In recognizing that we were finally in a position to start gathering real requirements from a prime new customer, I decided to move forward with building a prototype for a new product offering.
The Product team had known for some time that we had a legitimate gap in our product portfolio around an MS Office 365 Plug-In but we were not overly anxious as it was clear that the gap was not preventing the company from winning new deals. Even though our main competitor would regularly raise the issue with prospects during the sales cycle, drawing attention to our "deficiency", it had never cost us a sale.
The MS Office 365 Plug-In saga continues to unfold...
You can review the entire story through my past Product Decisions:
From the beginning, when this "urgent need" was first identified, I had been steadily pushing back on internal stakeholders (see sidebar). I knew we didn't have the available resources or bandwidth to tackle this and without a line of customers outside my "product door" clamouring to have the new feature, I was hesitant to even start conversations around the Plug-In.
What drove this decision
In the previous quarter, we had signed our biggest customer in the company's history and, in our lengthy discussions with them around their needs, we had identified the (missing) Plug-In as a key, must-have feature.
This one customer, when fully deployed, could have more than 2,000 people using the new Plug-In. Based on those numbers, it seemed reasonable to me that we now had a decent base of users from which we could start to gather some useful insights.
The decision: Complete a working prototype that we could use to drive productive conversations with customers around requirements
I was eager to start talking with and observing real users in the field but I didn't want to do that using the low fidelity and crudely fashioned proof-of-concept we had completed a few months back. It was time to build and start testing with a real, functioning prototype.
Plan of attack
We were still very early in the product cycle for this Plug-In and there was no pressure to cut corners or skip steps in our product discovery process. I wanted to make sure we used a disciplined approach.
In this first phase, we would create a prototype that would give our Tech team more confidence in what it would ultimately take to develop and support such an app AND that would give the Product Team enough material to have meaningful discussions with the first round of users.
Vet the feasibility of our technical approach with Engineering
I had some solid ideas for how to create an initial version of the Plug-In though it was fair to say that we would be forging into unfamiliar territory. The Tech team had never developed this kind of app but we knew we would be getting support from our friends at Microsoft who is one of our key technology partners.
The first step in building the prototype was making sure our team could nail down some of the technology challenges that we would face. For example, high on our list were questions about user authentication, API access, and deployment of the app to customers through Microsoft's "online store".
So, over the course of a few weeks, the team completed a functioning prototype that addressed these areas of concern. Now, more confident that we had cleared the most immediate technical hurdles, I proceeded with getting some internal validation.
Share the prototype with stakeholders inside the company
I very much wanted to show the prototype to our Sales Engineers. They had always been good product collaborators and certainly understood the broad use case for the Plug-In. I set up a meeting with them and the Product team and with the Engineers to get and record some early usability feedback.
On the way to that meeting, I made a small detour to give a brief demonstration to our CEO as a courtesy “first look". He had taken a keen interest in this initiative and had been stalking me for many weeks. And even though we had only addressed the most simple use case in this iteration, he was very impressed with our rapid progress. My only regret was letting an Engineer run the demo - who uses superheroes for their sample data? Ha!
I should have known not to let an Engineer run the demo - who uses superheroes for their sample data?
We then sat with the Sales Engineers and reviewed our current hypotheses with them. They see much more front-line action with prospects in the sales cycle and helped validate our approach, often tying back to their deals from the past weeks and months.
I then had each of them install the Plug-In on their own machines to test it out. The response was overwhelmingly positive and we could see them already thinking about how they might adjust their standard demo scenarios to incorporate this new component.
One of them suggested they start using the Plug-In immediately to help them with one of their own team activities and I offered to check back in with them in a few weeks to see how it worked for that additional use case.
Show it to the technology vendor on whose platform our prototype was built
We had invited representatives from our partner Microsoft into our office for a high-level meeting to talk about Office 365 integration among other things. The timing of their visit provided a perfect opportunity for a prototype demo and to show what we had achieved in the past few weeks, with some help from their own technical folks.
After setting up the customer scenario with the group, we walked them through the working prototype and talked through some of the challenges we had worked through to get to this point. The Microsoft team provided additional validation around our approach for the Plug-In and gave us some pointers for how we could move forward. Our remaining questions were captured and would be carried back to their teams to help get us the answers we would need before rolling this out, even to beta customers.
In the end, I was pleased to know that our partner was ready to help us with next steps. They also expressed interest in the upcoming deployment with our new customer as it would provide a great case study for both us and them.
With the Engineering team, I was able to work through a few of the big technical unknowns to build a working version of the Plug-In. By meeting with and showing off the Plug-In to a few internal resources, we were able to get some early, but solid validation. And in reviewing the finished work with the vendor on whose platform we had built the Plug-In, we confirmed that we were on the right track in how we were going to deploy and support the new product.
But none of this would be worth anything if we didn’t immediately start validating the Plug-In with actual users. That work would likely start the very next week and is lining up to be the next chapter in this series.