During my experience as an Agile Coach, I have been able to support many clients in the development of their product and bring them real business opportunities.

The agile approach has always proved to be very efficient in the development phase, especially in reducing the risk of rework related to the product.

The mechanisms of constant inspection and adaptation minimise surprises when the product is released (and therefore minimise time and cost).

So yes, agile based on empiricism, allows us to get the feature out the door and offers us substantial time savings.

However, in the design phase of a product, Agile did not provide an empiricism based framework to create the best possible product. And we know how powerful empiricism is in finding the right market fit (cf. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries).

So I started looking for a while until I came across Lean.

At Nimbleways, my evolution and learning are based on Lean management. A management paradigm which aims to improve the quality of work and productivity of Nimbleways staff by avoiding waste for our clients.

So, if I apply the Lean to product design, I should be able to solve 2 issues :

  1. How to compress the time even further to get the product right and get a product that the user can't live without?
  2. How to break the glass ceiling of reducing the time to market of a product and optimise the value delivered to the customer?

So I started from there, talked to some experts and tried to apply Lean principles in product design.
Shortly, I had the opportunity to apply my learning through the support I was able to give to a start-up, which I will anonymize under X.

First of all, some background: what is X and what is it trying to solve?
In 2019, the co-founders of X realized that despite the existence of a financing offer by banks, only few SME in Africa benefit from it. In order to fill this gap,  X had set up a platform to connect entrepreneurs and fund providers to democratise access to funding for entrepreneurs.

However, the platform remains underused by their customers  who find it easier to call them on the phone for any action/information.

Now, I will expose the 4 techniques I used to succeed in designing a product :

  1. Gemba
  2. Value Stream Map
  3. Key preferences
  4. Heritage and legacy

1. The philosophy of the Gemba, "the real place" in Japanese

Of course, we can imagine what users think of a product, what they feel when using it, but nothing is certain unless we go directly to the field.

This practice allows us to observe precisely what the user really wants to achieve in a given situation with existing unsuitable products.

In addition to the functional dimension, this observation also includes the emotional dimension. This is called the Job to be done (JTBD) and allows us to validate our hypotheses on several aspects :

● The value perceived by the user

● How users solve their problems

● What users are looking to do

● What is most important to users

● What emotions we need to touch

With my help, the founders agreed to do a Gemba and go directly to interview and observe customers and prospects in action. When we went out into the field, we realised the root cause : the platform did not offer simple and comprehensive information to the client, who suffered from a lack of visibility on the progress of his credit application. The user even indicated that he is uncomfortable having to contact the start-up frequently to ask for information regarding his application and would have preferred to have the information accessible and permanently available on the platform.

We can therefore see that once we observe the users and collect precise verbatims , there is no longer any room for interpretation. By going into the field, we try to find the gaps in the existing solutions that we want to fill with our solution.

The Gemba is not the ultimate goal. It is a recurring or ongoing practice that allows us to identify poorly executed "jobs" in the user experience in order to design products aiming at improving these jobs.

The value is in the data we collect and the actions that will be implemented in response. Understanding the "job" or which customers hire a product helps us develop products more accurately and align them with what customers are already trying to accomplish.  

2. The Value Stream Map (VSM)

A product covers 2 macro processes : purchasing and customer consumption. Each one can be divided into several sub-processes.  A VSM is a visual representation of all the activities of a given sub-process.

VSM is a practice that aims at improving the entire customer process in order to optimise the product's ability to deliver value.

By diagramming the sub-processes, we can more easily :

● List the steps in the product consumption process

● Measure the lead time of each step and possibly the stagnation time between each action

● Isolate the value-added experiences from those generating waste

● Verify our hypotheses through field observations (see Gemba above)

This technique allows us to push performance on the value-added steps, and reduce or even eliminate the steps that create waste

In the case of our start-up, the founders promise to support their client over 3 main steps to obtain financing. However, at no point are the deadlines for each step of the process clearly mentioned to the client.

By doing the VSM exercise, we were able to clearly identify each of the steps and understand the dependencies between them, and to identify the stagnation time between each experience.

The VSM enabled us to detail the reasons for the long lead time (we called it time to money): once the application is handed over to the bank, X has little control over lead time. Thus, this allowed the founders to :

● Make a commitment to consumers on the deadlines for stages with a fixed lead time

● Provide explanations to customers

Time  allocation between categories of tasks before and after VSM analysis and action plan

Added value is created by reducing waste and making room for tasks with higher added value (and then for ancillary tasks).

3.  The key preference for the wow effect

In many cases, it is possible to come up with a product that works by following a set of specifications to the letter. However, as a consumer, our attention to purchase or consumption is controlled by the right part of the brain (the emotions part).

The exercise of listing core features that are necessary to trigger purchase and drive usage is called defining key preferences.

This is why, for X,  we first wanted to understand the emotion sought by users and not the list of features that we want to find in the product.

Through the Gemba, we realised that X's current platform triggers several emotions but that the user is still looking for one particular emotion: to be reassured by having visibility on the timeline!

So, for each key preference we identified a key feature to try and meet the JTBD.

This is how we were able to define a set of performances to be achieved in order to fully satisfy the customer and create a Wow effect.

In our case, the Wow effect of the platform will be to make the financing process, known to be an obstacle course that inspires anxiety, a simple, transparent and efficient process.

Moreover, sometimes trade-offs need to be made between some features to support the key preferences.

The general concept is to obtain a service that avoids the anguish of talking to traditional banks and financiers, that protects from their hellish and incomprehensible processes and provides a pleasant, friendly and efficient exchange interface

We conclude that by equipping the product with features that do the job and create an emotional relationship between the product and its user, we can create a wow effect and  build loyalty.

4. The core features vs. evolving ones - Heritage vs. Legacy

So far, we have learnt the techniques for identifying what we are trying to do for the customer (JTBD) and how to define the 'right design' for a product.

This may  suggest that the challenge of developing innovative and impactful products is to bring new features or technologies to market and hope that customers will like the result.

However, let's not forget to take a step back.
It is obvious that we need to look, on a regular basis, at what is not working in the product, what needs to change before the market calls us to order.

However, we must not forget to also analyse what works and what absolutely must not be changed.
At this point, one of the real challenges of innovative product development is also to deeply understand the difference between "heritage" and "legacy".

Heritage : those technologies and processes that "make" the product. They need to be protected and nurtured because they give the product uniqueness. They are the elements that provide the fundamental value at the heart of customer loyalty.

Legacy : those technologies and processes that must be renewed to adapt to changing customer tastes and to eliminate weak points in the product. These are the elements that become obsolete, slow us down and have to be abandoned to move on to something else.

Meeting the challenge therefore comes down to finding the balance between 2 points:

● Keeping what constitutes the DNA of the product (heritage) so as not to lose the trust of the customers.

● Changing what holds us back (legacy) so as not to prevent us from innovating quickly.

The technologies and processes covering these points constitute the re-use strategy in designing the new platform for X.

To conclude, the 4 techniques we went through can allow you to :

1. Determine the product vision and the users for whom we want to create the wow effect

2. Improve some features without deteriorating others in order to meet the JTBD and create an emotional connection with the product

3. Focus on on the value-added steps, and reduce or eliminate the wasteful steps

4. Define the boundary between heritage and legacy in order to get the product manager on board, but also the CEO as this is a very strategic issue for the company.

Finally, people don't simply buy products; they introduce them into their lives to make progress. We call this progress the "job" they are trying to get done, and understanding this allows us to develop the product that we can't live without and we have a deep emotional attachment to.