Pad your Pocketbook: Avoid Feature Creep

Feature creep. Scope creep. Slow and stealthy, this can take you by surprise if you’re not careful, and is a major driver of development costs.

Be wary of death by 1000 cuts. When building software, time and cost directly correlate with the features you want to include.

Picture this: Each feature you’ve carefully designed is simple, and has real value for users. But before you know it, your budget has doubled and you aren’t sure how you got there.

So how do you avoid this? This is a tough one because as a startup, you’re constantly evolving your product ideas. Changes are normal, and important, because they’ll get you closer and closer to the right product to test your market. Don’t be afraid of this.

As you go through product design, wireframing, and visual design, keep asking yourself the following questions:

1) Is this feature necessary for my MVP to work?

2) Is this feature part of the core value proposition of my product?

If the answer to either of these is “no”, consider putting that feature on your product roadmap for a future release.

Remember, by launching with a slimmed down MVP, you can test your idea with the market without too many sunk costs. It’s easier to scale up your product once you KNOW what to include, than to re-work what you THINK your market wants.

 

 

Build an MVP (Not the Kitchen Sink)

Keys to success. This month, we’ll be talking about common mistakes startups make, and how to avoid them. This is #1 of a 4-part series.

The Challenge

One of the top mishaps we see with startups getting off the ground is trying to build the kitchen sink. At this early stage, it’s easy to dream big about what could be – those sleek UI elements that’ll jazz up a user’s experience, that nice-to-have that would really make the product pop, and the handful of features needed just to meet comp. You’re vision-boarding what your business will look like – which naturally means that you’re thinking about those key market differentiators, and the polish that you’d expect from a fully-fledged product.

But watch out – while this is all critical to making your business a long-term success, trying to building the kitchen sink for an MVP can kill your product.

MVP = Minimally Viable Product

Consider the Pareto principle. In this case, we tend to see that 80% of the action happens in 20% of the product. That 20% is your MVP, and will capture most of what users will ultimately get to do with the product. The other 80% may be necessary to the product’s ultimate success, but isn’t necessary for launch. Ask yourself – are these features necessary for the product to be usable at launch? By necessary, we mean will the product cease to function without them or lose its core value proposition? Or could they be added in V2 or V3?

A Lean, Mean, MVP Machine

So why does this all matter? Why not just build the product as you envision it for round 1? A few reasons for this: 1) Time, 2) Cost, and 3) Investment.

1) Time: The longer you take to get to market with an MVP, the longer it’ll take you to start turning a profit, and the more runway you’ll need to self-fund.

2) Cost: The more features you add, the more expensive your MVP will be.

3) Investment: The purpose of an MVP is to test the market – do they really want your product? What do they like / dislike? Is it solving the problems you thought it would? If it turns out you’re wrong, by building an MVP, you won’t have invested all your $$s in a product that isn’t quite right. It’s easier to add features that you KNOW are right, rather than test features that might be wrong and have to go back and re-work them.

Ultimately, your biggest asset as a startup is your ability to be fast and flexible. You may not have all the money in the world, but you can do things quickly to respond to the market. Learn something new about a competitor? Change your product. Partnership opportunity just came up? Add the one feature they need to make it happen. Not quite sure what customers want? Test your hypothesis on the cheap, then pivot if you’re wrong.

The net-net

The purpose of an MVP is to test an idea with your market. Building a lean MVP saves you time and money, and gives you the flexibility to change course if needed. Features can always be added later when you have the resources to do so, and the market validation that you should.

Ready to streamline, but don’t want to lose track of those extra features? Check out our post on how to create your product roadmap, coming soon.

Bring the Vision to Life: Working with your Designer

This is #4 of a 4-part series on design for new products.

As we mentioned in our last post, working with a designer can be an incredibly rewarding experience. But how do you make sure that your end product actually looks how you want it? How do you get a product that feels like you? And what does the design process look like?

Let’s break it down into 3 pieces: 1) Illuminate, 2) Iterate, and 3) Communicate.

Illuminate

To kick off the design process, you’ll first want to illuminate your product for your designer. Your goal here is to “shine some light” on WHAT the product is, and HOW it should look.

WHAT: What’s your elevator pitch? What’s the value proposition of your product? How are you different than your competitors, and what about this do you want to come across?

HOW: At this point, you probably have a sense of what your app’s design should look like – either in visual terms, or at least what emotions and thoughts you want it to evoke in your users. You may even have some examples of things that you like / dislike. If you have one, share a portfolio with your designer showcasing examples of visual design that “feel” like your app. These can be other apps and logos, screenshots of UI’s that you love, pictures of street signs, advertising, or even storefronts and architecture that just feel right.

Try to pinpoint what about each of these elements appeals to you – is it because the blockiness of a building communicates strength and that’s part of your brand persona? Is it because you like a bright color for an app in the kids space?

And don’t forget to include what you don’t want your design to include – namely imagery or colors used by competitors.

Iterate

As with every creative process, you should expect a certain amount of back and forth with your designer once you’re ready to kick off. Now that you’ve shared your vision for the app, it’s time to iterate early, and iterate often.

Typically, you’ll be able to react to designs at several different stages (and in fact, this is something you’ll want to ask about when interviewing potential partners). Ideally, you’ll get to first see a few napkin-sketch options for color palette and theme; these are an easy way to provide some high-level direction about where you want to go with the design. Then, it’s often a good idea to have your designer mock-up what a landing page might look like before diving into the rest of the site. This will help you get a feel for how things will look in more detail, and can make some higher-level stylistic tweaks before applying that look-and-feel to the rest of the site.

At this point, your designer will create designs for every screen of your application. Because your app might have anywhere from 5-50 screens, it’s best to communicate frequently (and in detail) before getting to this point. It’s much easier to make stylistic changes earlier on – saving smaller, page-specific changes for this last stage.

So iterate early, iterate often, and….iterate positively (onto step 3).

Communicate

Design work, which can be based heavily on feeling, intuition, and creative inspiration, is personal in a way that programming is not. This is what makes custom design so special, and powerful. It’s important to keep in mind that when you iterate on designs, effective communication largely means focusing on the positive.

Two reasons for this: 1) Feedback resonates better, and more constructively, when it has a positive slant, and 2) It’s easier to steer your designer towards the right direction than away from the wrong direction.

Chances are, you already intuitively understand #1 – we’ve all been the recipients of constructive (and not-so-constructive) feedback, so let’s talk about #2. When it comes to designs, you’re presenting a concept with an essentially blank slate. That designers can turn something as nebulous as an idea into something that resonates with users in a visual way is to us, quite frankly, amazing (not being designers ourselves). And to get there, we’ve found that it can be tremendously effective to focus on what you do like, rather than what you don’t like.

Think of it like a map. There are an endless number of directions a designer can take a product – so by pinpointing what you do like, it’s much easier to continue turning down the right streets, to arrive at just the right destination.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t call out what you don’t like; avoiding the bad neighborhoods can be equally important to get to that simple, elegant, something special. Just be careful not to get stuck in the weeds.

So…there you have it. Illuminate, Iterate, and Communicate (positively). Now have fun!

Designer Dating: Find the Right Match for your Product

This is #3 of a 4-part series on design

“I read your last blog post on “Approaching Design”, and I think I want to go the custom design route. But I’ve never done this before and I’m not really sure where to start. How do I find a designer, and how do I know if they’re right for me?”

Working with a designer can be an incredibly rewarding experience, as you see the product you’ve been thinking and dreaming of come to life in a visual way. For our parent readers, it’s (*almost*) like meeting your baby for the first time 🙂 Ok, not quite, but you get the picture!

But how do you figure out whose style is right for you? Who’s your optimal match?

In a way, it’s a little bit like online dating. (*Disclaimer: The founders of Lionheart got married before Tinder hit the market, so we have a limited understanding of this world)

The first step to finding a designer is determining what YOUR personal & product styles look like. And these can be different things. Before you even reach out to designers, start building a “profile” of what feels like you and your app.

Take a look at brands you admire. Are there certain stylistic elements you like? Does bold, block lettering resonate with you? Does the color scheme for a particular app “feel” like your product? Are there signs on the street, business cards from colleagues, or even architectural elements in the world that strike you?

Once you have your profile completed, start looking for your match. Are there designers whose styles already feel like your app? They’re going to be a great place to start. But don’t forget the designers who have varied portfolios – sometimes the best fit is actually going to someone who can capture the unique visual persona of a particular app. The former will work really well for you if you have a pretty clear sense of what you want to accomplish visually; the latter can be gold if you have a general idea of your brand persona, but no particular affinity for certain visual elements.

A few tips:

  • Don’t be afraid to contact startups you admire directly if you like their visual style. Most will be happy to connect you with their designers (assuming they outsourced the design, which is typical for most early-stage companies).
  • Be patient – finding the right designer can take time.
  • Ask to see a portfolio, and have them explain their process. How many rounds of revisions do they typically include?
  • Start early. Don’t wait to start looking for a designer – ideally, you want to have someone lined up to start as soon as your wireframes are complete.

Ready to get going? Check out post #4 of the design series next week, on how to work with your designer for the best outcome.

Approaching Design: Custom vs. Off-the-Shelf

This is #2 of a 4-part series on design for new products.

Let’s talk about different approaches to design. As a startup, you have a couple of options when it comes to design (which we highly recommend doing before development – read why in our last week’s post). Assuming you’ve now completed your wireframes and understand exactly HOW your site is going to work, now it’s time to make it pleasing to the eye.

So what are my options?

Option #1: Custom Design

What is it?

With custom design, you’ll hire a trained designer who will take your wireframes and turn them into something beautiful. This means they’ll come up with the right color scheme, button style, imagery, and placement on the page to make the user experience seamless. Generally, when working with a designer, you’ll iterate multiple times before you get to your final product – starting with high-level sketches, a landing-page mockup, and then more final designs. The ability to provide feedback at every step in this process ensures that you’ll land exactly where you want with your final product, and is easy to hand off to development.

Is this right for me?

Do you have enough budget to cover custom design? Do you have enough time before you have to get to market? Do you feel that your product needs to strongly communicate a unique brand image? 

Is this right for my product?

Is your product a little bit more complex than the average app? Is UI going to be key to the user experience? Are you anticipating that your features might need a little more explanation, or guidance? Or do you really need to differentiate yourself from competitors in the market?

The Net-Net

Pros: By working with a designer, you’ll get exactly what you want. It’ll feel “right”, to you and your customer, and you won’t have to re-work anything down the line. A quick and easy handoff to development means little iteration will happen during programming (speeding up time and keeping costs down).

Cons: Can be expensive depending on how extensive your design is, and will take longer.

Option #2: Off-the-shelf UI

What is it?

Off-the-shelf UI components are essentially packages of visual elements that can be used by your developer to create your site. What does this mean? A package will include your theme colors, a particular style of buttons, headers, and links, and templates for app elements like dashboards, forms, messaging, and beyond. Each package is a little bit different, and will either focus on a particular style or type of app (e.g. a more data-driven package will have better templates for dashboards and graphs, a more standard package might have more templates around messaging and form submissions).

Some examples include: http://demo.bootstrap-ui.com/ / http://www.bootstrap-ui.com/, https://agileui.com/demo/monarch/demo/admin-template/index.html, http://demos.telerik.com/kendo-ui/bootstrap/, http://coreui.io/, http://demos.creative-tim.com/now-ui-kit/index.html

(Note: these examples are all free off-the-shelf UI components. While there are paid versions that are a little bit more customized, the free, open-sourced ones are going to be better quality since they’re more frequently updated).

With off-the-shelf UI, your developer will be the one implementing the design, which means there can still be a fair amount of back and forth about things like exact placement on a page – depending on how closely the package templates mirror your wireframes. And you’ll need to be a little bit more involved in those decisions than with a designer (whose wheelhouse it is to know the right answer).

Is this right for me?

Do you have a tight budget? Do you need to get to market really quickly?

Is this right for my product?

Is your product pretty intuitive to use, with a fairly small feature set? Are the calls-to-action something your users will easily understand? Is your product more like a utility than an experience (i.e. doesn’t require as strong of a brand image)?

The Net-Net

Pros: Cheaper and faster, can be sufficient for very simple applications.

Cons: Requires more iteration with your programmer (who is likely not a designer) and may cause some re-work (both in the initial phase, and down the line when you’re ready to further customer your product). Also offers less customization for your individual brand.

Not sure what to do next? Check out next week’s post on how to find the right designer for your product.

Why Design First?

This is the first of a 4-post series on design for new products.

If you’re a founder, you’re probably pretty concerned about three things when it comes to building your product: saving money, getting to market fast, and having a great product. And remarkably, there IS actually a silver bullet that’ll help get you there – and that’s design.

Design has a lot of perks:

  1. It’s easy to test an idea, in a low-cost way
  2. It reduces iteration when it comes to development (saving time and money)
  3. You can sell a team & investors on a design-focused vision – whether or not you have a working product.

Let’s talk about #1: Test before you invest.

Design lets you test your theories in a low-cost way. This allows you to build to what you KNOW. You’ll never go wrong by collecting user feedback early, and design is one of the many ways to do this.

While some early market research will identify what pain points you need to address, it can be really hard to get good feedback on the nitty-gritty UI unless you have designs that clearly illustrate the vision. You’ll be amazed at how many things you thought were critical turn out to be “nice-to-haves”, or even cumbersome and unintuitive when they’re mapped out on a page. And the more you can cut from “need-to-have”, the leaner, meaner, and lower cost your MVP will be.

It’s much cheaper to change designs than code, which brings us to…

#2: Save, don’t slave.

Spending the time to get good designs can take a while, but it’ll pay dividends down the line. And it’s critical to get them right BEFORE you build – to avoid putting lipstick on a pig.

What happens if your designs aren’t done? Here’s a list of what you might run into in development:

  • You realize you’re missing a page for contact information. Now you have to go back to designs, and add the page in (which takes time).
  • You decide to add a new button, and have to go through several iterations to figure out where it should go – which requires re-working the code to move other buttons around (which takes more $$).
  • You realize you haven’t really thought through how users will move through a particular flow, and that the current UI is clunky. Now you have to re-work the entire thing, which generally means your code is messier and more prone to bugs (takes time and $$).

This kind of re-work can turn development into a slog. It’s not good for your morale, your developer’s code quality, or your pocketbook.

It doesn’t matter if your designs are sleek and sexy – if your product isn’t built to match from the ground up, it’s still a pig.

#3: Sell the sizzle, not the steak.

Let’s face it – building a product from the ground up is expensive. And it can be hard to bootstrap all the way, which means you’re often looking for funding BEFORE you start development.

But there’s a catch-22: investors would rather fund a working product.

As we discussed in #1, it can be really hard for people to understand exactly what your product does without visual designs. And we’ll let you in on a little secret – showing off really complete, well-executed designs has basically the same impact as a demo with a working backend. So by doing your designs up-front, you’ll demonstrate that you’ve not only done your research, you’ve thought through the ins-and-outs of your product, and have the design sizzle to polish it off.

So do yourself a favor: design first.

P.S. There’s an important component of “Design” that we haven’t talked about here – which is designing WHAT the product is, not just HOW it works. This is just as important as designing before building – and we’ll talk about that next month on the blog (small teaser for our series on “Mistakes Startups Make – and How to Avoid Them”).

New Year, New Lionheart

Welcome, friends, to the new Lionheart Software blog!

Our mission in 2018 is to bring you the best of Lionheart – whether  you’ve worked with us in the past, want to do what we do, or are beginning your own startup journey as a founder.

Over the past 8 years, we’ve learned a lot (mostly through trial and error) about what works, and what doesn’t work when it comes to building and launching products. And we’ve evolved from pure software development to helping startups with pretty much everything they need to get off the ground – both technical and marketing.

We’re really proud of what we do, and how successful our clients have been. So this year, we’re committed to sharing our secret sauce with you, in a few different formats.  

The Blog

Each month, we’ll post a series of articles on a theme. January will cover “Design”. Stay tuned for “Market Research for Startups”, “Top Mistakes Startups Make”, “How to Save Money While Building an MVP”, “Secrets from Successful Founders”, and much more.

The Newsletter

Our new monthly newsletter will keep you  up to date on what’s going on with Lionheart (new product releases, cool things our clients are doing). We’ll also highlight what’s on the blog, and give you a pulse on what’s going on in the security space – and any fixes you need to stay protected. 

The Podcast

The Lionheart podcast will answer questions from founders about ideating, designing, building, and launching products. We’ll feature different startup founders to weigh in on topics like scaling, managing a tech-enabled but capital intensive business, and more.

The Products

For the first time, Lionheart will be releasing a series of tools – that are good for developers, and good for founders. These are the culmination of our best practices, and get ready – they’re going to make your life SO much easier by automating, and saving you money. More teasers coming soon…

So stay tuned! We have a lot of great stuff coming down the pipeline, and you won’t want to miss out.