There are many different career options in technology, and it can be overwhelming to figure out what the differences are among those options and what might be the best fit for you. In addition, there are many different types of technology companies out there, including software companies, hardware companies and biotech companies. Today we’ll focus on some of the typical careers in software companies.
Consider an example of a hypothetical mobile phone application, “FashionWithFriends,” that allows you and your friends to borrow and lend items from your closets. Let’s imagine a small product development team that is responsible for creating the app. The team is made up of employees in the role of product manager, UI designer, developer, quality engineer, technical writer, and program manager. We’ll go through each role below and outline what kind of activities people in that role would do to deliver the FashionWithFriends application. In addition, sales, support, and marketing staff, although not discussed here, are essential to ensure that the application finds and keeps an audience.
About the application
A small start-up company has decided to build the application that will make it easier for friends to find items to borrow and to lend out their own items. The idea behind FashionWithFriends is that girls (and some boys!) would like to extend their own wardrobes by borrowing clothes from their friends (or even friends of friends). For the first version, the application (or “app”) will allow users to sign up for an account using an email address, and after that they can enter details about themselves including their name, size, and preferred style of clothing. Once they are signed up, they are able to post pictures and details about their own items of clothing that they are interested in lending out as well as browse other users’ clothing (narrowing their search by location and size, if desired).
Let’s now take a look at some of the career options in more detail:
A product manager is responsible for defining exactly what the application is and for providing details about how it will be used. Her job is to imagine what it is like to be a user of the application and to ensure it meets the needs of those users. For FashionWithFriends, the product manager will conduct market research, and competitive research to find out if there are other apps out there like it. She is responsible for determining what features are the highest priorities for the user. For example, she may decide that, for the first version, the highest priority is a search screen that allows the user to search for available items based on size. She may also decide that searching by location is not an absolutely necessary feature and that it is fine to release the first version of the software without it. Prioritization is important because the team will not be able to build all the features for the first release, and to be successful the features that are built first need to be the ones that are needed most.
A product manager is responsible for defining exactly what the application is and for providing details about how it will be used.
As a product gets more and more users, it is essential that the product manager understands what extra functionality the users want, as well as what the users don’t like about the app. Checking out the reviews of the app that may be posted online, as well as reaching out to specific users to get their input, are important parts of this job and can often determine whether or not an app is successful. If it weren’t for the product manager, FashionWithFriends could be a pretty application but just not provide the functionality that a user needs.
If you enjoy solving common problems people have, making decisions, defining what a product should be, and working with a team, product management may be a good career for you.
The “look and feel” of an application is very important. “Look and Feel” refers to the way that an application appears to users and how it acts (for example, what happens when a button is pushed). If users don’t have a good experience with the application, they could decide not to use it or, even worse, write bad reviews about it! The UI Designer’s job is to design the overall experience for the users when they are using the application. The application needs to be easy to understand, fun to use, and aesthetically pleasing. For FashionWithFriends, the UI Designer would determine what the layout of each screen is, what fields go where, and what happens when the user taps or swipes different parts of the screen.
If you love design, solving problems, have a sense of aesthetics, and like to understand how humans interact with computers, you might want to consider a career in UI Design.
The developer actually builds the application, writing software code to implement the design. She works closely with the product manager, UI designer, and quality engineer to ensure she is building the right functionality and that the application works as expected. Being a developer is like being an architect or a car designer. She takes input from the customers and product manager, and figures out how to make it work in the code. She will discuss with others what can be done and why; she will figure out all the details in the design; and she will determine how to do it elegantly and efficiently.
If you really like to be “hands on” and love programming and creating things, a career in development could be for you.
Being a developer is like being an architect or a car designer. She takes input from the customers and product manager, and figures out how to make it work in the code.
The quality engineer is responsible for ensuring that the application works as it is supposed to, and she must be passionate about ensuring there are no weird errors (bugs!) in the application. A good quality engineer knows the best way to test the application and can come up with test cases to make sure that the app acts as expected. For example, when a user searches for dresses that are size 12, does the app actually return dresses that are size 12? In addition, she may come up with all kinds of crazy test cases to make sure the application can handle odd things that might be thrown at it – for example, what happens if someone enters a string of nonsense characters in the size field?
The quality engineer could also ensure that the application honors quotas (how many items a user can check out at a time) by trying to add more items than the user is allowed. While some testing can be done manually (where someone literally enters details on each screen and acts as if they were using the application), most companies now invest heavily in quality engineering automation. Automation allows quality engineers to write code and create automated tests so that the computer effectively mimics what the user is doing, performing sequences of tests to run thousands of times without involving human intervention.
If you are passionate about making things work properly, like to “break” things, like to find mistakes in applications, and like to have a good overall understanding of how an application works, then quality engineering may be a good role for you.
Most applications have some kind of documentation that helps users learn more about the application and how to use it. A technical writer creates this documentation. She must have a thorough understanding of what the application does, and she needs to be skilled at writing to make sure the instructions are clear. Users often refer to the help provided by an application, and if the documentation is confusing it could result in a negative experience for the user, and it could reflect poorly on the company.
If you love to write, enjoy understanding how to use applications, and have good communication skills, technical writing could be a great career for you.
A program manager is often described as the “glue” that holds everything together. She is always keeping an eye on the big picture and the overall goal of the project. Her job is to make sure everyone is aligned and focused on the same thing, to ensure that every member of the team knows exactly what they are working on, and to see how everyone’s individual work fits into the overall product. She is responsible for removing any blockers that the team might experience—for example, the quality engineer may not be able to complete testing due to an issue in the automated testing system, and the program manager would be on top of that issue to make sure it got resolved. In addition, she reports status to the company’s executives so that they know what is going on and are kept up to date on any significant issues or delays.
A program manager is often described as the “glue” that holds everything together.
For FashionWithFriends, the program manager would not only work with the team mentioned here, she would also be working with people in marketing and sales so that everything is in place to get the application launched into the market.
If you like working with a variety of different people, love the challenge of solving problems, and have great communication and collaboration skills, the role of program manager could be a good one for you.
As you can see, it takes many different people in different roles to build an application. A common theme among all of these roles is that they require a love of problem solving and an ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes. Regardless of the role, all employees must be able to work as part of a team, and they must understand that it takes people working together and great teamwork to successfully build an application.
A common theme among all of these roles is that they require a love of problem solving and an ability to put yourself in the user’s shoes.
This discussion is only a small sample of the different career options in software development, but hopefully it has demystified some of the more common jobs that are available in the industry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Josie Gillan is currently a Director of Quality Engineering at salesforce.com. She has held a variety of different positions in technology, including developer, database administrator, development manager, and technical program manager before finding her niche as a quality engineering manager. She currently leads the salesforce.com Women in Technology Outreach team whose charter is to promote STEMs to girls. Josie is originally from New Zealand, and now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two kids, and a new puppy. Follow Josie on twitter at @JosieGillan.
In this week’s spotlight is Trish Fontanilla, the Community Manager at Vsnap. Not only is Trish a returning mentor, she is actually mentoring two teams this year! She is mentoring a local Boston team from the Advanced Math and Science Academy, and another team from Valley Christian School and Dougherty Vally HS in San Jose, CA. Since last year, Trish has shown her dedication in many ways for example, when she organized a field trip in the fall to MassChallenge, a startup accelerator at the Boston waterfront, and where Vsnap is currently located.
TRISH’S INTERVIEW WITH US:
Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? What was your school experience like? What did you study in college? Include anything else you’d like to share about your youth.
I grew up in a small town in New Jersey where I was a bit of an odd duck. My father was a chemist and an inventor, so like him, I was constantly coming up with different “inventions” or ways to approach things. Mostly to get myself out of trouble. My quirky sense of self and behavior didn’t make me the most popular girl in school, but by the time I was in 8th grade, I had honed my awkwardness and turned it into comedy. I even scored the title of Class Clown that year. I then went on to an all girls high school that my parents picked for me. My freshman year I was slightly rebellious, but when I realized they weren’t going to transfer me, I started to join clubs instead of complaining about them. By my senior year, I was president of my class. In 2002, I moved to Boston to attend Emerson College. I originally got in as a Media Studies major, but dropped it the first day of school. To get inspired, I joined the majority of the clubs on campus. I was a camerawoman for the nightly news, did stage crew for a theatre group, wrote for one of the literary magazines, led volunteer projects with the service club, was a DJ for the on-campus radio station, jumped in as an orientation leader, and much more. Class-wise, while I was figuring out what I wanted to do, I had an amazing advisor who made sure I was covering all my core requirements. Because of her, I completed most of my requirements by the end of my sophomore year. It was then that I settled on Writing Literature and Publishing as a major. And when I graduated in the fall of 2005, I also had minors in Psychology and Performance Studies.
What was it like studying writing in college? What did you like most about your classes?
It was pretty amazing. I took every writing class under the sun: magazine, sketch comedy, sitcom, playwrighting, poetry, fiction, and screenwriting. What I liked most is actually what I hated most: workshops. During most workshops, people got to comment on what you wrote and you weren’t allowed to say anything until the end. It was incredible. Excruciating, but incredible. It taught me to always put out my best work. It’s easier to defend when you know you’ve done your best. Also, no matter what you do or where you go, the ability to convey your message via text is invaluable. And on the flip side, being able to give constructive criticism is also an great quality to have.
How did you get your job now? What do you like the most about it? What do you do at work besides code?
It’s a bit of a crazy story. You can read the whole version here: https://bit.ly/sye5zv But the cliff’s notes are: In May of 2011, I was leaving Boston after 9 years because I was looking for a job I could be passionate about and I just hadn’t found it here. Mid-May I went to an amazing networking event so that I could say bye to friends and pick up some last minute freelancing work. My now boss saw me tweeting about it and we met up at the event. 2 days later and less than a half hour into our discussion he offered me a job as employee #2 at Vsnap. Turns out he had been talking to mutual friends and people within the community about my me/work. It took me a week to say yes. I was totally scared and had never worked at a startup full time, plus it would be just me and him to start. But helping to build a company has been exhilarating. Most days I wake up in the morning excited to go to work. And it’s been 2 years of that so far.
My title is community manager, which is generally creating content, managing all the social media channels, demoing at events, customer service, some PR/marketing, community building, and arguably being the face of the company. But being a startup, I’ve learned a lot about product, user interface, QA, reporting bugs, documenting features, and more. If I wasn’t at Vsnap, I may not be a mentor for Technovation, because a lot of community managers don’t have a chance to get as close to the product as I have.
What do you do outside of work?
My passions are volunteering, music, and community. I’m a volunteer leader for Boston Cares and have worked with about 50 non-profits in Boston since I moved here. I love music and go to shows when I can. Last year I did Ladies Rock Campaign, which throws a group of women together to create a band, learn instruments and perform the music they write all within a weekend. It’s a benefit for Girls Rock Campaign, which is a week long version of LRC, focusing on empowering girls, building confidence, and fostering collaboration. It’s like the musical version of Technovation. I also get involved with the startup community as much as possible. I think the key to being a great community manager, is being an awesome community member. I’ve also been on the events committee for Wonder Women of Boston and the Asian American Women in Leadership Conference.
You are mentoring two teams this year— one in Boston and one in SF. Can you tell us how this is going, what you are learning, and what you feel are the advantages of each?
Last year, I had the chance to meet with my team every week. While I loved seeing the girls and getting to know them, sometimes it took some time to focus. This year, mentoring both teams virtually has allowed us to focus and use our time together more efficiently. Although it does cut out some of the bonding time because of that focus. I think the perfect scenario would be a mixture of both in-person and virtual mentoring.
What do you know now that you wish you had known as a teenager?
It’s okay to have a non-linear life. I’m a first generation Filipino American. My parents came here in the ‘60s, but had relatively straightforward career paths. I thought that I would have it all figured out by the time I graduated college. I didn’t, and that’s okay. I love my current job, and I tap into different lessons and skills I learned in all the different jobs and industries I’ve worked in. I took a lot of risks and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
If you could teach one “lesson” to all the girls participating in Technovation this year (something additional to the curriculum we currently have), what would it be? What do you feel is most important for girls to learn as they develop a high tech product?
Be passionate about what you’re working on. No matter how many competitors you may have, your team and the execution will differentiate you. People may be able to replicate your ideas or features, but they won’t be able to replicate the enthusiasm you can bring to the product or the community that will rally behind you because of it.
Think about an app or gadget you love to use. Is it Instagram? Is it Snapchat? Your smart phone? Whatever it is, at some point it did not exist. At some point someone out there decided that there was something missing in the world or they wanted to make the world a better place. An entrepreneur is someone who feels this way and makes something to create the world they want to see. When this something makes money, it is a business. If it does not make money, then it’s just a hobby. You do not have to have an MBA or a PhD to start a business. Anyone, no matter how young or old, can be an entrepreneur. You just need to have ideas, perseverance, and an iterative framework to test your ideas until you find one that makes money, in other words, creates revenue.
“An entrepreneur is someone who… makes something to create the world they want to see.”
My first entrepreneurship experience was when I was a little girl of 7 years old. We had a bird farm. I would train my father’s parakeets to stand on a finger and be pet by a human. When my father sold the parakeet I would get a cut of the sales price. My idea was that people want their pet parakeets to be nice and affectionate. A parakeet that was not trained would not sell for as much as one that was. In this way I was able to test out my idea and make some money. Now it’s your turn!
The steps below will guide you in starting a business:
Ideation is the process of creating ideas. At this point no idea is good or bad. Do not worry if your idea does not seem like the most incredible idea ever. It does not have to be unique to become a business. Facebook was not the first social network. Think of MySpace. Generally the first place to begin creating ideas is to “scratch your own itch.” This is a phrase that means if you already have the problem or know the problem very well, you are probably the best person to come up with ideas to fix it. If nothing jumps out at you, just pick a problem area and analyze it. For instance, what is your morning routine when you get up and go to school? Is there anything that could make it a better experience? Once you identify an idea or set of ideas, then you want validate you then have a solution that will work for more than just yourself or a small circle of friends. This is one of the first steps in defining the business model for your idea. We will discuss the business model next. Remember, this is an iterative process. No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.
“No entrepreneur ended up being successful with the first idea he or she had. The goal is to validate your idea, learn, modify it, and validate again until you have a profitable business model.”
It is time to fill in the blanks that will take your idea from a dream to a revenue producing product or service. A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation. Below is a table, which will help you understand the questions to ask so you can formulate a business model for your product. Notice I am not calling it an idea any more. It’s time for that idea to mature into a tangible product. Just like a growing child, this product will have to learn through trial and error until it can stand up by itself. Failing is expected and fine as long as you learn from it and then try again with the new learnings. It is a fun experience to get out there and test your product. The steps below are not a junior way of starting a business. These are the questions every entrepreneur must answer.
“A business model is similar to a detective story. There is a set of questions that you must answer to solve the case and this will take some investigation.”
Let’s get started! You’re now an entrepreneur!
The value proposition is key to building your product. In simplest terms, the value proposition can be stated in one sentence. It’s like playing Mad Libs.
____[insert product/service name]___ WILL HELP ____[insert customer description]____ TO____ [insert the problem being solved]____ _____[insert secret sauce]____
A self-driving car will help mothers with many children be able to make sure every child will always have a ride even if she is busy with another child.
At the beginning, a value proposition statement is just a hypothesis, which needs to be validated. Talk to who you think is the target customer. This will validate if your hypothesis is a real life problem that people want fixed. In the case above, a good group of people to ask about this value proposition would be mothers who have multiple children and even children who have multiple siblings. You are looking to see how much pain this problem causes and if your solution really resonates with them. Then ask how much they would expect to pay for such a product or service.
Now that you have evidence from speaking to various people that the problem exists and is worth solving, it is time to understand how many people have this problem or type of problem. If we continue the example from above the market size would potentially be all the mothers who have multiple children. The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be. Let’s say you’re first starting in the US. Then you will want to know how many mothers in the US have children who are not of driving age and do not have a car.
“The more specific you can get the more accurate your market size will actually be.”
This part of your business model defines how you will reach the target customer, whether they are a paying or non-paying customer. You will dive more into the price in the revenue streams section. Distribution channels also are the ways you will keep your customer using your product or service. Here are some examples of distribution channels for a self-driving car.
There are several ways to make money. The challenge is to find the best way or ways, which will maximize what your product makes and is still more than the cost of producing and running your business. Finding the right revenue streams will need to be tested along with the rest of your business model. That will be done with your MVP (minimum viable product).
For many types of businesses, common revenue streams can be evaluated. For a self-driving car think about your customer and what her need may be and how frequent it may be. If a mother constantly finds herself double booked to pick up two children should the self-driving car be owned by the family or should the family rent or subscribe to using the self-driving car. Advertising in the car during a ride can be a source of revenue. The equivalent to in-app purchases could be added services that can be bought while in the car, for example Wi-Fi or watching a movie or show. These are all examples of revenue streams that do not just apply to self-driving cars, but other products such as apps.
It will cost money to run a business. Identify fixed costs and variable costs. Fixed costs can be a one-time cost or a recurring cost that is the same. For instance, setting up the factory to make self-driving cars will cost you once. Creating new self-driving cars will cost you every time you make one, but the cost to make one is fixed. Variable costs can change overtime or at different quantities. One example of a variable cost is the cost to acquire a new customer. This is generally the cost of marketing, which can be periodic and vary in expense depending on how much needs to be done. Think of your costs when you have 10 customers, 100 customers, up to 1 million customers. A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that, as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up. The line “More money more problems.” can be very true, so think big and plan for the success of your product.
“A common mistake that entrepreneurs make is not taking into account that as the business grows there are new costs that may spring up.”
Now that you have done your detective work to build a business model it is time to build your minimal viable product ,or MVP, to test out the different pieces of your business model. The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model. Usually this means starting with validating the value proposition. Prototype the experience you want for the customer. A prototype can be done quickly and inexpensively through paper prototypes, using power point, or there are several websites and apps which make it even easier to create an interactive prototype. For the MVP of a self-driving car, you do not have to actually build a car that does not need a human driver! You can simulate the experience by having a human driver who helps a mother pick up her other children when needed. Just by doing this or any other simple form of prototyping you will learn a ton and tweak your business model as you go.
“The MVP is the smallest representation of your product that will test the most risky parts of your business model.”
Rinse and Repeat as necessary
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” - Thomas Edison
No entrepreneur gets it exactly right on the first try, which is why starting a business is an iterative process. Through each MVP you will learn something new and modify the business model and the MVP a bit. This is called “pivoting”, where the business model is modified when a hypothesis proves invalid. This does not mean that one failure results in a completely new vision. If that were the case, then a new business model would have to be built from scratch each time. Once you get through MVP1 and MVP2 and you see the amount of new information decrease, your business model will start to stabilize, which is a great sign that your business is working. You have reached the golden state for a startup called Product/Market Fit. This means you have customers signing up, paying or pre-ordering your product, and sticking around to use it over and over again.
Congratulations! If you have made it this far you have started your business. You are an entrepreneur! Life is grand, but do not think life is over. The opposite is true because the next stage of your company is growth and scaling. Getting the first early adopters is one thing, but capturing the attention of your next set of customers will be different. All in all, remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company. I wish you the best of luck on this fun journey!
“…remember that you are not the first entrepreneur and there are many resources out there to help you at any stage of your company.”
One of the most comprehensive lists of entrepreneurship resources is from Steven Blank: http://steveblank.com/tools-and-blogs-for-entrepreneurs/
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jennifer Arguello is a Co-Founder of Latino Startup Alliance, a community of Latino tech entrepreneurs. She also serves on the national board of directors for the largest organization of Latinos in STEM in the United States, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. A Silicon Valley native, she has been working in the tech field for over 12 years and is alumnus of Mozilla and Microsoft along with various startups. Jennifer holds a BS in Computer Science from UC San Diego. Follow her on Twitter at @engijen.
This week’s guest blog post is by Ashley Jennings, Founder of Girlmade.
One of the most daunting tasks you will have to face when you start a new endeavor is to write a business plan. Most people spend hours, maybe even days or weeks writing document that could easily be mistaken for a college dissertation. If you are going to spend that much time and energy on writing it, wouldn’t you want to make sure that your product has an audience?
The act of writing the business plan in and of itself is an excellent and very necessary practice. The problem with jumping right into writing a business plan is that the process places too much emphasis on the execution of one particular idea, and not enough on the problem you are trying to solve. It’s a lot like running a race without knowing where you are going.
“The problem with jumping right into writing a business plan is that the process places too much emphasis on the execution of one particular idea, and not enough on the problem you are trying to solve.”
As an entrepreneur you are already faced with a tremendous amount of uncertainty. In order to avoid going crazy and get potential investors on your side, you must mitigate some of the risk involved in launching your own start up. Historically, we felt more secure if we had a thorough plan that laid out all of the numbers that we “hoped” to achieve in the form of an exhaustive business plan. Unfortunately, what we find is that the numbers that are referenced in business plans very rarely, if ever, reflect reality.
If you are looking for investors, you should know that they could care less about imaginary numbers. Investors want to see traction. How do you get traction? You find customers. How do you find customers? You find a problem and a solution that said customers are willing to pay for.
The Lean Canvas in conjunction with the business plan, is the perfect solution. Let’s think of starting your business like running a marathon. You better have some comfy shoes. You wouldn’t run a marathon without first at least running around the block in those shoes. The Lean Canvas is the equivalent of running around the block or the test-drive if you will. If the shoes hurt your feet, at least you only had to run around the block in them, right?
“Let’s think of starting your business like running a marathon. You better have some comfy shoes. You wouldn’t run a marathon without first at least running around the block in those shoes.”
For those unfamiliar with the Lean Canvas, it is a one-page blueprint of the basic building blocks that define your startup or product. The purpose of the Lean Canvas rapidly prototype your product and get immediate user and market feedback.
The Lean Canvas Gives Your Idea Data to Back it Up
By filling out a Lean Canvas, you will essentially be making a hypothesis and trying to disprove it. Scientists gather data to prove or disprove their hypotheses all the time—they don’t just rely on their “gut”. They would lose all credibility. The same goes for startups. The only way to find out if your startup idea has a chance of being a sustainable business is to find out if people are willing to pay for the product you are going to create. In order to do that, you must gather data from potential customers by getting out of the building and meeting with them face to face. Radical, right?
“The only way to find out if your startup idea has a chance of being a sustainable business is to find out if people are willing to pay for the product you are going to create.”
Last weekend I was at Startup Weekend Reno where one of the teams was building an app that the founder intended to be an ice-breaker for introverts when trying to meet potential dates at bars. The team went to the Irish pub down the street to do customer development. The feedback they received was that the people in the bar wouldn’t use the app to meet other people at bars. Instead, they would prefer to have the app when they are at business networking events and trade shows. By doing customer development, the team found a whole other market for their app. It was a great lesson for them to see that they needed to build the app not based on what they wanted, but on actual data from people who would be willing to pay for the app. That data was invaluable.
Ash Maurya, the creator of the Lean Canvas model, tells us “Most startups fail, not because they fail to build what they set out to build, but because they waste time, money, and effort building the wrong product. I attribute a significant contributor to this failure to a lack of proper “problem understanding” from the start.”
Now you know the recipe for the startup secret sauce:
There are many free sources and blog posts that explain how you to fill out the Lean Canvas. Give it a try. It’s a one-pager. You won’t regret it.
About the Author
Ashley Jennings is a serial entrepreneur and business coach. She recently started Girlmade, a community for savvy female entrepreneurs. She is a graduate of Columbia University and spent years doing social work before she well in love with the startup community. She happily lives in Reno, NV and does not plan on ever moving to Silicon Valley. She raises backyard chickens and drinks a lot of coffee with cream.
This week’s guest blog post is by Samantha Quist, Founder of Copywriter Central.
Imagine you’re writing a book report, but you haven’t actually read the book. Your friends have told you what the book is about. You know the main characters’ names and ages, and you can kind of guess what sorts of things might happen to them. But since book reports are generally graded on your attention to detail, understanding of the nuances of the characters’ predicaments, and interest in the finer points of the story, you won’t get the top grade. If you’re a really great writer, you might squeeze by with a B or a C; but to earn an A+, you’ve got to start reading the book.
Designing a product without studying your target users is a lot like writing a book report without reading the book. You can guess what your users might think of it, but they’ll often surprise you. And in the competitive world of technology startups, B’s and C’s are not passing grades. The only way to build a successful and sustainable company is to produce A-level work. Here’s how.
“Designing a product without studying your target users is a lot like writing a book report without reading the book.”
Your First Idea Is Not an “A-Grade” Idea
When we first think of a product, almost all of us start off with a C-grade idea. We think of something that seems like it would be useful to a lot of people. So we draw up some mockups. Some of us might even put up a static landing page online that promotes our still-fictional “product.” That’s great! But the toughest part is yet to come.
First, think really hard about who your target user is — how old is the person you think is most likely to truly love your product? What interests do they have? Are they male or female? Are they students or professionals? What characteristics do they have? It’s tempting to think that your app will be useful for everyone, but for 99% of apps, your most loyal users will all share a pretty specific set of characteristics. And if you show your app to the wrong audience, they will almost always give you bad advice.
“…it doesn’t matter what your parents think of your idea, or what your best friend thinks, or what your dog thinks… unless they are truly one of your target users.”
For example, imagine showing a mockup of YouTube to an attorney in her office and asking how she’d use it to get work done. Look, you say, lots of dog and cat and music videos! In the mindset of work, she’d correctly tell you that it won’t be useful to lawyers, and she might suggest you should add some scheduling or productivity or legal research features to the product. You’d probably leave her office feeling discouraged. But in reality, it isn’t that YouTube is a bad idea, it’s just a bad idea for that type of user and for that use case. If you show your mockup to dog- and cat- and music- lovers who use the internet a lot, have a high-speed connection, and like to be entertained, then you’d get much better advice. So, it doesn’t matter what your parents think of your idea, or what your best friend thinks, or what your dog thinks… unless they are truly one of your target users.
You Are a Detective— Uncover Your Users’ Needs and Wants
Next, go find a bunch of people — at least 3 and the more, the better — who truly are your target users. Show them your mockups and/or landing page. Ask them for their honest, no holds barred feedback. Ask them if they’d ever use your app, how often, in what situations, and what for. Ask if they would choose your app instead of other apps, or if they would prefer other apps, and why. Ask how much they would pay right now for the app if they could buy it today. Ask what’s least useful about your app. Think of yourself as a detective, trying to uncover your real target users’ needs and wants. Try to put yourself in their shoes, understand their needs and concerns, and think as they would think. As you talk to more target users, update your mockups to reflect what you’ve learned. Your goal is to develop a mockup that evokes an “OMG. I need this now. Where can I get it today?” sort of reaction. When you’ve heard that from several target users, then you know you’ve landed on an A+ idea.
When you talk with target users, also try to understand which of your product’s features are the most critical. Sophisticated technology products have zillions of features built-in, but no product starts out that way. Early stage products have just a core set of mission-critical features that their users really need. Imagine if YouTube were launched with sharing features built-in, but without a video play button — that wouldn’t be very useful! Make sure you know which parts of your mockups are truly critical to your target user’s needs, versus all the rest.
“Your goal is to develop a mockup that evokes an ‘OMG. I need this now. Where can I get it today?’ sort of reaction. When you’ve heard that from several target users, then you know you’ve landed on an A+ idea.”
Finally, after you feel you truly understand your target user and you’ve refined your mockups to reflect what they most urgently want or need, comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for… it’s time to build your product! Use your most updated mockups and build exactly what’s in them. Try to avoid adding features or new ideas at this point — just build what your target users told you they wanted.
Watch Your Users In Action
And now, the moment of truth — it’s time to show your real product to your target users and get their feedback. Sit next to them, stay silent, and watch them use your product as if you weren’t there. When they’re actually using the real thing, they might have slightly different reactions than they did when they saw your mockups. They might get confused by certain buttons or language or details. They might tell you that they can’t live without certain features that they didn’t mention before. Whatever they tell you, take notes. And when you’ve talked to a few different target users, go back and polish your product based on their feedback.
You Are Never Finished Testing Your Users
User testing is an ongoing process. You’re never done user testing. Whether you’re a small scrappy startup or a billion-dollar company, you’re always testing your users to make sure you’re building the right tools for them. Big corporations spend enormous amounts of money hiring professional user testing teams, though I’m not sure their tactics are any more effective than having one-on-one conversations with members of your target audience yourself.
In my startup, we’re always testing our users, then tweaking our product, then testing our users, and so on. When it comes to improving our product, there is simply no substitute for genuine feedback from members of our true target audience. So, it’s a good thing it’s also fun: watching real people enjoy something you’ve built is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world.
“You’re never done user testing… you’re always testing your users to make sure you’re building the right tools for them.”
In Summary: Study Your Users
So remember, to earn that A+ book report, there’s no substitute for actually studying the book. And to build a successful and sustainable technology product, there’s no match for carefully studying your target users.
If you’re building a technology product, you are striving to learn new things, and you are working hard to bring something good or fun or convenient into the world that didn’t exist before, then I salute you. You are working to make the world a better place, and all of us will benefit from your efforts. I wish you a satisfying journey and great success!
About the Author:
Samantha Quist is the founder and CEO of Copywriter Central, an online marketplace for elite freelance business writers. She also founded an editorial business, led marketing for a fast-growing internet startup, served on Google’s Product Management team, and graduated with honors from Stanford University. Samantha is passionate about leveraging technology to make the world a better place.