The 7 Stages of Digital Product Development
Are you a startup planning to launch a new service? Or an entrepreneur trying to solve a problem in your company? One solution might be the realization of a digital product. But how should you address this problem? In this post I will guide you through all the digital product development stages.
Note, this article is meant to be an introduction to user-centered digital product development but is not a fully blown step by step guide.
What is a Digital Product?
A few years ago we would only speak about “websites”, which were mostly showcasing your company. Sometimes an e-commerce section would be provided as well.
Nowadays, the digital landscape has become much more complex and specialized. From a dating app to an event management platform to a chatbot, a lot of services have already been digitized. Meaning turned into apps.
But, how do you actually build your own digital product?
1. Analysis, Research & Preparation
This step is key. Here you should do everything you can to help make the decision whether you should actually proceed and build that service. Or save your money, time and focus for something different and better. A solution-based approach to problem-solving rooted in “Design Thinking” will ensure you invest in the right idea.
Empathize with the user and define the needs
Do a market research to clearly outline the problem your target audience is facing. Also, find out if they are willing to pay (and how much) for this service you are about to build?
Perhaps you already have the perfect idea. But it can be good to use different brainstorming and ideation techniques to help you think outside the box and reach a wider list of potential solutions. Then you can investigate and test to narrow the list to the best one.
Of course, initially you also need to define what financial assets you have at your disposal. Make sure you have enough resources for the post-launch phase. The product will likely not be profitable from day one and may require further iterations and tweaks to become truly valuable.
Minimal Viable Product (MVP)
Maybe the idea for your app or digital product has a very broad scope and many features. But for the first version is it very important to focus on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Projects can quickly become over-complex and modular approach will ensure you don’t spend resources on features that turn out to be unnecessary. Cut out all the nice-to-have features for now, start with something small and build on it. This approach will make it much easier to change direction if needed.
2. Sketching & Wireframing
Now that you know where you’re going, it’s time to think about how this digital product should look. If you’re working with an agency, they can bring in experts to develop this for you.
But it can also be helpful if you come up with initial sketches or wireframes for your vision. This can help your partner to clearly understand your idea and make budgeting easier and more precise.
How should this product look and feel? If it’s an app, how will the screens look on an old Android tablet or brand new iPhone X?
Ask the designers to provide you with a clickable prototype (for example on InVision). Seeing and interacting with your product on the devices where it will be used, will help you view your product from a user perspective. Printouts of screens are less useful. You need to tap, click and experience those designs before approving them.
At this stage it is also good to discuss user interface animations. For example, how will the transition from a closed to open menu look like? The difference between good and great UX depends on small details.
Before actually starting development on the first version of your product, you can ask to have a scaled down version or “prototype” developed.
Maybe this prototype will have only a basic design, include only the main features and won’t be fully integrated in the rest of your architecture.
But once you have this prototype, you can run tests with your team and your target audience. And see how they react as real users. At this stage the discussion shouldn’t be about design, but more about functionalities.
5. Agile Implementation
Yay, you can start coding! Or most probably the team you’ve hired for that can. Avoid waterfall projects where all requirements need to be agreed upfront and go for an agile approach that supports product evolvement and adjustment. Using an Agile project management methodology significantly increases development productivity, gives you more control and results in an end product that provides real value to your users. As part of this process, the project will be split into development phases known as sprints, with working software delivered at the end of each sprint.
Testing & Quality Assurance
Is that app working as it should? On all devices? Is this speed sufficient?
How do you know you are you really done? A definition of done can help here as well. Testing should be built into the development process to make sure you don’t run into problems come launch day.
A step is not working perfectly? A feature needs tweaking? Users have demanded an additional option? Iterate again and again until the product is ready to go live.
This is the moment you have been building up to. You are ready to unveil your digital product to the masses (or to your very specific niche ;). I advise a soft/private/beta launch over a very public launch. There always will be bugs or unplanned use-cases in a first version. So being a little cautious and low profile at the beginning can give your product the positive start it needs to succeed. It is difficult to win back precious users after a high-profile launch flop.
It’s time to roll out your marketing and communication plan, which you should have already started planning in the preparation phase. You know your personas from your market research, so make sure to know what, and to whom and how you are saying it.
7. Maintenance & Support
Often overlooked, the maintenance and support are not the most exciting part of digital product development. But if your product is successful, this will be the longest stage. And might end up costing much more than the initial creation and launch if you don’t plan and safeguard resources for it. Often your development partner will offer value for money long term service level agreements. So make sure to clearly specify this with your provider upfront, be it an external company or a dev team within your organization. You don’t want to face the nightmare scenario of post-launch bug-fixes damaging your product reputation because your resources have been moved to another project.