How I Go From Idea to Product

How to take a new idea for a feature, website or app and turn it into an actual product? Well, for me, it’s a 5 step process. The more time I spend on the first two, the easier the rest is. None of it is complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. The five steps are as follows:

  1. Clearly Outline the Goals
  2. Create a Clear Flow of How It Will Be Used
  3. Design the Interface
  4. Build the Implementation
  5. Make It Live (Market It or Push It)

Now these steps apply at all levels of the idea stage. You can use these 5 steps when building a brand new service from scratch, or adding a feature to your existing product. It can also be used to evaluate existing features or flows that you don’t feel are getting the conversions they should be.

For the rest of this article, we’re going to look at actually doing this for a feature. Let’s say, you and your team have decided that you need to build a voting system for the posts on your site. You could just wing it, fly by the seat of your pants and build something. And it could work, it could be fine. Or, you could follow these steps, and KNOW that it will work and it is the best implementation possible with the given information. That doesn’t mean it will be perfect, or that you’ll never have to change it. But those changes are hopefully driven by new data, not ‘just because’.

The first step, Clearly Outline the Goals. Sounds easy enough, but honestly, this is the hardest step of them all. What are the goals of a voting system then? Well, primarily I’d say so that your users can find the best posts written. So they can quickly see which post on a given topic has the most ‘bang for the buck’. Oh, this one only has 2 votes and it was published a year ago? It probably isn’t very good. But THIS one has 150 votes and was published 24 hours ago? I want to read that. Now that might seem like kind of a long goal, since we’re trained to want one-liners or catchy titles to pitch at business meetings – which is fine. But that doesn’t help you build the best implementation possible. Be verbose, use as many words as it takes to make it clear. If you give it to your 10 year daughter, does she understand what the point is behind the feature? If so, you’re probably good. If not, you should probably figure out what the problem is.

The next step, Creating a Flow for the feature. The amount of effort this takes largely depends on the scale of the idea. If you’re going through these steps for something that doesn’t exist, this will probably take a significant amount of time. Don’t half ass it. Draw it on paper, create flow charts, create a Power Point. Do all of it. Make it so that if you quit the day after finishing the first two steps, the next guy could pick up right where you left off, without having to call you. What does the flow look like? Well, there are two. The first one is as a voter, the second is as a reader. As a voter, I want to read the article, and then vote. So putting the vote buttons at the top of the article is probably not a very good idea. As a reader, I want the votes BEFORE I read the article. So don’t make the user click the article to see how many votes it has. Be forth-coming with information, you’re not selling something. Don’t bait & hook.

Now steps three and four can switch places depending on what you’re doing. If you’re not sure how to build it, and have no idea technically what it is going to take, start on the back-end, start on the implementation. As soon as you have a clear idea though, go back and Design It. Designing it and creating the flow can often times go hand in hand. Sometimes naturally a design will start to come in just based on the flow. But both steps are important to keep separate.

Designing the Interface, it’s really important to get creative here. I highly recommend starting on actual paper. Cut it all up, put it on a board, use strings to connect the dots. Do whatever you have to, but have fun & be creative. Once you finish that, go into your favorite image editor and design it all out. Now you can build a mock-up of it in HTML and make sure that it all translates well. The reason you start on a piece of paper is because it doesn’t take any effort to toss the paper to the side & start over. If you take the time to try and make everything on the computer, you tend to get attached to the first draft because it took effort to create, you became emotionally attached to the design. That is a good way to shoot yourself in the foot. So for our votes feature, we need a design for our thumbnail/excerpt that readers will see. Then we need to design the actual vote up (or down) buttons that are at the bottom of the post.

Building the Implementation by now you should have a clear idea of the flow, and exactly what it will look like. That should make building the implementation a snap. If the previous steps were done well, and as a collaborative effort within the team, that should drastically reduce the amount of time spent asking & answering questions. Having someone from each department involved (design, development, management, etc) as soon as possible in all of the steps will also help. It is frustrating for everyone involved when a design goes to development, just to have development say that the design isn’t feasible/possible. Eliminate this by making sure everyone is collaborating, and communicating their thoughts effectively.

The last step, Make It Live. This step depends again on what you’re doing with this exercise. If you’re adding a feature like our votes, then make it live and use funnel conversions to prove your feature works. Don’t just assume it works, do your best to prove changes. This is also a good mindset to get into when making changes. Prove there is a problem, and WHAT and WHERE the problems are. Don’t assume anything. If you’re using these steps for creating a whole new service, then this step is also marketing. Market the crap out of it. Be proud, tell the world about what you and your team just built. If you’re excited about it, then your end-users will be too.

Those are the 5 steps I typically take when planning & building things. It’s a lot to go over in a single blog post. I will probably do focused blogs on each of the steps at some point, walking through a real-life situation complete with pictures & code. But I will have to plan that out some more, and I have other topics I want to write about before then. So stayed tuned, lots of interesting things coming up!


Ideas? I have dozens of those…

I come up with new ideas for services, apps or businesses all the time, almost every day. Now, obviously I can’t do them all. There just isn’t that many hours in a day. So how do I decide which ones to pursue? I guess there isn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to it, at least, not a lot. Mostly it just has to do with how clearly I can see the entire roadmap of the idea. For example, sometimes I think of an idea, which sounds great, but after I think about it a little more I realize there isn’t a very good way to execute it, given my current situation.

For example: I have a game that I’ve wanted to ‘play’ for years. The play part is key here, and we’ll get back to that in a minute. The idea behind the game is that the better you get in real-life, the better you get in the game. So if you get stronger in real-life, you get stronger in the game. Same goes with the rest of the skills or levels in the game (as far as they make sense, obviously I don’t envision people actually mining, or forging things out of metal). Now, a game like this doesn’t exist. Since I want to play it, I can guarantee others would want to play it too. Which is the key to a good idea, if it’s an issue or a want in your life, there is a good chance that it’s an issue or problem in someone else’s too.

Now, occasionally I pursue various ideas for this game or maybe a more toned down version. Or even sometimes I get inspired about a story-line that could fit well with the game. When I get inspired, I don’t argue with myself, I just work on it. I have dozens of files, and multiple different version, languages & concepts all relating to ‘The Game’. I’ve given it different names at different times, and it’s had a few different premises, but the core dream has never changed. But why don’t I just pursue it for 6 months and get a beta version working? Simple, I’m not in a position currently to do that.

What I mean is, there are other things more important to me. There are other things I want to build. There are also skills required to make the game that A) I don’t have, B) I don’t want. In order to truly accomplish what I want, it would have to be made using some kind of Virtual Reality system. I’m not a graphics designer or graphics programmer. I can do it, but it would take me years to get to the point of being able to design & implement a game in a VR setting. But if I could hire a team of developers & artists to help me accomplish my dream, I would. That is where planning out ideas comes in.

Since I can’t hire a team of people right now, I’ll work on ideas that I can actually get to ‘shippable’ by myself, or with 1 other person. Though this sounds easy, I assure it is not. It still requires hours of work, and thought and methodical planning. Plus, outside of just creating it, you need a marketing plan. Otherwise you just spent a ton of time, to not make any money. There are 2 trains of thought that I have come across as far as ‘when to market’ goes.

One train of thought, is if the product isn’t perfect, marketing it and having people finding bugs/errors/flaws with it will kill your company. The second one is, push fast, fix faster. The idea behind the second train of thought is (especially in terms of a web service) nothing is permanent. You can fix the issues faster, if you know what they are. If no-one is using features D & E of your service, why fix the bugs in them? If people are using feature B in a way you didn’t originally intend, why spend a few dozen hours making it perfect, just to make a 90 degree turn to meet the actual needs of the end-user?

I can’t necessarily say which one is better. Both have been done in successful products. What I can tell you, is having a marketing PLAN is never a bad thing. You don’t need a product to have a plan. You only need an idea to have a plan. If you can’t see the entire road for taking your idea from a thought, to a profitable business, then the likelihood of it ever getting done is almost non-existent. You can think about a plan the entire time your designing, creating & building.

So in conclusion, how do I decide which ideas to pursue? The ones where I can clearly see how it will become a profitable business. How I can build it, design it and market it. If I can’t see all of those things, usually it doesn’t even stay in my head that long, because it usually means there is a core disconnect between the problem-scope that the idea solves, and the solution I thought of.

SEO… Yourself?

I was reading one of Cap Watkins’ old blog posts (which you should definitely check out, along with his other writings), The end of self-curation the other day, and it really got me thinking.

I agree that ultimately the idea that this generations parents are probably not going to be keeping a box of pictures in the attic. And really, I think this blog post probably pertains more to people professionally than personally. But you never know.

So what then? In a world where your whole life and story are on social media, how do you make sure that people are finding out the parts of you that you really want them to? I remember back when I got my first “official” job as a developer, which was as an intern at DealerTrend, I was talking with one of my co-workers and the topic of “SEO’ing yourself” came up. Wait a minute. What the heck does that even mean? I don’t want to be found, why would I do that?

Look, it doesn’t matter if you want to be found, or not. If you’re on social media, the world can see you. Your family, your employer, and frankly your stalker. You may have all those fancy privacy settings turned on, but it doesn’t matter. You’re still out there, in some dark corner of the Internet, there is a section dedicated to you. Which means, you might as well embrace it, and SEO your online presence. Which, really means, make the things you want people to know easier to find, so they stop looking for the things you don’t want them to. But… How do I actually do that?

Well, lot’s of ways. One way, especially professionally, is to create your own website (or blog). And given how easy that is now-a-days, there isn’t really any excuse NOT to. You can also have social media accounts that you update regularly that are public, and have a 2nd one that just your friends on are. If someone finds your public one, they’re going to see what you want, and in all likelihood, stop looking for anything more. Even on a personal level, why not have one that is dedicated to just things important to you? That way when your kids are wondering who you were ‘back in the day’ they can see the things that spoke to you the most, and not just whatever your fleeting thought for that day was – along with the cruft & things other people thought you wanted to see.

I am sure there are tons of different ways to SEO yourself. I would even venture to say that it’s like a website – it isn’t something you can ever stop doing. Especially because the rules of the Internet are changing by the hour right now.

If you have more ideas about how to SEO yourself, I’d love to here from you. Shoot me a message, and let’s chat about it.