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How does your team decide what to build? Everyone has good ideas, so how do you know which ones to do first? If you are like many teams today, you are working to develop a customer-focused and data-driven process to answer these questions. This is often started by prioritizing your goals and defining the types of information you will need to be data-driven. Awesome! The next step is to work through the logistics of getting this information, analyzing it, sharing it out, and iterating. This is where the challenge comes in – it turns out that often the information you need to build that amazing product can be really difficult (or expensive) to get, and it can take almost as long as building the actual product.

This leads to a tough choice: Do you commit to expensive research and wait for the results to plan the product? Or, just get started now with ‘best effort’ research, and use educated guesses to plan the product? The problem with both options is they require significant investments: either in research, product development or both. And once the significant investment is committed, there is suddenly building pressure for all lights to turn green and the project to deliver. Locking you into strategies and designs before you are certain they are the right ones.

There is another way!

At Much Finer we believe there is a better way, one that we have evolved over years of experimentation. We have found that they key is to change the calculus of the problem. Here’s how we would improve upon this process:

  1. Better, faster, cheaper customer research – we would start by taking advantage of the explosion of with new tools and techniques for customer research using existing panels of targeted demographics. Using these tools, big traditional research projects can be replaced with many smaller, faster, cheaper research tools that are self-service and have best practices built-in. This way you can run a series of studies building on each stage of learnings to correlate results or drill into details.
  2. Build experimentation into your product – in addition to direct customer research, every team should be building experimentation features directly into their product. From A/B and usability testing of early design comps and prototypes, to full flighting in the final release. There are many 3rd party full service tools that provide all of the heavy lifting and analytics so all your team should have to do is turn it on and come up with experiments to run.
  3. Build feedback mechanisms into your product – direct customer feedback is the ‘3rd leg’ of this approach. From early beta customers to live site feedback, there are many services that provide everything you need to collect, analyze and manage this information. Feedback adds color to your experiments to better understand the results, and helps you find nuanced issues in your product.
  4. Everybody is an analyst – one of the primary benefits of the tools and methodologies listed above is that they are almost all self-service with best practices, and education built in. This means that anyone on your team should be able pick the tools up and be productive very quickly. This helps democratize research and gives everyone a stake in the product design. Don’t agree with the direction? Kick off your own series of tests and see what you can learn about your hypotheses. If the results are positive, you now have data to go back to the group with so the team can make an informed decision.

Our goal at Much Finer will be, first and foremost, to provide a path for any team to get started to try these techniques out on their projects. We’ll publish articles, videos and trainings for teams on the best tools and methodologies for each need. Over time, we plan to build our own set of tools to fill in the missing gaps in the marketplace, with a special focus on the unique requirements of larger teams. We plan to release our first product in April 2013, the Quickturn Tool. It will enable teams to conduct A/B tests with design comps using a crowd-sourced group of representative customers for results in about 1 hour for about $15. Sign up for an invite!

Be sure to follow our RSS Feed and our Twitter feed, where we’ll be posting weekly updates on best practices for applying these technics in your development process!

Nathan Buggia is co-founder of Much Finer and formerly a Principal GPM at Microsoft’s Bing, where his team was responsible for Bing’s Core User Experience.

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Much Finer provides User Research as a Service for Product Designers, so they can get high quality user reasearch earlier in the development cycle

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