The basics of lean product development

‘Product development’ is the process of creating new products that  people will love. A core part of this is ensuring that you’re getting real world feedback from your potential customers all the way through the process. 

While the principles of modern product development came from digital startups, cultural trends and advances in technology have allowed businesses that produce real-world products or services to implement the principles as well. 

There’s a ton of material on product development that you can find online (and The Lean Startup is a good place to start), but here are a few key ideas to get you rolling…

Iterate in the open
When you’ve got a brilliant idea for a new product or service there can be a tendency to want to work on it in secret. Maybe you don’t want to be embarrassed, or have someone steal your idea, or put it in front of customers before it’s ready. So you retreat to your lab, workshop or shed, and beaver away on it for months until you think it’s ‘ready’, or possibly even ‘perfect’. 

The problem with this approach is that you’re working on a series of assumptions or hunches – some of which might be well-substantiated, others which may be complete guesswork. 

What you’re trying to do is create something that people want, and the best way to do that is to make sure that every stage of your product is shown to real people, who give you honest feedback. 

Test your assumptions
You can use a tool like the Lean Canvas to sketch out all of the things you think (or hope) will be true about your product. Initially, they will all be assumptions – you’ll assume that people have a problem, that your product solves it, that they will pay for it, and so on. 

The lean product development ethos is to design a version of your product (which could be anything from a sketch on a piece of paper, to a fully-working prototype) and use that to test whether your assumptions are true. 

Minimum Viable Product
A Minimumum Viable Product (MVP) is the smallest thing you can build that will allow you to test one of your assumptions. Try to think of ‘build’ in as loose a way as you can. Need to see if there’s actual customer demand for your product? Set up a landing page online describing what it is and does, and try to capture email addresses from interested people. Want to see if people will find the sales webpage attracted? Mock up three different versions and show it to people. 

While this kind of tinkering with small, testable versions is easier with digital products, increasingly it can work in the real world. Want to see if people will like the physical design? Use a 3D printer to create an inexpensive mock-up. Want to know if you’ve got the right fashion range to open a bricks and mortar store? Set-up a pop-up shop. Need to know that your Korean ribs recipe is good enough to justify a restaurant? Buy a food van, and push it on social media. 

Build, Measure, Learn
The MVP is not a one-off testing phase. You should be constantly producing new, iterative versions of your product, putting them in front of real people, and then deciding what to build next based on their feedback. 

This ‘build, measure, learn’ cycle is the basis of Agile development, where digital developers create new versions of the product in two week ‘sprints’, rather than spending six months or a year slogging away on something only to find out that it wasn’t what people wanted. 

Iterative marketing
While you’re iterating and testing your product, you can be doing the same with the marketing channels that you’re going to use to promote it. It’s a myth that if you build a great product, people will find it naturally. You need to find ways to get it under the nose of your target customers. 

The book Traction deals with exactly this kind of testing process – and covers everything from using social media and content marketing, to pitching to journalists and conjuring up publicity stunts. 

One last important thing to remember: by getting constant customer feedback in this way, you may find that some of your most cherished beliefs about your product turn out to be wrong. Embrace that, and be honest with yourself – you’ll end up with a better product in the end. 

Clever Boxer runs training workshops and offers consultancy for businesses of all sizes who are trying to tell stories with data. Find out more here.