Agile development can be a wonderful thing. Unlike a waterfall approach that can be mired with checkpoints, bottlenecks, and other friction, Agile can free organizations to move quickly. However, with that freedom come deleterious consequences. Chief among them is the loss of product identity, which leads to an unrecognizable agglomeration of disjointed features—A blob of garbled parts.
A Blob of Garbled Parts
One of the first questions I ask usability study participants is, “What do you think this thing does?” All too often, the answer is simply “I have no idea.” In other cases participants grasp at random guesses. In the case of Agile development, the cause usually lies with a loss of strategic vision.
Agile works in small, fast sprints that focus on features. In this high-paced product development framework, a myopic mindset often takes hold causing the team to lose sight of the big picture. Rather than asking how each new feature will support the overall product strategy and how each feature will work together to form a whole, teams are just focused on the feature-du-jour. The result is a mishmash of disconnected features–an amorphous blob, not a product. When you ask people what they think it is, you are really giving them a Rorschach test.
This is a problem for an obvious reason. No one wants an undecipherable blob of garbled stuff.
How to Spot the Blob
Luckily, it’s pretty easy to identify if your product is an amalgamation of disjointed features.
- Open yourself to critically examining where you are.
- Find some people that have never seen or heard of your product, show it to them briefly and ask them what they think it is and what it does.
- Allow your subjects to interacted with your product for a few minutes and ask them again.
- If more than half the people you interviewed cannot tell what your product is or does, you have a blob of disconnected features.
How to Fix Your Blob
This is the difficult part. Often, you have devoted so much time, effort and money into getting to where you are, that it is next to impossible to let go and clean up. Here is what to do:
- Understand that if you do not consolidate your mess of features into a coherent product, it will only get worse and you will lose more time and money.
- Without looking at what you have, state your product vision. (E.g. a community for people to share documents.)
- Itemize all of your product’s features and ask whether they support your product vision. (Do you really need a video editing feature in your document sharing website?)
- Cut all those features that do not support your product vision.
- Look at the remaining features and ask how they fit together to form a unified product. (E.g. How does sharing by email relate to new user registration?)
- If you identify features that do not work well with others, figure out a way to better integrate them.
- Test the final product to make sure that you actually do have a product that people can understand and want.
How to Avoid the Blob
An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure in this case. It is substantially easier and cheaper to avoid losing the products identity than trying to recover it. Below are the steps to make sure that you build a product with a strong identity.
- State your product vision if you haven’t already done so. (See above.)
- With every new feature in the pipeline ask how it will (a.) support the product vision, and (b.) fit within the existing whole.
- Develop a strategy for each feature to support the overall product strategy and to work seamlessly with the other features.
- Ensure that the design and implementation of each features meets the above two criteria.
The Infinite Pivot and the Death Spiral
We all know them: start-ups that are caught in a cycle of infinite pivots. (I’m sure you’ve already seen the lampoon Vooza.) Sometimes it’s very obvious that a company is pivoting endlessly; other times it is much more subtle. Agile development is very prone to this chronic condition since it is so easy to change tack. What are the tailtell signs that your organization is stuck in an infinite pivot?
- Your customers don’t know what your product is or what it does.
- Every new customer support email prompts a new feature or revision.
- You are often undoing previous work.
If any of the above sounds familiar, your organization might be stuck in an infinite pivot. Of course, pivoting is a vital step in any new company, but doing it too often will erode your product’s identity and leave you with a blob of disconnected parts as well as a fleeting customer base. When things get bad enough, your product can go into a death spiral.
The Infinite Pivot is really just a special case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, although it arises for slightly different reasons. The main culprit in this case is also a lack of product vision but also an over-sensitivity to customer and stakeholder opinion. What I mean by the latter is that the product heads make new product decisions every time they get a new piece of feedback from a customer or stakeholder. Take, for example, a shopping web site. A few customers write in wanting bigger product images, so the product team updates the web site with bigger images in one sprint. Then an investor insists on making the images smaller to fit more products on the screen, so the images are shrunk in the subsequent sprint. Sound familiar?
A strong product vision would curtail this scenario. Conflicting feature requests would be evaluated against the overall product vision. Do bigger or smaller product images support the product strategy? This is dictated by what kind of online store you are building, which is driven by business strategy.
How to Avoid the Infinite Pivot
As in the case of the Blob of Garbled Parts, the emphasis is on clearly stating a product vision and building a product around it. However, it is also important to develop an effective system for incorporating feedback.
- Customer insights and stakeholder opinions should be viewed as a whole not piece by piece. For example, how many customers complain about the product images? Do more people want smaller images or bigger ones?
- Each feature request should be scrutinized to see if it fits with the overall product vision as well as with existing parts.
- If the feature request makes the first cut, one must guage its feasibility and its priority vis-a-vis other features in the pipeline.
Following these steps should help to ensure that you do not change tack too frequently and maintain a strong product identity.
Stay True to Your Product Vision
In my experience, the most common danger associated with developing products in an Agile framework is focusing on building individual features rather than a product. By clearly defining a product vision and ensuring that all development supports that vision, you can focus on building something that your customers will understand and, more importantly, want.