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A digital product is never finished: that’s how you keep optimizing

The backlog is starting to dry up, there are no big and exciting features in store. Everything can always be improved, of course, but your website or platform is actually already good. What now? Keep optimizing!

I usually see product teams doing one of two things: sit back, go into ‘admin mode’ and stop looking at their product. Or start an occupational therapy just to keep building something, because ‘building = further development’. Launch a visual redesign to look more modern, to better match the target audience or to keep the designer busy. Or add a chatbot, AR or voice interface. Or something else under the guise of further development.

I am exaggerating, of course, there may be good reasons to start implementing the examples I mention here. But do they also serve a clear strategy in your case and do they deliver more value to the users? How do you decide what to do after everything is already there?

The concept of the ‘local and global maxima‘is a nice metaphor for the approach you should take in this case. What are these maximums? If you look at a mathematical function, these are the maximum reachable points within a certain range (local maxima), and the maximum reachable within the entire spectrum (global maxima). ‘

Nice to know, but what does it have to do with digital products? Suppose the X-axis (horizontal) is the journey of absolutely everything related to the job-to-be-done of your customer. Part of this axis will be the journey involving your product. The Y axis (vertical) represents the relative value of your product to the customer. For a valuable further development strategy you look for those local and global maxima.

maximums and minimums on a graph, helpful to see what you can optimize.

In order to achieve valuable improvements and optimisations, you will have to look at your digital product from both a tactical and strategic point of view.

Short-term optimizations

In the short term you have to optimize the product around the ‘local maximum’, in order to improve the important functions within the existing product.

The right actions will of course differ per product. For example, exploring how the content can be even clearer, next best actions apply or do back-end work to provide even more relevant information.

Long-term optimizations

For the longer-term plan you have to look for other valuable functions or products that support the customer in his or his job-to-be-done, the ‘global maximum’.

For example, if your store sells custom curtains, you can explore the early stages of the current ecommerce journey. How do people search for these types of articles? A solution based on those insights could be something like: tools to choose the most suitable type of curtains, or order a set of fabric samples to avoid having to go to the store. You can also better map the journey after the order. How do people hang it up? What is unclear or what do they find difficult?

Approaching local maximum with optimizations

You optimize using two types of approach: quantitative (finding out the ‘what’) and qualitative (the ‘why’).

Quantitative

Get started with analytics if it has not yet been set up. By this I don’t mean just add a Google Analytics code on every page and you’re done. Look at the metrics that say something about whether the product works well (user-friendliness), and whether the users think that this product meets their expectations in terms of functionality. Think about:

  • Met what goals users come to this product, and which funnel do they run through? Which steps or pages do they get stuck or do not continue on? What is a lot of feedback about? The ‘Pirate metrics‘is a useful framework to structure thoughts on this.
  • What is your ‘North Star metric’, KPI’s, One metric that matters, OKR’s or whatever you use? You can optimize everything, but the ‘North Star’ helps you prioritize and focus on the improvements that are important.
  • Use A/B/n-tests if you enough traffic have to increase the conversion rate (whether it’s a purchase, sign up, or article reading). If you find out there isn’t enough traffic to draw valid data-driven conclusions after all, look at the alternatives to A / B tests.

Qualitatively

Also look for the improvements through qualitative input (kind of information that is unstructured). Think about:

  • Usability tests. In this way you discover problems and ambiguities in the user experience that cannot necessarily be deduced from the data. What do people run into? What do they feel insecure about or what do they find unclear?
  • Feedback through customer service. In my experience this is a very valuable collaboration. Make an appointment to drop by once a month and have a coffee. Ask about the most common questions and problems. How could the product prevent those most common questions?
  • Input via de feedback widget on the site where people can express their opinion. My experience with this is that you mainly get negative feedback through this channel, probably because it is a useful tool for people who are annoyed by something and want to get it right now. People are also less cautious about the wording they use, probably because they are talking to an ‘anonymous text field’ and not to a person. Before opening the feedback printout for the first time, take a few deep breaths.

Explore opportunities for global maximums with market and customer research

In addition to optimizing what is already there, also look for career opportunities. Which ‘global maximums’ can you achieve so that you better serve your users? This is not a linear process and will not be completed in a week.

How do you do that? In short: explore how the journey ‘outside’ your current one product scope expires. Look for where you can offer value to your customer base. Do this through so-called primary and secondary research.

Primary research

Primary research is direct. Engage with your existing, potential and former users (through interviews, surveys, contextual inquiryand so on) and look for the wants, needs, and problems where you can add value.

Don’t ask them for solutions or what they want. It is not the role of the user to think about this and articulate clearly what is the right solution for what he or she needs. Enter the conversation openly and explore how they now deal with their ‘job’. Even if you’ve done qualitative research relatively recently, it pays to repeat it every 1 to 1.5 years, as the world is changing rapidly. You want to spot the new developments in time.

Secondary research

Secondary research is indirect and concerns the observations and opinions of third parties about the trends and the market in which your product is located. Get started with desk research: news articles, expert interviews, academic publications. What is going on with the users and in the market around them? Where are the opportunities?

Be careful with jumping on the train of all kinds of technological buzzword trends, because they immediately push you towards the solution. Just because chatbots, AR and voice assistance are on the rise doesn’t necessarily mean this is a valuable solution direction. You are looking for a problem right now. Make sure you are within the problem space stays and not too quickly to solution space jumps, advises Tim Herbig (product management coach).

How do you prevent the backlog from ‘drying up’ again in the future?

In short: make sure that your exploratory research is always parallel to building your product. In this way, you are ahead of developments and the product wishes and specifications are ready on time. This means you always have clarity about what is further on the roadmap. This article is a good start if you want to know exactly how to set up this process in an agile environment.

What does all this mean?

The roadmap for further development is not always clear for digital products that are already ‘in place’. This is best tackled on a tactical and a strategic level. On a tactical level you are busy optimizing what is already there to ensure that customer and business goals are achieved as frictionless as possible. Regarding the strategic level: start by examining the entire journey of your customer, including the steps and tasks that the user performs outside of your current product. Look for untapped opportunities to offer the customer even more value. There is no magical one-click solution to devise the right strategy, but that is exactly what makes the (further) development of digital products so exciting.


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