Author: Greg Healy

Product development planning is never finished. It’s iterative, continuous. It starts small, develops, changes, and grows. It is in constant motion.

As a 21st-century digital business creating new products, when do you know that you’re taking care of a living organism that needs constant attention? It may take time, but the sooner you realize it the better.

Let’s say your business is not a digital native – it’s been around awhile and has a brick-and-mortar history – and you are trying to develop a next-generation digital experience. Or you’re simply expanding your digital presence. Chances are you’re using a traditional waterfall development process in which everything flows logically from the beginning of a project through the end. As you do this, you should realize how much effort it takes to develop the business requirements for that heavy three-inch binder with thousands of pages of documentation.

That binder looks beautiful! It’s a major accomplishment, a work of art! Everyone should be proud of it.

Yet when you finally stop and look at the document, questions arise: How will we get it done? Where do we start? How long will it take? What will it cost? Will it work? And you begin to realize something else: It took six, nine, or even twelve months to develop the document – only the document!

Fear sets in. The market has shifted. Technology has changed. Your competition is doing something better. Your customers have moved on to something else.

At my firm, we’ve been there. Our digital mindset had to shift in order to understand that survival means rapidly developing products in smaller, incremental concepts – not huge documents. We ditched the waterfall development process in favor of an agile approach.

Any digital experience is about growing, changing, modifying, and treating our concepts as living, breathing, growing things that need 100 percent focus and attention. Businesses have to develop digital products based not on huge, comprehensive plans but on ideas that start small and develop. Think of your plan as a baby that has to grow.

Truly developing new digital products has many steps to learn and keep it in the company DNA.

  • It takes focus: Any digital experience that grows must validate and focus on the user to understand when value is generated – in the user’s eyes.
  • It is a constant, daily effort: If you want to gain traction, the digital product experience takes effort and you must learn every day. To gain traction means learning every day in order to connect with your users and validate an idea – finding out if it works or doesn’t work.
  • Incremental changes, not large documents, are critical: If you’re not willing to develop in small, incremental steps, you will not learn fast enough to change with your users and have a chance of staying ahead of your competition.
  • Have a product owner, but you need a village: The product owner must make the tough calls; however, a strong, dedicated cross-functional team is critical to provide awareness and perspective.
  • Constant feedback loops: Leverage analytics and user data to make decisions or small prototypes to gain insight with real users.

As soon as you realize you don’t need binders anymore and understand that you’re raising a living organism, you’ll begin to understand the flexibility, resource allocation and focus needed to develop in the reworked and ever changing digital environment.

Greg Healy is a Senior Vice President and the Chief Product Officer for Encyclopedia Britannica. He directs the creation of new products, which today include a host of new online and mobile products in preK-12 curriculum, English-language instruction, e-books, and more. He has a strong background in technology and a track record of creating successful, customer-friendly online services. Greg holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Marist College and a MBA from Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management.