effects too. By developing an ideal solution for themselves the Read team acquired a two-sided ownership: creators and beneficiaries. In a closed, self-satisfying feedback loop where the entrepreneur is also the customer, building new features doesn’t require external demand and progress becomes hard to measure because the satisfaction of completing new features overshadows value-driven customer satisfaction.
Even with a proof of problem existence, failing to disconnect from continually adding features based on self-assigned priorities can quickly drive a product off-course from the promised land of problem/solution fit.
Good design delivers value
A second side effect was an inversion of the value-design causal chain. Read’s initial ambition was to develop the best possible reading experience for phones and tablets. Having user experience as a core value is a good reflex, but a trap that lies within is equating design with value.
Having developed a very intimate relationship with their creation, the Read team subconsciously attributed intrinsic value to its design, seeing aesthetic finesse and features breadth as measures of progress.
During the product mentoring sessions, through the use of detailed user personas the team managed to externalise and objectivise the problems they aimed at solving and distill a customer value proposition.
This change of perspective brought the realisation that rather than a value in itself, good design is only worthy when it delivers value to customers effectively.
Uncomfortable by design
Launchpad Week is a no-excuses environment, dealing with the uncomfortable starts with the question “have you talked to your customers?”
Kwalito is a mobile application that verifies the composition of food products according to your requirements in 1 second. Pierre, the cofounder, told us that during Launchpad he learned to go from knowing what to do to actually doing it.
“I knew that talking to customers was important, I just never did it outside of my circle, at Launchpad I was compelled to do it in order to answer the questions that mentors were asking about usage”
Not only the Kwalito team talked to customers, but it did it in context by approaching them while they were shopping at an organic food store. This allowed them to test how their solution fit into a real-life scenario and uncover insights that would have been hard to stumble upon otherwise.
Life outside your product
“Up to this point our main source of information were analytics. This told us how people were using our app, but not much about their behaviour and daily life habits outside of our product”
Adam Berk, a product strategy mentor and lean startup practitioner notes that meeting customers can only result in a success.
“Even if customer research doesn’t yield meaningful results, the simple act of trying it removes that initial block most entrepreneurs have when speaking to customers. The act itself is an accomplishment.”
The difference between learning about the benefits of conducting customer interviews and actually experiencing them for yourself is that the latter has a permanent effect on your business.
Pierre, the CEO of Kwalito, learned this first hand while interviewing a customer at the store, discovering that people with life-threatening allergies had very different habits to what he assumed.
“This person was buying a single bag of flour, I asked him why and he told us that given his many allergies it was simpler and safer for him to order products he already knew online. Our value proposition simply didn’t fit with his habits because at the store he always bought the same product”
Talking to customers in context not only reveals whether your product succeeds in solving their problem, it can help define the boundaries of the market you address. Kwalito may decide that people with extreme allergies are not their early adopters, which in turn would inform their customer acquisition strategy.
Formalising user research
As a student of psychology, talking to people is second nature for Flavien. So we were surprised by his response when we asked what the Pandascore team had learned at Launchpad:
“I learned to conduct user research. Not to say that I didn’t talk to users before, but there is a subtle yet important difference between having a conversation and conducting research”
Pandascore aims at providing e-sports fans with in-depth, real-time data about their favorite games.
Being a gamer and e-sports fan himself, Flavien spent a lot of time talking to fellow gamers, what he learned from the mentoring sessions was that talking to users is just half of the job.
Without a framework to acquire and process user insights in meaningful ways, user research is just chit-chat. In order to make something actionable out of a round of research a few guidelines had to be put in place.
From user insights to product strategy
“First, we defined what we needed to learn using an experiment board, we made a testable assumption to validate: gamers are unsatisfied with existing e-sports information sources. We set a threshold that would tell us whether our assumptions were realistic: twelve out of twenty users interviews would hint at problems. Finally we used a readapted version of Tomer Sharon’s rainbow spreadsheet to gather, sort and identify patterns in user insights.”
By conducting the interviews in a more structured way, Flavien was able to package user insights in a format from which clear conclusions could be drawn.
“Most fans who can’t watch a live streaming would try to keep up with scores in real time on Twitter or with SMS messages from friends, this hints at a sub-optimal experience. Another insight is the difficulty they were having in contextualising matches in the bigger narrative of the tournament because of data shallowness, it turned out to be a recurring issues”
By quantifying the occurrence of negative experiences Pandascore could start defining the core pain relievers of their solution.
Function-centered vs. meaning-centered design
Both Kwalito and Pandascore described how they came out of UX day with useful tools to look at the design of their product not only from a function-centered, but also from meaning-centered perspective.
“A mentor showed us an example of a clever data visualisation about nutrition where pie charts were made out of actual food, I realised that Kwalito’s design was too functional and failed to convey this depth of meaning and emotion. A well-rounded product needs to integrate these aspects in its design”
The teams went through a brand values mapping exercise, basically a mind map of the core values of their enterprise culture and product value propositions.
“This cartography of our values is a very useful base for working with a designer to help us conceive an interface that is not only efficient in the practical sense, but can resonate with the customer at a deeper level”
The underlying idea is that people buy why companies do things rather than what they do or how they do them. Working out a mapping of their brand and product values Kwalito and Pandascore will be able to infuse the why in their what.
Although early-stage startups may present different challenges, our experience revealed that the biggest take-away for entrepreneurs was the perspective change brought by experimenting with new methodologies. Supported and encouraged by mentors, startups worked in a safe environment allowing them to overcome the friction of acquiring new habits. Ultimately, no matter how much you read about product development strategy and lean startup practices, the only way to actually integrate them in your process is by trying them out.