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Pound Takes Ideas on Engineering Breakthrough Applications Mon, 13 Jul 2009 12:39:59 +0000 en The Complexity of ‘Simple’ Mon, 13 Jul 2009 12:39:08 +0000 Jeremy When working with designers on anything, you’re guaranteed to get lots of input and direction regarding simplicity. I continue to be surprised by how much simplicity is a sought after trait by most of our clients when discussing their website and customer experiences. But, few people I’ve worked with can quantify simplicity or describe how it applies to their business.

Therein lies the complexity of simplicity—it’s difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to maintain as you move forward.

So, I was pleased to find this post (and related book) called The Laws of Simplicity via David Allen on Twitter that breaks down the laws that make up a simple solution. John uses real business examples in his elaborations of the first half of the laws to distill the otherwise abstract statements that make up each law (looks like you need the book to learn about the latter half).

This is a good read for a team collaborating on a user interface, operational process or other system striving for simplicity.

The Laws of Simplicity

The advantage of 1,000 customers Wed, 01 Jul 2009 12:05:37 +0000 Jeremy In this post, I make the case for paying little attention to anything else but landing your first 1,000 customers in a new venture. It may seem limiting, but it’s the right first step.

At Pound, when we’re helping a business launch a new web app, social network or other website-type of product, you’ll see and hear a mention of the first 1,000 customers in just about every meeting. The reason is, we centralize all plans around landing the first 1,000 customers—because that’s how we define early success in our projects.

We stay aware of a ton of things when designing and building websites, like user experience, branding and scalability. But, all of these efforts are measured through the lens of the first 1,000 customers. Will this matter to the first 1,000? Will the first 1,000 use this? Will the first 1,000 pay for this upgrade?

This can really confuse our clients and other firms we might be working with. But, anyone who’s ever planned a large project knows that the only way to eat an elephant, is one bite at a time. And, any student of strategy knows that it’s all about what you decide NOT to do that provides an advantage. Giving your startup team permission to focus exclusively and obsessively on the first 1,000 customers allocates your efforts and resources towards a meaningful and tangible goal. One that, if met, will appease all your major stakeholders: investors, staff and customers.

I can hear the cries now, “But our business doesn’t work until we reach a million users” or “We’re focused on deals that will bring thousands of users at once,” or, my favorite, “We have lots of different types of customers, and we have to please them all.”

All of these points are valid, but none dismiss the importance of first 1,000 customer strategy. If you’re looking for partner or licensing deals, I hope you are using the common thread of product positioning. Otherwise, you’ll accumulate constituencies with competing priorities, be buried by “me too” feature requests and peak as an average product at best. Secondly, if you have a network business, like ebay, for example, that only works with a large member base far in excess of 1,000, then you better either be finding a way to make your business work with a smaller subset (like Etsy did) or be raising lots and lots of capital to buy time.

So, why is the number 1,000? Well, the truth is it’s not always 1,000, actually. It varies by business, but for many of our clients, that number seems to be 1,000. For free and low cost memberships, 1,000 members seems to be a number that is obtainable within the first 3 to 6 months without a mega-advertising budget. If you have a $500+ price point, your target may be more like 100 customers, initially.

The number itself is just a target that should represent the following:

    1. just enough to prove there is a market for your idea
    2. enough to prove you are able to accumulate sales/customers
    3. able to give you considerable feedback on your ideas and changes to the product

Those first two are great in keeping your investors at bay, and keeping moral of the team very high. But, it’s the last one that is the hidden gem and the reason this is priority one. When you reach 1,000 customers, you have a considerable group of early adopters that have admitted they have a problem you can help solve. This is where the network effects of word of mouth and real time customer feedback come in.

This critical mass of targeted users can ‘vote’ for new pricing and product changes through referrals, up-ticks in use and customer support calls. In the pre-1,000 days, much of your marketing and product design is done in the dark and feels more like just seeing what sticks. Post-1,000 decisions are based on data and A/B tests that can be run quickly, often completed within a week.

At post-1,000, customers start using your products and services in ways you never thought possible: combining them with other products or in markets you were unaware of as targets. People start noticing what you are up to and niche media may become aware of you. In other words, things start getting interesting.

The second thousand customers will either come with increasing speed, or your numbers will flatten out. Either is a good thing, because you are getting a trusted source of advice for what is and is not working about your product and the markets that you choose to target.

If the latter happens, this user base will accelerate the development of your new product, which is quite an asset to have. This is the perfect point to start over or change your business model (give it away, charge a subscription, license it, etc), because you have a customer base, but not a huge one.

In summary, the source of feedback you’ll receive from your post-1,000 audience will leverage your future product bets and improve the likelihood that you’ll breakthrough to critical mass, all while satisfying your investors, partners and staff.

This is the first part of an entire series a launch strategy that focuses all resources for a new product or business exclusively on landing the first 1,000 customers.

Launch Strategy: The First 1,000 Customers Tue, 30 Jun 2009 12:49:19 +0000 Jeremy Today kicks off a new series we’ll be writing over the next several weeks on acquiring your first 1,000 customers, and why it is the most important thing to be focused on. Of course, this writing is targeted at products and businesses who have yet to reach this milestone, as businesses who are post-1,000 should be focused on scaling and optimizing your business.

Why write about landing the first 1,000 customers? Because we believe it’s the most crucial first milestone in building a breakthrough business and reaching this milestone comes with significant benefits that speed up growth.

We help businesses launch new products, and [almost] all of our customers have plans for a customer base far in excess of 1,000 users. However, basic math dictates that you must reach 1,000 customers before you reach 5,000. The often overlooked part is that the strategies used to land the first 1,000 may look so different than the preconceived business strategy that you’ll fail to reach early adopters, and thus the product will stagnate or fail.

More interestingly, is that when we look to launch a new product, most people look at examples of successful breakthrough applications serving large customer numbers that have already broken through. They take note of the tactics and strategies used to add the second and third millionth customer and try and apply that to landing their first or twenty-sixth customer. This is akin to shadowing a college professor around while studying to become a kindergarten teacher, you’ll learn a ton of useful, yet immediately inapplicable, things.

This series is a case for focusing almost exclusively on landing your first 1,000 customers until that goal is met. The source of feedback you’ll receive from your post-1,000 audience will leverage your future product bets and improve the likelyhood that you’ll breakthrough to  critical mass.

Parts to the Series

    Part 1: The 1,000 customer advantage
    Part 2: Who are your first 1,000 customers?
    Part 3: How to get 1,000 customers
    Part 4: Common mistakes made trying to get 1,000 customers
    Part 5: What to do with your first 1,000 customers

After reading the series, we hope you’ll appreciate the power of this launch strategy and consider it when panning your next product or business.

Find Breakthrough Success Through Optimization Mon, 22 Jun 2009 13:47:05 +0000 Jeremy This post is about making constant and focused improvements on your product or business until you reach breakthrough success. Much like the storied tipping point, any wildly successful business or product optimizes continuously - sometimes in oblivion - until they find product/market fit.

Net Flix, Amazon and Facebook all found their breakthroughs over time. Their successes weren’t obvious bets going in, and I can guarantee you that there were many mistakes and trials that ended in various levels of failure along the way. How do companies and product teams stay focused and encouraged enough to grow their ideas into breakthroughs? The answer is some variation of focused trial-and-error; though it could be referred to as the feedback loop, profile before optimization, or a million other industry-specific terms.

All successful companies subscribe to the feedback loop to deliberately shape their products into something the market (even if it’s not their initial market) will line up in droves to buy. Folklore is filled with overnight success stories of inventors coming up with that lightning in a bottle idea that translated into millions of sales. But, I have yet to meet anyone with such a story about their success.

Instead, true breakthrough companies start with, or eventually find, a clear mission to meet their market’s demands, and then dedicate the resources to find a true fit for those needs and wants. The common thread always turns out to be a lot of deliberate tinkering, analysis, profiling and adjustments being made on a regular basis.

Now that we’ve made the case for constant refinement, we should talk about what and how to refine your products and business. Below are five tactics that can help ensure that your attention and investment are being leveraged to shape your product into a breakthrough:

1) Start by only fixing the things that really need to be fixed. You may have a list a mile long, but fixing the root cause may make many other issues obsolete or irrelevant. As an example, if customers are abandoning your signup process at the last step, zero in on that page before attempting to lower your price. If your efforts aren’t proving fruitful after a few weeks, then you can try adding a time-sensitive offer or changing the price with some A/B tests.

2) Fix something discrete, and wait to see what happens - a week, month or quarter. If you change everything all the time, you’ll never learn anything. Just as important is to actually measure what the impact was in real numbers.

3) Have an overarching goal for why you are tinkering. Are you improving perfomance, converting more visitors into sales, increasing the average size of the sale? If you profile without a cause, you’ll fragment your efforts and see little impact.

4) Subscribe to the 80/20 rule. If there won’t be a high impact result, leave it alone. Forget about squeezing minute percentages of improvement out in the early days. There will be plenty of time for that when you reach mass scale. Time and user feedback are finite resources, spend them wisely.

5) Reflect on the changes you made and discuss/debate why they came out the way they did. This is how you become smarter about your customer, tactics and overall strategy. If you aren’t regularly analyzing your tests, then you’re leaving a ton of value on the table from all this profiling and testing. This tactic multiplies the value you get from the previous tactics.

You should see by now that the underlying theme here is chipping away at success with the help of real user feedback. Too many businesses have gone by the wayside because they thought they had it all figured out prior to launch. Rather than distilling their business into a concrete market opportunity and working relentlessly to fill it with percision, they fall in love with their original solution and are blind to valuable feedback that real users try to give them.

Think about some of the repeatedly successful entrepreneurs and business people you know or have read about. Did they repeatedly invent new homerun products or services overnight, or did it just seem that way because they identified market opportunities and started or shaped businesses to solve them?

In a nutshell: Profile your business, find something of impact to optimize, and repeat. Your new business strategy will become painfully evident within a few months.

Use feedback to launch without risk Sun, 15 Mar 2009 18:02:56 +0000 Jeremy Reading Don’t launch this morning on On Startups inspired me to share a strategy for launching new products. This strategy fits extremely well with products and services that employ agile development teams, as they embrace feedback and change. Re-launching your product every two months is not something many businesses or development teams can stomach.

I should clarify one important thing upfront, we are referring to the marketing event of launching a product, which typically includes some combination of PR, advertising and events. Unfortunately, a lot of new businesses and product teams seem to focus on the product launch as one of their first major milestones. Read the Don’t Launch article to see all the problems this mentality can create. The focus of this article is a strategy for reducing risk and leveraging feedback when launching a product.

The good news is that this strategy will bring about a launch event much quicker. What will be tough for many to swallow is that the launch will be small, underwhelming, and managed with an analytical mindset, rather than a marketing one.

Here’s how to do it: Launch one customer at a time, or to a handful of customers at a time.
By doing this, you can follow up, react, tweak and over serve these new customers. Then, do something with that feedback to improve the product. This is not a beta launch, but a controlled and focused rollout to a select customer or batch of customers that you will focus all of your resources on.

Use google Ad Words, targeted invites or a trade show to introduce and sign up a few new customers at a time -  1 to 100 - depending on the price point and service requirements of the product. You can even be honest with them and tell them this is not a fully complete product.

Sign them up and make it terribly easy for them to provide feedback. Give them the tools and attention to tell you what they like and don’t like. Don’t forget automatic feedback that can be captured in traffic and analytics tools.

OK, this is the part that is hard for most teams to follow through on.

Whenever you get feedback, or enough time passes without receiving any, follow up with the customer(s). If they ask for help, something extra or an additional service you hadn’t considered including in the product, give it to them. Give them more than they ask for if you can (Careful: this does not apply to features. Giving everyone every feature they ask for in without filter can quickly kill a product). Use the interaction as a chance to delight them and humanize your product/service. They won’t forget it, and they’ll feel more compelled to answer the surveys you send them to collect more feedback.

Once a predetermined amount of time has passed, and enough intelligence has been gathered, take the time to review it, debate it, analyze your options and refine your product (or create new ones). Change our price. Remove a feature. Rename things. Improve things. Whatever the data and feedback tell you is the next logical step in developing the product. Embrace the 80/20 rule here, and don’t enter a longer cycle than needed to introduce the changes you feel will have the most impact.

You’ll want to do two things with the new product that comes about from your learning during the previous launch:

  • introduce it to the early customers who help shaped it to gauge their response and demonstrate that you are listening.
  • repeat your previous product launch with the new intelligence and more mature product to a new set of customers.

Regarding the second one, you may or may not have wanted to stop the search engine marketing or other method of signing up the initial batch of customers (if something is bringing you more of the right customers, don’t stop it!). If you have, starting it again will provide a clear and easy way to compare the data sets. If you maintained these campaigns or the advertising you used is still bringing new customers in, try and create an isolated set of campaigns or other advertising that will allow you to compare the results of the newer product attributes and refinements you’ve made. Asking the new customers to enter a promo code when signing up is one of the easiest ways.

Repeat this process as often as you can without blurring the lines between launches. Each release should bring you more and/or better customers. If they aren’t, then you misread the feedback.

Launching a product to a single or small batch of customers will really allow you to maximize the value of that customer, both in loyalty and feedback. Contrast this to a single PR-driven launch, where your resources are tapped and typically misappropriated to solving problems and reaching out to unsatisfied customers.

Repeat these targeted launches for as long as you are learning and growing your customer base. As often as every month, and no longer than every six months. One day, the PR and explosive adoption event
might land on your doorstep. Hopefully, your controlled launches and learning will allow you to be intelligent and flexible enough to keep up with the challenges that come with scale.

It’s a lot easier to deal with scale and fitting your product to the market if you don’t have to do them simultaneously, which is what a big launch event does to you.

If you are going to release a new product, I recommend researching customer development.

Ingredients for a breakthrough Wed, 25 Feb 2009 13:02:42 +0000 Jeremy Breakthroughs are one of those things that are hard to define, but easy to spot when you see them. Like love, no one can agree on a definition, but we all know it when we experience it. For our purposes, we’ll assume that breakthroughs exceed user’s expectations in terms of design, engineering, and utility. In other words, the product is beautiful, useful and “just works.” Remember the first time you used Net Flix or Gmail?

If you’re in the business of developing applications or running a web business, your seeking breakthroughs.

It’s a reasonable conclusion that you need expertise in three key areas to develop breakthrough applications for the web: design, engineering and product strategy. The need for these disciplines are pretty easy to defend.

  • Engineering: If it’s buggy or won’t scale, users will become frustrated and abandon it.
  • Design: If it’s clumsy or hard to use, it won’t reach critical mass of adoption.
  • Product Strategy: If the product isn’t needed, there’s no market to support it.

There are certainly other valuable areas of expertise that we require such as QA and documentation, but those are areas that level off in terms of impact. They are required, but once a minimum level is satisfied, the value added to the product diminishes. The areas listed above, however, can be leveraged as competitive advantages and bring increasingly added value to the product. While I am sure the iPhone had great technical writers, it was the world class engineers that managed to fit a full operating system on a device smaller than your hand.

It’s these areas that we should be fostering at our product-driven companies. And, for the most part, they are. The overlooked element of this mix, is how you plan and embark on a project plan to best allow them to work together.

But that’s for another post.

Lessons from five years of Basecamp Wed, 11 Feb 2009 17:14:15 +0000 Jeremy
If you are involved with developing websites or applications, you know about Basecamp. Basecamp is a web-based project management tool sold as a service that helped inspire droves of design and development shops to launch their own attempts at developing subscription products. We’ve used Basecamp to organize our client communication for the majority of those years.

Basecamp turned five last week. On that day, their storied and successful history was summarized wonderfully by the founder of the product on their company blog. A few months of development, a willingness to launch a basic - some might say incomplete - product and a plethora of domain knowledge (they primarily built the product for themselves) has led to over 3,000,000 users within five years. All that in the face of dozens of free competitive offerings.

We can learn much from the story of Basecamp and the decisions that 37 Signals has made to launch a half-dozen products. Just a few of which are listed here:

1) Have a clear position and maintain focus on it.
Basecamp was only conceived because the competitive landscape for project management software lacked an offering focused on communication. Basecamp filled this void and redefined the market. When they identified new opportunities for their customers that weren’t 100% related to project management, they created new products rather than tacking them onto Basecamp.

2) Get to market, get Feedback.
To quote the blog post: “The original version of Basecamp just had messages and milestones. We added to-dos lists later before launch. We didn’t add file sharing until a few months after launch, and it required you had your own FTP server. Those were the very early days.”

3) Never stop iterating.
I find new features within Basecamp all the time. I’ve never heard anything about versions or upgrades - I just find new bite-sized features and modifications on a regular basis.

4) Domain knowledge can’t be understated.
37 Signals built the product for firms just like their own. No focus groups needed. They’ve also been diligent in soliciting feedback from customers along the way and translating it into valuable new products for the company.

5) People will pay for smart design.
Ever used Basecamp? It’s simple, clever, useful and never gets in your way. There is no shortage of less expensive (or free) alternatives, but so many of us pay for Basecamp month after month.

6) Lead (even create) your customer community.
The 37 Signals blog has a massive following by Basecamp’s customers. The founder of the product, Jason Fried, is constantly delivering thought leadership on simple design, usability and ways to effectvely use the company’s products. The credibility that the company has is understandable, yet a bit unbelievable.

The Basecamp birthday post is a great read, and one I am sure many of us aspire to having the fortune to write one day. Understanding the cause of thier success is a key step to reproducing it.

Coincidentally, Facebook launched the same day (Feb 4, 2004) with a similarly pointed focus on connecting campus mates. Who could have guessed where either would end up just five years later.

Review: Get Satisfaction Mon, 12 Jan 2009 01:34:27 +0000 Jeremy Get Satisfaction is a user generated content and community site that offers customer support for products and websites by providing a neutral space for companies and customers to connect. Users search for a product or company to find existing solutions and suggestions in effort to solve your problem. If you are unable to find your issue already resolved, you can ask a question, make suggestions, report a problem or offer praise. Other consumers and product representatives can respond to your questions and comment on your suggestions. Users can also vote on new features to raise their popularity and visibility to companies.

By centralizing the knowledge bases and support centers of many companies, consumers are able to more quickly find them and aren’t required to learn a new interface for each company they wish to investigate. The content and community are a great way to investigate the company behind the product when researching upcoming purchases.

Branded Experience
The Get Satisfaction website allows you to interact with multiple companies and products while enjoying a single interface. The vocabulary, iconography and colors are consistent throughout and collectively create a fantastic backdrop for the meat of the site: the user generated content. Using the site to get help and voice your opinion is easy and clear. It’s easy to imagine that getting just a single, but important, issue resolved using Get Satisfaction will generate considerable goodwill with the user towards the brand.

Product Innovation
Currently, the product has impressively narrow focus. They’ve managed to reduce customer service to four items that all seem to use the same versatile message thread concept: Questions, ideas, problems and praise. The site has several ways to view and add those items, but keeps the content organized in a way that new users and sponsoring company employees can manage.

The way I see it, the best innovation here is a conceptual one rather than a technical one. The value is in the neutral site that helps companies and consumers connect is a public way. That public record leverages the time and energy the company puts into answering each question. And, the consumers suggestions and concerns are leveraged into a group, which should make them more useful and prioritized for companies.

Online Application
It’s available online and free and easy to signup. It so easy to signup it even has a note above the submit button that casually reinforces this simplicity that reads, “Yep, that’s it.” The API allows companies to integrate the content and forms within their websites. And, where Get Satisfaction exploits the value on an online application is that is lets consumers piggyback on existing suggestions with their own takes and votes of agreement. The company now receives an organized thread of input instead of thousands of disconnected and un-actionable emails regarding a subject or idea.

Business Model
Monthly subscriptions charged to companies to manage their presence on the site.

Get Satisfaction is making the customer service experience more transparent so that consumers can hold companies accountable for shortcomings. Additionally, consumers are able to get together and voice their opinions about products and suggestions in a way that companies will have a hard time ignoring as the size of that group grows. Maybe one day we won’t have to wait 45 mins to talk to our phone company about our service anymore.

About Our Breakthrough Application Reviews:

Pound Interactive helps companies identify, visualize, engineer and grow breakthrough applications for the web. We define breakthroughs as game-shifting, market-creating websites and applications that empower consumers in ways unimaginable before the web.

Our process and research centers on three key areas that we believe make up breakthrough applications: product innovation, branded experiences and online applications. In this blog, we catalog and discuss breakthroughs we come across with the goal of better understanding the patterns that create breakthroughs.

Effective one page websites Tue, 30 Dec 2008 12:08:30 +0000 Jeremy Something I’ve always noticed and appreciated is an effective one-page product website. I’ve run across oodles of deep sites that couldn’t convince me to buy anything, yet I’ve often bumped into a simple, clear page that’s caused me to part with my cash within minutes.

This got me debating on why and when to use a one-pager and interested in finding a set of guidelines when creating one.

First off, I’ll concede that one-pagers are hard. Hard to pull off and even harder to convince a client or business manager to have the guts to commit to. Designing one- pagers is scary, because everything has to be perfect. Each item steals attention from the others, so every element and every word has to be scrutinized to ensure it supports the positioning and communicates the essence of the product.

Notice that I said the essence of the product, not the long list of values that you as the marketer or entrepreneur know inside and out, but the one core idea that will cut through the clutter. Don’t just have one idea or concept powerful enough to do that? Then your product might not be a candidate for the one-page marketing website. And, I would encourage you to focus your marketing and positioning as soon as possible.

Reviewing examples of what I consider to be clear and effective examples of one-pagers - meaning I feel more pages would diminish value rather than add it - I spotted a few patterns that seemed worth exploring.

Here are some guidelines to help inspire a one-pager for your product:

Positioning Tightly
Take a look at these one-pagers. The products have clear and focused positions:

None of those products are overly simple; they’ve just chosen to highlight the positioning and found creative ways to demonstrate their nuances in creative, non-obtrusive ways. I know if this product is worth my time immediately by reading the lead content:

We worship the Pacific Northwest and the incredible fruit that grows here. We offer it to you in a bottle.

Not interested in new sodas, no problem, You’ll know right away to leave. However, if I am a soda enthusiast, you had me at “worship.”

Another example:

Spontaneous, unobtrusive usability testing software for designers and developers.

Am I a designer or developer? If so, I am going to pay attention if I value usability testing (most do!).

There is another force in play in those examples that allow them to be so tight. They aren’t trying to convince or sell, they are simply well-crafted stances. No mention of “best” or “leading” in those value propositions.

Invest in Content
Above, I mentioned that those examples demonstrate their nuances in creative, non-obtrusive ways. Here’s a perfect example: the Classics app actually demonstrates the coolest features in a subtle iPhone rendering. It’s obvious by watching the demo that they’ve gone to great lengths to appease the most obvious objections the buyer might have, such as “how will I turn the page?” I would wager more than half the time spent on the entire one-pager was invested in the product demo.

The examples I’ve referenced in this post have few but striking visual elements and compelling copy. It’s remarkable that you can understand some of these unusual products by just seeing a single page. These one-pagers invested more in their content than their multi-page brethren and had the discipline to cut everything that didn’t add value.

Unveil the Product by Drilling Down
he communication in the examples I found to be effective can be summarized as a pyramid, with the leading positioning at the top, and the wider and deeper details being spoon-fed to the user as they move down the page. Some of the sites do this with size - where the bigger and brighter objects are the most important, followed by details in smaller text - and others use a top-to-bottom approach like the diagram below.

Two of the more concrete examples of this layered communication process are Silverback and Hotlips soda, where the layers are stacked on the page in a way that forces you to review one at a time before moving down the page.

You’re much more likely to be able to process considerable amounts of information if you are gradually exposed to it. But, unlike a multi-page website with standard navigation, the layered approach helps define how users take in the content and might increase the likelihood they see all of your argument.

A Simple Call to Action
None of the examples have watered-down offers. They were almost all or nothing, with the added ability to dip your toe in by downloading or trialing the product. With no mention to “call us if you don’t find what you need,” these sites offer a clear and decisive next step.

By reducing options, these sites remain effective and avoid the paralysis by analysis effect.
One-pagers seem like a great way to sell a new idea or capture a niche market. They may not be as appropriate for products with several markets. But, it would be interesting to simply test one-pagers for each of those markets.

Also, one-pagers aren’t just for inexpensive products and impulse buys. Consider the $163,000 home being sold with this one-pager: 8862 W. Dulcimer St.

Hopefully, this post will help you consider the one-pager and qualify if it’s right for your next project. More clever examples can be found on One Page Love, which, ironically, is not a one page site.

For reference, these were the sites that were considered effective for the review:

Release New Features Early and Often: Part II Wed, 17 Dec 2008 00:02:44 +0000 Jeremy In part I, I made the case for looking at features as having many releasable levels vs. just done or not-done. In this second part of the article, we’ll actually exercise the idea against an example to illustrate the nuances and benefits of this approach:

Imagine that a customer calls you to request the addition of search functionality to their case-study catalog. They sell rich content and research to academic customers; the easier the content is to find, the more they sell. She emails you a few links to some reference sites using similar functionality and sketches out how the results might appear. The result is the same if you iterate the design with them into a mature spec. You wind up with a detailed and all-encompassing vision of the new feature.

Once the end concept is relatively clear and both sides agree that the designed functionality has business value and is feasible, it’s time to look at this feature through a different lens. This neatly divides the robust feature into self-contained release levels, each resulting in value to the user or business.

We start by identifying various levels of implementation, first with the simplest, usable level imaginable. Err on the side of under-usable, as you can always hold back on releasing until a later layer, plus the early iteration may expose some questions or pitfalls with your assumptions. Continue to identify levels based on business or customer value until you’ve mapped all iterations from zero functionality to the most complete level. The number of levels you identify likely will depend on the size of the feature, ranging from two to five.

To revisit our example, we might have broken the desired functionality into the following criteria or sub-features:

- Basic keyword search
- Sortable search results
- Search within results
- Category and advanced search
- Fuzzy logic search (misspellings, similar terms)
- Live search count
- Recommendations as you type
- Vote on search results
- Save common searches

Now, let’s see if we can group these items into releasable levels, rank them by implementation time and identify dependencies on other levels. Make sure each of them offers tangible value, no matter how small.

Here is a sample table of our advanced search request broken down by release level:

Search Functionality Release Level Table

0) No search functionality Feature not implemented at all None
1) Standard search functionality This will be basic keyword search functionality in line with most websites. Users can type in keywords, specify which categories to search within and sort the results.
(Basic keyword search, Sortable search results, Category and advanced search)
2) Live search results with recommendations This will be basic keyword search functionality in line with most websites. Users can type in keywords, specify which categories to search within and sort the results.
(Basic keyword search, Sortable search results, Category and advanced search)
Level 1
3) Advanced search functionality This will allow users to save searches, search within large search results from any of the results pages and even overlook misspellings and connect similar or related keywords.
(Search within results, Fuzzy logic search, Save searches)
Level 1
4) User-influenced search Users can vote on moving search results higher, lower, or even out of the listing. Over time, this will make the search smarter and more in line with human expectations.
(Vote on search results)
Level 1

As you move through the table, you’ll see that each level brings increased complexity, implementation time and (hopefully) business value. A feature level table will not always require each previous level to be implemented before it can be added. In our example, the only real requirement was level 1: the standard search functionality.

Developing the search feature in levels will allow the business to prove the value that search adds to the product before we move into the higher levels, which might require more senior level engineers, more time and higher implementation cost. It would be perfectly acceptable for the business to re-evaluate the advanced search functionality if it felt it was pushing up against diminishing returns. Or, more likely, the user feedback from the release of the early levels will expose new requirements that prove more immediately valuable than the user-influenced search functionality (level 4).

Allow your customer to set the acceptable release point at any level they see fit, but still fully deliver the software at each level to benefit from internal feedback and iterative releases. I likely could see a product manager not wanting to release the search feature until live search was added (level 2), if that was the competitive benchmark. If the only release point your customer will accept is the last level, try to explain the risk they are unnecessarily exposing themselves to and the opportunity they will miss.

From experience, I can also bet that for all but the most seasoned teams, releasing the search functionality in levels will allow them to reach the fully functional end-level quicker and with less problems than a team who aims to develop the full functionality in one full shot. The value gained from the insight and feedback afforded by releasing software in iterations cannot be understated. If your customer or manager balks at releasing the new feature in levels and insists on a budget and time frame for releasing the full functionality, you might consider planning the software in levels anyway and simply providing the end budget and time estimate. At least you’ll know if you’re on track as you develop the levels, and you’ll be managing your implementation risk.

References and additional information
For additional information on feature levels and planning, see Business-Driven Product Planning Using Feature Vectors and Increments from the November/December 2002 of IEEE SOFTWARE Magazine.