Friday, 27 February 2009

Some start-up product lessons

The mantra of start-up product development usually involves two core words: 'rapid' & 'innovation'. Implicit in this is that we consider ourselves better placed than many others to filter out the 'urgent but unimportant' and concentrate instead on issues that add most value for the end user.

The casual observer might be fooled into thinking this means that product decisions at start-ups are constraint-free. They would be wrong. Just like our counterparts in larger organisations, we're under pressure too, not from complex stakeholder relationships, poorly defined ideas or lengthy development procesess, but more often than not, from significant resource limitations.

In an ideal world, there would always be enough people, money and time to complete every great idea that will help to build product momentum and engagement. The reality, however, is that all product decisions are ultimately cost/benefit choices and, in the best companies, there are always more good ideas than people to develop them.

At Mippin we've made a number of significant decisions over the past few months. So, in a continued spirit of openness, I thought it timely to take a step back and give you an insight into why we've made some of those decisions and the lessons learned:

Lesson 1: Be inclusive
Six months ago much of Mippin's functionality was hidden behind registration. The resulting bounce rate was a minor source of frustration, particularly given the huge levels of engagement from those who did sign-up. For us it became clear that if users didn't see the necessity of registration they simply voted with their feet. Instead, we developed some great code that allowed us to recognise (with near-perfect precision) all returning uniques, their devices and settings. Once we'd achieved that, we were able to push back and open all elements of the service to all our users, whether registered returners or first time browsers.

Lesson 2: Don't add cellophane
Ever bought a newspaper wrapped in cellophane? Annoying isn't it? The digital equivalent of this is offering up content and then forcing your users to interact before reaching it. When it comes to media, access is everything. Surfacing engaging content is the key to providing an experience that will drive repeat usage. Take a look at the image at the top of this article to see how we evolved our homepage with this in mind.

Lesson 3: Search can't fail - EVER
If search fails once, it fails for good. Google have set the bar for everyone (though arguably not on mobile) here and we've worked hard to improve our search results to maximise relevancy as well as adding new vertical searches - for images, video and wikipedia. We've also decided to offer results for popular sites - whether they take users away from Mippin or not. For us a positive user experience that takes someone away from Mippin is way better than a negative user experience that attempts to get them to stay.

Lesson 4: Be a data geek
Keeping an eye on the relevant forces at play within your industry sounds obvious, but it's surprising how few companies are able to react to market changes quickly. One of the benefits of being a smaller team is the ability to alter your development effort as required and with minimal fuss. We noticed significant spikes coming from top end devices (particularly Android and iPhone) much earlier than others and launched dedicated versions of Mippin that were able to showcase a richer user experience by leveraging the functionality associated with new touchscreen devices. (Discover how happy we are with ourselves about this here.)

Lesson 5: Don't get sidetracked
Lastly, users want you you to solve a simple problem better than anyone else. At Mippin we're proud of being able to offer some very clever implicit personalisation that surfaces the most engaging content with minimal user effort. The key when devloping a product is never to veer too far away from your core purpose (unless you spot brilliant market potential elsewhere, clearly). When it comes to adding new functionality, ensure it stacks up behind the reason your company exists. Our social strategy is a good example of this (we've blogged lots about that here). Instead of simply allowing users to connect, our aim was to enhance the content discovery experience - that's central to our core product - by allowing users to act as individual editors, collating and sharing the most engaging content they find.

In the interests of brevity I'll stop there...for now.