I can bet we all have a shared experience of using a product that was not what we expected it to be.
The product was either faulty, or it simply did not solve any of the problems we acquired it for in the first place.
And that is because creating a useful and meaningful product is not easy. There are many elements to take into consideration when building anything, whether it is a physical item or a piece of software. There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes that an average person may not understand or even be aware of. And they don’t have to be.
Netguru sat down with Tom Brammar, CTO of Stackin’, and experts from the Netguru team to help people grasp how to create meaningful products and how to avoid building faulty ones. They discussed topics such as aligning solutions that fit business requirements, delivering on the product vision while on a deadline, and how to work with clients who provide little direction.
Creating solutions that meet business requirements
It may be hard to believe, but companies often build products that do not fit the business requirements they intend to solve. It’s quite common that products get built without any clear direction. This is because companies aren’t really sure what they’re trying to solve and what business requirements need to be addressed.
In many instances, a company wants to ride the wave of the latest technology or wants to introduce a technology into the company for the first time. Although at first glance this may seem like an easy solution to streamline processes, or even eliminate entire departments, when you take a closer look it’s not that simple. In fact, introducing cutting-edge technology can cause more harm than good for certain companies in the long run.
“Technology is the catch-all bucket of which any problem you can think of gets thrown into,” Brammar says. “In any business, if they see a problem with a department or want to address a new market, their first attempt is to try to fix it with technology without understanding how the technology can be the solution.”
Patryk Szczygło, a mobile developer at Netguru, sees this as an all-too-common scenario.
“I often see clients who come and seek the latest technology without understanding it,” Szczygło says. “And as consultants, we try to tell them that this technology may not be the right fit for their project. But all they want is the rising technology, so it’s not easy to persuade them to use something older, but more suitable for the project.”
For service providers such as Netguru, this can pose a serious challenge when working with clients. If they’re vague on the problem they want to solve, or have broad business requirements, this makes our job of building a meaningful product difficult.
“You can only work with what you are given,” Brammar says. “And if the people you are working with are not themselves familiar with what their requirements are, or what they’re trying to achieve, that’s very, very hard for you to execute.”
But in the end, if the vision and product goals are unclear, it’s up to the service provider to bring any issues to light and propose solutions to the client, says Gabriela Bryndal, a product designer at Netguru.
“It may sound trivial, but in order to actually understand the business requirements, or the problem itself, we need to ask the proper questions,” Bryndal continues. “It’s super important to ask open-ended questions, and to always challenge the problem that we are facing. Especially from a product design perspective. At every stage of the process, we should ask ourselves: ‘Will this product actually solve the problems that we want to solve?’”
Delivering on a time crunch
Delivering a quality product that is aligned with the client’s vision, all while under strict deadlines, can be difficult. Not to mention, it can bring about a substantial amount of stress.
In many scenarios, software companies may sacrifice the quality of the product in order to close tickets and deliver on time, just to make the client happy. Although the deliverables are technically completed in time, it may actually pose serious problems for the client and the product in the long run, according to frontend developer Bernard Klatka.
So how does one deliver a product that is aligned with the client's vision on time?
“Pretty tricky question actually,” starts Klatka. “It happens quite a lot. We tend to fall into this trap where we are so focused on delivering tickets that we actually cut corners on the quality. I think it’s up to the mindset of the person responsible for the work. They should be able to deliver a number of tickets in the sprint, but even more than that they should focus on the quality, and think for the long term.”
However, focusing on the long term may not be enough. It needs to be vocalized.
“Sometimes it’s better to firmly say no,” Klatka says. “To have the courage to say: ‘No, sorry, I won’t be able to deliver it because I won’t have the time to do it properly. And if I cut corners right now, we will end up with a problem later. It will be a bad foundation for our product.’”
If the service provider has built a great line of communication with the client, saying no and being vocal about not meeting an unrealistic deadline should not be a problem. In essence, all business deals are based on relationships and in order to have a great relationship there needs to be trust and a lot of straightforward communication. That means telling your client your thoughts, even if it’s not what they want to hear.
More importantly, it’s also up to the service provider to keep their word and deliver on their promises.
“The most important thing to begin with on any project that you work on is basically under promising and over delivering,” Brammar says. “With whatever the first deliverable is, if you can do that, you build a huge amount of political capital with that client. If you can set a deadline and you can meet that deadline, it becomes a huge plus in your box.”
If that capital is built up on a strong foundation with a client, working under pressure and trying to meet a deadline should help to alleviate any pressure that may be felt in order to deliver a quality product. Your previous actions should speak for themselves, and if you tell the client you need more time because it’s best for the product, they’ll listen.
“You have to build that conviction and trust between you and the client,” Brammar says. “That when you say, ‘Look I’m sorry, we can’t do this in this time frame and if we do it, we’ll jeopardize the whole project.’ The partner would most probably react with: ‘Okay, I take onboard what you’re saying because I trust what you do.’”
Reconciling technology and business
To allow for a product to be successful, it’s crucial to put egos aside and do what’s best for the business. Although this may seem hard to do, especially if individuals or teams feel passionate about certain product features or the product vision, it is possible for technology and business goals to co-exist.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a fundamental struggle in reconciling business and technology,” Klatka says. “I would say it’s a matter of communication between the two.”
Communication is the key here, yes. But also it is making the effort to understand the other side’s point of view and taking the time to translate it into the product.
“It’s a matter of mutual understanding, because business and technology are just two different languages,” Klatka says. “We are software engineers, we translate the business language product owners speak into the software language. Basically, our goal is to understand what the client would like us to create.”
According to project manager Bastien Hugon, the more a service provider can understand a client’s business goals and vision, the easier it is for the provider to steer the client in the right direction.
“We work with what we get,” Hugon says. “We can adapt to the context we are given, and do our best within those circumstances. But when a client comes to us with ideas and technologies that don’t bring us closer towards the product vision, we should be the experts who point them in the right direction.”
How much to invest emotionally?
Many clients view agencies or service providers as an extension of their own team. Because of this, many times they’re not looking for feedback on their products. They’re looking for the agency to only perform the job they are contracted to do, and that is it.
So it’s a struggle at times for agencies or contractors to know when to get involved in the discussion about the business goals and client’s vision. Usually if a service provider has more ownership over a product and is allowed to ask the right questions, the evolution of the product can be significant.
But how do you know which clients should give you more ownership?
“Business is about relationships,” Brammar says. “If the project manager, the account manager, or even the engineers have a good relationship with the business, they should be able to detect when they can be involved in a process or an idea and bring that additional value.”
And if they’re able to insert themselves into a role with bigger ownership, the client tends to be grateful for that.
“What actually makes our clients come back to us or prolong a project, is that we advise them and question them if it’s necessary, whenever we believe there are better solutions,” Bryndal says. “And we want to deliver the best products possible, always.”
Of course, there are clients who may not appreciate this approach and favor keeping things simple and getting work done to the point it was requested, as Szymon Sobecki, a quality assurance specialist at Netguru, points out.
“We can only go as deep as the clients allow, right?,” Sobecki says. “We have about 100 projects, and in the majority of them apart from the assigned job, we’re looking for improvements. But unfortunately we still have projects where we know from the beginning that they won’t be introduced.”
Dealing with immunity to change
Imagine this scenario.
A client hires a service provider, but they are reluctant to share details about their project or the business requirements. They’re just looking for someone to help them bring their initial idea to life.
However, the service provider sees a glaring problem and suggests a solution or an alternative to fix the problem. Unfortunately, the client is reluctant to do it and rejects the recommendations. Whether due to budget constraints or other factors, they won’t move forward.
There’s a delay in production due to the issues that were foreseen by the service provider, and now the client blames them for the failure. Despite being warned by the provider, the client still places fault on the provider, and inevitably the relationship is soured.
This happens a lot in business. What if there was a way to spot the warning signs before bringing on a client? According to Brammar, you can do this by probing the client for answers. By simply digging deeper during the onboarding phase, and by looking for the reason why a client wants to build a product. It may reveal how much they actually know about the problem they’re trying to solve.
“If you go through it with them and ask those questions over and over again,” Brammar says. “Of course not in an aggressive manner, but an inquisitive one, you’ll quickly get to a point and realize if this person genuinely understands the problem they’re trying to solve or whether this is a project that if you take it on, you know it’s going to end up being a disaster. And then you have to make a decision if that’s a project you want to be involved in.”
By asking those questions and by showing your genuine interest in what they’re hoping to create, the client sees that you’re not just looking to build something. They see that you want to deliver quality products, and you want the process done right.
It is also important to remember that even if the relationship is firm, even if there’s trust established, some clients may still want to keep their ideas close to their chest. And that’s okay.
“Sometimes we face projects in which, even if we build trust, even if we bring value to the product creation, at the end of the day we are a service provider. No matter how much we have proven our consulting skills, all the client wants from us is talent.” – Bastien Hugon
But no matter if a client hires you for your feedback and ideas, or just for talent, you should always provide your absolute best.
Skills that help you achieve business value at Netguru
It’s important to give each project you work on your absolute best. But there are other skills and traits that are useful when it comes to increasing your chances of success while building a product.
At Netguru, there are dozens of different projects that span across many verticals. And across all those projects, there’s one skill set that is critical to all projects success.
“It’s crucial to be sure we know how to ask questions,” Bryndal says. “Not only are we asking questions for the sake of asking, but we need to learn how to ask clever questions. Ones that build understanding, trigger imagination, and reveal deeper insights. It’s good to ask open-ended questions that challenge the assumptions,” concludes Bryndal.
Moreover, if you’re able to emotionally connect with a project and become empathetic and confident about what you’re doing and what you’re involved in, it will truly elevate your work. Especially if you’re working on a project that you may not have a personal interest in.
“If the project you’re engaged in is not much fun to you, try to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re creating it for,” Hugon says. “And the business you’re doing this for. Changing your approach helps in boosting your contribution to the project.”