Why Companies Need to Iterate Based on User Feedback

Ryan Martens is the founder and CTO of Rally Software, which provides agile application lifecycle management solutions and services to software developers. Rally is Ryan’s fourth software startup. Follow him on Twitter @RallyOn.

Unfortunately, Twitter and Facebook have become real-time streams of rotten tomato throwing.

Just ask Bank of America, which encountered wrath from its Facebook customers when it decided to tack on monthly debit card fees. Or Virgin America, when its site crash and subsequent system failure ignited a blaze of ticked-off fliers.

We all know the drill: You’re supposed to listen to your customers in social media, engage them authentically, and act like the human you are, not the company you represent. But I’m here to add that engaging with customers after they start using your product isn’t enough. You simply can’t wait until customers start getting mad and yelling at you online to change your product or strategy. At that point, it’s too late. 

Given the ability to reach customers and prospects via social networks, it’s now easier than ever to embrace customers in your product development process. Changing this process may not save you from the inevitable system failures, but it will help you avoid the slip-up phases typically associated with releasing new products or services. 

Users rule the world now; therefore, businesses must be more responsive by using agile and lean practices. Here are three simple steps to guarantee the development of desirable products and services.

1. Find Your Earlyvangelists

Today’s smart company asks lots of questions up front. The brand involves its customers in the product development process from the very beginning. Often called the “customer development model,” the premise is described by Steven Blank in The Four Steps to the Epiphany

Blank describes earlyvangelists as “a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s products or service because they can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem.”

2. Build a Minimum Viable Product

Start with bare bones. Put together a product that has the minimum bells and whistles, focusing on the must-have features only. Let your customers try it out and see what they like. Let them tell you what is missing. Let them tell you what is extraneous. Then build what really satisfies that problem, and stop there

When you solve a problem for earlyvangelists, you build a supportive customer base that will promote the product to other visionary customers.  You may now consider whether this product is desirable for an even larger market. 

In the software world, agile and lean software development methodologies leverage fast feedback from customers. Google’s product cycle is a pretty classic example of this customer-focused approach. Gmail Labs was designed to tighten the feedback loop between users and developers, so that it could learn quickly what people liked and disliked. It took out the extra step of having to go to a customer support forum or email a representative, and let users communicate directly with developers. This experiment greatly increased the frequency and quality of feedback, which in turn, allowed Google to rapidly improve Gmail and its suite of apps. 

Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup goes into these concepts in great detail, explaining how applying a combination of agile customer development methods and lean social media engagement can create a true collection of thinking and acting tools for today’s complex world. 

3. Release, Iterate and Repeat 

Once you have a desirable initial product, you can begin to test extension and offers into other markets and user segments. Using tools like KISS Metrics, you can now easily track the conversion metrics based on different offers to different segments before you build. This type of market feedback allows you to bring back “validated learnings” to the product team.  It lets you co-develop your market in the most capital-efficient and viral way possible.  

This is where the value of agile development kicks in. The short growth cycles that adapt to both positive and negative feedback let you steer your product into the segments without wasting precious development cycles. 

Surprisingly, many companies aren’t really embracing customer development yet. Maybe because they’re still afraid of what lies beyond company walls. If you have not figured out how to energize or support your customer base in 21st century social networks, then you might be very cautious with customer development.

So knock those walls down and begin truly embracing customers and prospects early in your development process. It’s clear that users rule, but they need you to make projects affordable and scalable first. Otherwise, be prepared for a social media rotten tomato storm.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, Mableen

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