[Editor's note: Seattle entrepreneurs Barry Chu and Dave Cotter share some of their startup lessons in starting the new mobile app SquareHub. The three-part series is running this week on GeekWire, starting yesterday with their thoughts about minimum viable products. In part two, they'll talk about how they determined product features. Part three, set to run Thursday, will include their ideas on customer acquisition].
As with most startups, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs. Even with the idea of “minimum viable product” firmly in our heads, we started off thinking every feature met that bar. We quickly realized we needed a system for categorizing, prioritizing and cutting features.
Rather than building one big prioritized backlog, we started by splitting features into two lists:
- Enabler features. If you get these features wrong, users think you suck. If you get them right, users don’t notice. These were things like registration, SMS/email compatibility and the ability to add family members to SquareHub.
- Core features. Customers have to love these. They’re the awesomeness in your minimum viable product, and they need solve a clear problem.
Separating our features helped us check and evaluate the minimum thresholds for each separately. We developed a 2×2 grid to evaluate the features using the known or unknown market criteria from yesterday:
For example, the enabler features for LinkedIn circa 2003 needed to be just a bit better than email and building your own Rolodex. If users entered LinkedIn and saw people they wanted to network with but didn’t know personally, they were already better off than with email or Rolodex — the nearest substitute solutions.
For SquareHub, entering the crowded app space meant our enabler features needed to be good enough to avoid turning off users before they engaged with the core features. The problem: if your enabler features suck, users bail out fast. If your enabler features are good, users say: “Big deal.” We were aware that enabler features get customers to your door, but not beyond.
Thinking about enabler features as the path that gets customers to the door is a great way to think about it. Ask:
- How do users get lost along the way?
- What distracts users?
- What makes them give up?
- What are the “potholes”?
In terms of resource management, deciding where to draw the line on enablers defined how many core features we could build, so it was critical for us to develop a clear definition of “minimum.”
Starting with our core value proposition—coordination tools to help families spend more time emotionally connecting—we borrowed a page from the Amazon playbook. We wrote an internal press release on what we thought users would gain from our product.
From there, we thought about each “enabling” step necessary for a user to experience that core value. Our key realization was that users only got value from SquareHub when all family members were active: mom, dad, teenager and possibly a nanny or sitter if users travel or are divorced and want a virtual presence.
For SquareHub, this meant:
- Registration needed to be simple, fast and painless to get everyone on board, including tweens and teens.
- We needed to integrate all the ways families communicate (text, email, app).
- We needed a way to support other devices, even though we are launching iOS first.
- One login/password for the family network: Families use a single login/password with individual member profiles. This enables families to include kids under 13 without providing any personal information other than a nickname. It also allows one person to register the whole family in just one to three minutes, depending on group size.
- Support for iPads, iPod Touches, Email and feature phones: Family members should be able to participate any time with the devices and communication channels they’re comfortable with. They should be able to share devices easily. So an 8-year-old with an iPod Touch or iPad but no email address can join and share photos. A teen can text on a feature phone and an adult can receive email on a PC.
- Optional PIN security for each family member: Family members may occasionally need to send private messages, especially if they’re divorced or separated parents. We made user switching easy and intuitive, and we made it easy to keep certain things private, even within the family. So for additional security and privacy, each family member can set a PIN for his or her profile.
Now, with the enabler features settled, we had a much clearer view of the tradeoffs between time, resources and features for our core features.
Think Core attributes, not features
For core features, we knew the feature set was less about technology and more about the experience. Our product needed to help everyone in the family communicate more easily, so our network needed to be lightweight, simple, intuitive and adaptive.
- Lightweight: We spent a lot of time focusing on a design that let users understand what was happening and react quickly. Most families manage with constant short bursts of communication. Our product had to keep that lightweight feel.
- Simple: We had to make the product easy to understand, with a clear, immediate purpose and utility. We cut a ton of features to keep the primary interactions obvious.
- Intuitive: We had to keep existing user expectations in mind. We intentionally matched designs and paradigms of popular apps so first-time SquareHub users would intuitively understand it.
- Adaptive: SquareHub had to adapt to how families actually used it. We built hooks into our system to enable us to extend and modify the basic messaging functionality easily in the future. SquareHub launched with three basic hooks: to-do, check in and event.
Core features focused on getting a job done for the family, but our payoff was about how families felt when they used SquareHub. It had to be easy for every family member to use the network, because the more members used it, the more value they got out of it.
This focus on the right attributes helped us rank and prioritize our Core feature set with relatively little debate. We simply ranked each feature on how much it added to the experience we were trying to create.
Taking the time to think about a framework, categorize and prioritize helped us make trade-off decisions more quickly. This meant more focus, less scope creep and faster development.
Through this process, we’ve built a minimum viable product that we think makes sense. The enabler features are polished enough that we think they won’t distract. The core features are simple and compelling enough to provide value quickly. We’ll see if we’re right!
Editor’s note: In this post, the SquareHub developers explained an efficient way to choose feature sets. Tomorrow, in the final post in this three-part series, they’ll talk about a topic many entrepreneurs fear: branding.