Smashing Boxes Senior Project Manager Neal Raval on choosing the right digital product development firm to bring your idea to life.
Finding the right product development firm to help bring your idea to life can be a stressful decision. It can be the difference between success and failure. It's important to choose a firm that collaborates with you versus a vendor focused on selling you. Seek out a partner that balances the priorities of your vision, the needs of your users, and various engineering complexities to ensure that your product maintains its momentum, launches on time, and delivers on the next iteration of value.
So, how do you go about identifying the right product development firm?
Find a firm that asks the right questions
One way to identify a good partner is by the questions they are asking you. When you present your idea and solution, a good partner’s first ask will be “What business problem are you trying to solve?” and "How does it meet your user's wants and needs?" Successful digital products meet the users’ needs while also meeting business goals. It's vital for your partner to understand what those are.
A good partner will help shape your ideas, not just take orders
In the course of product development, there are many directions a feature can take. Oftentimes, the opinion of stakeholders can get in the way of creating an experience that’s best for the user. A good partner will help you shape that experience by balancing the user needs with the business goals.
Watch out for the warning signs of Waterfall
The terms Agile and Waterfall refer to two distinct and unique processes. Waterfall is most successful when solving known problems via known solutions. For example, building a house. Agile is designed around solving problems you don't know how to solve. Waterfall model is ideal for projects which have defined requirements, and no changes are expected. On the other hand, Agile is best suited where there is a higher chance of frequent requirement changes. When you're developing a new product or service, Agile is the ideal approach to ensure the project meets the requirements of your users.
You'll find agencies that claim they follow Agile development practices but, instead, they have simply replaced Waterfall terms with Agile terms and called it a day. The good news is that it's easy to spot the warning signs of Waterfall. Three red flags of the Waterfall model are massive PDF project plans and/or requirements documents at the start of the project, designing the entire app upfront, and followed by testing that occurs ONLY at the end of the project.
Project managers must embrace change, not run from it
Project planning with your product development firm should be less focused on dates and more around what’s most important today. For example, Waterfall project planning is based on creating a large detailed plan up-front that becomes your Bible, written in stone (aka a PDF). It becomes the project manager’s job to protect the plan and the project manager either consciously or subconsciously fights any iteration because it changes the plan.
With the accelerated pace of innovation, today's practice of product development requires fluidity and rapid experimentation. Plans set in stone at the start of the project (when we know the least about it and its pitfalls) is setting your project up for failure. As we work together to create the product, we question, test, learn, iterate --making it a dynamic process, the plan--a living document. Today's project managers must be adept at managing meaningful change.
Cross-functional or multidisciplinary teams are a good sign
When do you know the least about the project and what your users want? At the beginning of the project.
The Waterfall approach focuses on design only at the start. Designers kick-off the project with the goal of creating high fidelity designs of your product, making tweaks based on your feedback, getting sign-off, and then walking away. This should terrify you. The design team should be working with you throughout the project to design small parts of your product, gather user feedback on those designs to test assumptions, and then revise before handing to development. Once designs have been handed to development, designers shouldn't just walk away to the next thing. Design reviews of development are critical to catching UI bugs or bad UX. That's why design (UX/Visual) should be woven throughout the entire project lifecycle.
Cross-functional or multidisciplinary teams are a great way to identify the right product development partner. Designers and engineers should collaborate throughout the development process.
Iterative development delivers better experiences
Iterative development + cross-disciplinary teams = delivering better digital products. User needs never stop changing so why should your requirements or design?
In a recent article, I was asked what I wanted to "declare my independence from." Without hesitation, I declared myself "free from incremental development practices, which has proven to be inefficient and not considerate of clients’ needs. Focusing on iterative development gets our clients useable software, faster."
I'm not saying that only agencies that practice Agile make good product development firms, but the Agile mindset certainly makes partnerships easier. Your product ships faster, users provide feedback, and the next cycle of development begins, ensuring the software aligns more and more with the market demands and business goals over time.
Your idea is most likely your passion and that same energy should continue throughout the entire process of development. Transforming your project from idea to a user-ready platform is a massive feat: and it’s one that should not be taken on in a few large chunks. Rather, the development process should be treated as a mosaic: each piece being reviewed, improved, thought about, and innovated upon consistently. In order for every piece to work together but still stand out, team members must constantly work together in pursuit of the best end goal. When it comes to choosing the right product development firm, following these tips will help you make the perfect decision.
Smashing Boxes is a creative technology lab that partners with clients, taking an integrated approach to solving complex business problems. We fuse strategy, design, and engineering with a steady dose of entrepreneurial acumen and just the right amount of disruptive zeal. Simply put, no matter what we do, we strive to do it boldly. Let's talk today!