Think Before You Leap (And Save Money and Time in the Process)
It is always fun working for clients who come in prepared. It is especially fun working for clients like that who also come in with an open mind. This client was very open.
After just two Analysis and Design sessions with the client, we managed to refine the application to something that was 5 times easier to use than their initial stab at it and was going to cost them about 25% less. On top of that, the application was many more times likely to be well received but the customer and purchased and used. It has already saved us time and money. On top of that, if we had built the initial design they provided, we probably would have found it to be too cumbersome to use and would have had to go back to the drawing board and build it again which would have doubled the costs and time.
When we site down with any new client, we start with a series of Analysis and Design sessions. It doesn't matter how well they have mapped out their application, at the very minimum we need to dig down into the details of how the application will be build and make sure all the inner workings of the application are well understood by us and documented for our team.
During these initial Analysis and Design sessions, we walk through what all the screens will look like and how the application will flow. We determine what data will need to be captured, calculated and displayed. We delve into how the end user will work with the application looking for ways to improve the user experience and minimize the effort they will have to put forth to get the application to work for them. We also look at the business side of the equation to make sure they understand who they will be selling to, how they will sell it and how their business will grow.
Documentation is important because it makes sure everyone understands and is in agreement with how the application is to be built. With good documentation it is easy to get a project plan that tells us how much the build will cost and how long it will take. It also helps our clients go through the list and decide if there are any extraneous items that they don't think are important enough to pay for at the current time.
Contrary to what many people think, good documentation is not difficult to produce nor does it have to be hundreds of pages long. For most new applications, we find we don't need much more than 20 pages of documentation. Most of the documentation is comprised of drawn out screen shots and screen flow diagrams. Our documentation is mostly visual with words filling in the gaps between screens and detailing out the things an application does that is not easily represented visually. This documentation can easily be scanned and understood by someone new to the project in under an hour.
Good documentation takes a little time (not a lot) to put together but it gets everyone thinking the same way and gets the build team up and running quickly and inexpensively. We have found that without good documentation the projects tend to take at least twice as long to complete, have all sorts of problems because the build team misunderstood what the client wanted and end up costing 2 - 4 times as much money to build.
Usability is a part of the design process that is often greatly undervalued. However, the usability of a system will make or break its success. If users do not like to use the application, they will only use it if they are forced to. But if the system is designed to make use very quick and easy, you may have trouble tearing the users away from it.
When we start our usability testing, we lay out our documentation (mostly the screen shots) and then take a sit in the user's chair. This means taking on the user's frame of mind as well as going through their part of the application. Why is the person using the application in the first place? What do they want out of it? What motivates them to keep using the tool. In short, what value are they getting out of it.
Next we go through the screens and do what the user will do. What is annoying? How can we see someone breaking it? More importantly, how might they not understand what they need to do to get it to work they way they want it to? This last one is tough because we already know how the application should work. But users do not think the same way we do. They may get confused where you think things are obvious. It takes a trained eye and someone who probably has had to provide extensive support for the tools they have written to truly understand how to think like their users.
One thing that can help if you are not sure you can think like your users is to bring a sample of those users in to use your application on paper. Just place the mock-ups in front of them and ask them to use it. They use their finger as a mouse and tell you what they type. Keep in mind how easy or difficult it is to enter information - a phone will be more difficult to enter lots of text.
If you don't get your usability right, your product will fail on its first round of use This means you will have to pay to have it partially or possibly even completely rewritten. This will lead to having to go through development all over again doubling the time and cost to complete a viable product and giving your competitors time to beat you to the market.
Most people like to avoid this word. Most people see it as evil or beneath them. But the truth is, if you don't sell it, you will not recoup your investment let alone make any money off it.
In our Analysis and Design sessions, we discuss with our clients where they think they are going to make money from the application. Will they charge for accounts, display advertising, sell demographic information or cross sell / up sell products? There are a large number of ways to make money from a software application these days. We give our clients ideas, help them assess how it will be received by their users and aid them in developing a plan to grow their business. Most of our clients come in with good ideas and we help add fuel to the flames. Make sure you talk to people and get as many ideas as you can because your first attempt may not generate the sales you initially expected and you need other efforts to fall back on.
A common mistake most people make is just to say something like "there are 1 million people out there that buy our type of product, if we just get 1% of them we will be rich!" This is naive thinking. You have to give a customer a compelling reason to purchase from you. You will not just get some percentage of the market because you exist.
Another mistake people make is to just think you will start giving out a free tool for everyone to use and figure out how to make money later. Once you get users, just how are you going to make money off them? I guess if you have bucket loads of money to throw at it you can eventually find a way but it is much easier if you come up with a plan first. How will you convert those free members into cash producing customers? Investors like it much better if you have a reasonable plan on how you will start to turn a profit.
Regardless of how you approach the sales, you should also consider that how and what you sell will change as you grow. When your user base is low, you will want your application to at least look like it is big. But as your user base grows, you will have to put things in place to manage this large volume. Think about how your application will work when you have very few users. Then think about how a large user base will make that not work well. Focus on creating an application that, at first, accommodates a small user base. Do NOT add a bunch of features you think you may need eventually. Only build into it what you need now. The truth of business is that, as you begin to sell your product, your vision will change and your real needs will deviate from what you thought you would need. Save your money and build the minimum you need to get the ball rolling. Then as your business grows and you begin to bring in a cash flow, reinvest that money into the features you now know you need based on how people are using the application, how you know you can sell more and on feedback from your existing user base. Do NOT get a head of yourself.
It does pay to plan ahead. And your planning does not have to be big, complicated and involved. Keep it simple at first and be ready to change as you grow. Design for the now, come up with a vision or plan for growth but be ready for it to deviate from your expected path.
A little planning and thinking now can save you lots of money and time. And it should only take a few weeks to complete before you are ready to put your application out on the market.
Also, keep some cash reserves. It is highly likely your first attempt to make a killer app will receive luke warm responses at best. The Analysis and Design minimizes the cost and time but you still have to feel out the market and you should expect some surprises, not all of them good, on your first attempt.
Good luck on your next entrepreneurial endeavor!