An 8-step, start-to-finish guide for your next big release
For the last year, we’ve been working on a new idea.
It took our team 326 days to bring this new idea to life, but it took me 10 years to create a smart product development strategy — to find the best way to dream big, work smart and give our customers the very best we have to offer.
For the first five years at JotForm, we toiled in a vacuum, then experienced failure and heartache by launching less-than-perfect products to our entire user base.
For the next five years, we continuously released small improvements. There were no big launches. No PR. No news or excitement or long-term targets. The result was a cluttered product that looked outdated, and users who thought we had abandoned them.
Finally, we learned how to make big plans, while still providing small, continuous improvements. We discovered how to develop great products.
From our team structure to built-in experimentation periods, this approach has dramatically improved our product. We also feel like we’re working in partnership with our customers.
So why did it take so long to formalize our approach?
I was spending too much time doing customer support and running HR and making coffee.
As a bootstrapped founder who has never taken a dime in outside funding, I was trying to do it all.
At one point, I answered help desk tickets from morning to night, while a few employees designed and built the product. I ran all the marketing. It seems I had a bad case of superhero syndrome.
Finally, I hired a full team of support staff to share the workload. We continued to grow and I found more smart people to lead key functions.
I freed myself up to focus on strategy. When we created cross-functional product teams (see #2 below), I could finally breathe.
Now I have the time and space to think big.
Here’s an inside look at our eight-step product development strategy.
If you’re examining your own development process, feel free to use it, adapt it, and create amazing products you’re proud to release.
1. Create a strategic plan to guide the year
Big, meaty challenges are exciting for all of us. We’ll continue to improve our core product, but for the last couple years, we’ve also spent a full calendar year tackling a strategic project.
For instance, we revamped our Form Builder in 2016 to update the design and give our customers a fresh, modern experience. The year 2017 has been dedicated to JotForm Cards which we’ll unveil on February 6th.
From gathering customer feedback to the old-school SWOT analysis, there are lots of ways to generate ideas.
But, your two most important questions should always be:
- Does this plan excite me — and my team?
- Does this project have the potential to change the game and improve people’s lives?
2. Work in small, cross-functional product teams
Design-first product development. I believe so deeply in this approach that it borders on religion.
At JotForm, our 100 employees work in cross-functional groups of 5–6 people.
Each product team includes a lead designer, who works side-by-side with UI and CSS developers, full stack developers, plus UX specialists, data scientists, and any other necessary functions.
These teams work beautifully. No one tries to solve a problem in isolation, so each project benefits from a variety of voices, skills, backgrounds and strategies.
Each person has a key piece of the puzzle, and together they develop better solutions.
3. Kick off with hack weeks
We love to run hack weeks. They stretch our thinking and lead us to creative solutions.
Hack weeks can also be a great way to come up with innovative product ideas, especially when your customers don’t know what they want next, or they’re not asking you for something specific.
To be clear, these are not harried sprints. They are open and immersive.
Outlandish ideas are welcome, and we end the week with a prototype — no matter how buggy or unfinished.
Hack weeks allow your team to explore tangents and follow their instincts. Then, you can test your ideas with real users.
To develop upcoming JotForm Cards, we ran seven hack weeks with three product teams. That gave us 21 different prototypes.
There were so many interesting options, but the best solution stood out. It always does.
4. Develop quietly, but continue releasing
Keep the big reveal under wraps, but show your new product or version to a small test group.
Start with 1% of your user base and gradually build to 10%.
Gather feedback, root out problems, and compare the new version to previous iterations (if you have them).
Contained testing is essential — and it’s the best way to polish your release.
5. Set and monitor your success metrics
User activation is our golden ring. It’s a number we watch closely, and it’s also how we gauge the success of a new product or version.
For example, if 100 people sign up for JotForm, can we get 10 or 20 to become active users?
This is also where test groups become essential. When we release a new change or feature, do more or less people eventually activate?
Whether you’re a founder or an employee, you’re too close to your own product.
You can’t determine whether a new design or upgrade is successful unless you establish a clear baseline and set key metrics.
Measure that data, ignore the noise, and adapt accordingly.
6. Encourage customers to share their thoughts
Continuous feedback is invaluable.
We do a lot of usability testing and we often watch people interact with our product. It opens your eyes.
Suddenly, you see tiny shifts that could make the software more intuitive or a major gap that no one had considered.
We place feedback buttons all over our new product and a CTA that reads: “go back to the old version.”
If someone clicks that button, a text field opens that asks the user why they want to switch back. Their feedback initiates a support ticket that we track in a daily email.
That small interaction often tells us exactly what’s not working — and why.
7. Buff, polish and refine
We never want to launch a half-baked product. It’s not fair to our users, or to the teams who worked hard to execute this vision.
Our goal is to start ironing out the wrinkles several months, not weeks, before the launch. We track issues in a daily email and our developers compete to see who can crush the most bugs.
After all, a product launch is kind of like the Westminster Dog Show. You primp and fluff your new release, then prance it around the ring. That’s when people see how it could solve their problems; why it’s faster, smarter or more beautiful than what they had before.
8. Prepare for a low-stress launch
Make a detailed plan LONG before the big day.
Consider what could go wrong (or right) and decide how you’ll respond. Then you can extinguish small fires that flare up, but there shouldn’t be any out-of-control blazes.
Finally, enjoy your launch day. Savor the satisfaction of moving from a promising idea to a big mess to a shiny finished product. Remember the head-scratching challenges and the big a-ha moments.
Now raise a glass and toast your team. You’ve earned this moment together.
As for us, we can’t wait to reveal what the JotForm team has been cooking up for you.