Setting Up Your Digital Product For Success in the Long Term

Zach Satko

Nov 19, 2019

At Savvy, we’ve built countless apps and other digital products for customers since 2009. From the Fortune 500 to disruptive technology companies, we’ve seen the problems we’ll identify in this article affect even the most well-thought-out and researched projects. In order to avoid these issues, you need to know these kinds of problems upfront, create a more solid foundation with that knowledge, and then hone your feature set and go-to-market plan. The right questions and considerations during the discovery process can help avoid pitfalls later on, giving you the best possible chance of success.

By following what we outline in this article, your digital product — whether a native app, web app, cloud backend, digital transformation initiative, or comparable — will have the best foundation and highest chance of success moving forward. In this resource you’ll learn how to:

  • Identify possible product problems
  • Set a solid foundation for your users
  • Work with differing opinions from key stakeholders in a variety of specializations (C-Suite, directors/managers, design, development, content, etc.)
  • Determine your “must-have” features, what we refer to as “tentpole features”
  • Use the right tools and exercises throughout the discovery process

Identify Potential Problems Upfront

During initial product discovery and ideation, it’s important to consider and identify possible roadblocks or show-stopping issues before they come to fruition. While there are countless post-launch hurdles to overcome that have the ability to kill your product (lack of differentiation in the market, no word-of-mouth, poor reviews, etc.), there are a number of issues that can result in your product never reaching launch or being dead on arrival (DOA).

We regularly hear about cases at Savvy where products never make it to market (because we’re asked to help rescue or reboot them) from some of the largest companies in the world. Here are some possible problems to take into consideration to help you avoid the same mistakes.

Missing Your Window to Market

There are over 2 million apps in the Google Play Store and App Store, respectively, alone. That obviously doesn’t include web apps available outside of the app stores. Needless to say, growth and a highly competitive market have made timing one of the most crucial pieces of product development. Failing to ensure a proper timeline to launch can mean that someone else fulfills your niche in the market before you’re even able to launch. It’s possible to miss the window for other reasons, including waning interest or new technologies causing yours to become obsolete.

Trying to Do Too Much or Too Little

One of the biggest issues during product discovery is the desire to go too big too quickly. Packing too many features into your initial release creates its own set of problems, like delays in development, ballooning budget, or detraction from your differentiating factor and original intent. On the other hand, creating a minimum viable product (MVP) can mean failure if there isn’t enough to deliver on your key value propositions.

Poorly Identified Requirements

Like the blueprints of a house, a poorly defined set of foundational requirements leads to a laundry list of problems, such as failing to fully estimate development efforts, going significantly over budget, missing deadlines, reworking, missing features and more. Poorly identified requirements also lead to confusion over division of labor and can force your product to be taken back to the drawing board or shelved altogether.

No Support

Lack of support in key areas, such as developing the proper APIs, or backend, can spell disaster. This can either be in the form of full lack of support (not enough development resources) or the wrong allocation of team members through inexperience. This issue is more often times than not a direct result of poorly defined requirements, as mentioned above. Lack of support can also come in the form of insufficient finances with startups often struggling to raise enough funding to fully back an idea. Lastly, lack of support can also come from key stakeholders and is one of the top reasons for products crashing and burning.

Misalignment of Stakeholders

Differing visions between stakeholders can quickly cause issues in a product’s early life cycle. While different opinions and specializations are key to making a strong product, at one point or another everyone needs to be on the same page in relation to features and the product’s core foundation. This especially becomes an issue when a stakeholder with more leverage than others has the power to completely shelve a project. We’ve seen individual stakeholders with more influence and seniority de-prioritize projects without the full consent of the core stakeholder team, resulting in less resources and importance being placed on a project.

Set a Solid Digital Product Foundation

Use Cases and Needs

Mentioned above, but never mentioned enough, is setting up your product with a solid foundation; this is absolutely key. This is where everyone needs to start, from the smallest startups to Fortune 500s. What is the use case or need? More often than not, businesses approach apps in particular as a way to stay relevant without doing the proper vetting and market research. It’s important to first identify what problem you’re hoping to solve and how your app will help to solve this problem. How will it do so better than your competitors? These aren’t the only key questions you should be asking. Who are your users? How will you keep them engaged? Is there a differentiating factor in your feature set that sets you apart from the competition? How do you expect to implement a given feature better than the competition?

At Savvy, we typically kick projects off with what we’ve dubbed “The Questionnaire”, a comprehensive resource that aims to answer these questions and more to ensure the most critical items are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We’ve provided a few sample questions below.

  • What distinguishes your app’s users from others? In the context of your main idea, what’s most important to them?
  • What is the one thing that has to be done right to make this app worth using?
  • What do you think are the key actions that users must take to turn them into a full-fledged user?

When we’re approached with an idea, we try to help prospective customers think in a similar mindset to determine whether they have a viable idea. Before agreeing to work with a customer, it’s important that we fully assess an idea. We aren’t afraid to guide businesses away from investing significant time, energy, and money into a product that may get little-to-no use.

See our "Founder Interview" with Alex Villanueva on going from concept to reality.

Consider Your User Base

One of the biggest mistakes we see most often is businesses looking through the lens of what they think their users want versus what their users actually want. Those closest to a project, more often than not, suffer from the “curse of knowledge", meaning they are so familiar with a product, business rules, or a specialization that it becomes a hinderance or creates blinders to the reality of what users actually want. So how do you determine what your users actually want?

Demographics can offer key insight into what users want. This can be accomplished first through user personas, which are critical in helping to determine a baseline. For example, when working with No Kid Hungry, we put research and discovery to work to drive design and product decisions. Through extensive discussions, research, data analysis and stakeholder conversations, as well as user personas, we were able to determine that our key demographic required an immersive but simple Android experience with a strong focus on the organizational aspects of meal planning.

What’s the Medium?

An important part of meeting the needs of your user base is to determine what medium you need to adopt. Businesses often think they need an app, but don’t consider what that truly means. The lucrativeness of the App Store and Google Play Store has created strong persuasion towards native apps. However, web apps are more relevant than ever, especially for certain kinds of experiences such as extended usage (long session times), bulk editing (tabulated data), enterprise experiences, and more. As mentioned above with No Kid Hungry, personas and research indicated the need to focus on the Android platform due to the accessibility of devices versus an ecosystem like iOS.

Always consider your user demographics, as well as use cases, to determine which platform is the best starting point. Knowing what devices your demographic most frequently uses can help point towards success. You should also consider how each platform might lend to your core feature set. Something such as displaying significant amounts of data might require more screen real estate and be more accessible to mouse and keyboard use versus a simple utility which would function best on-the-go.

Lastly, but sometimes overlooked, the financial incentive can often lead to the pursuit of web apps either alone or in parallel to native apps. Using a payment platform like Stripe for web transactions sees significantly less transaction fees versus a platform like the App Store or Google Play, which take a 30% cut of revenue. Netflix and Spotify notoriously bypassed the App Store in 2018 by requiring all new sign-ups to happen on the web to skirt the so-called “app tax" (don’t think you’ll be able to do the same). It’s worth noting, however, that the app stores have large audiences, distribution, and marketing built into them. So even with an "app tax", the fees paid to Apple and Google can often be made up by volume.

Setting Goals

It’s important to set goals across a number of factors. Tracking these closely will help to drive your product towards success.

  • Time: Are there existing competitors that make time-to-market critically important? General timeline goals should be assessed both before and after “tentpole” features — those features that you cannot launch without — are put in place to help set realistic deadlines based on your feature set. Don’t be afraid to aim for those tentpole features and then expand your feature set as time allows. Being flexible with your initial version 1.0 also allows you to more closely adjust your timeline if things don’t initially go according to plan.
  • Budget: Budget is often the least flexible goal. Everyone aims to stay within a certain budget, but it’s often very difficult to get a true perspective on costs before solidifying your feature set and estimating your level of effort. Mostly, when it comes down to assessing features versus time and budget, we look at those tentpole features versus add-ons. Some people consider these add-ons as either “must-haves” or “nice-to-haves.” This typically makes things much easier to push back add-on or nice-to-have features to future iterations. That said, setting budget goals and allocations on your roadmap is just as important as the initial budget. Budgetary goals need to be established to support your product well after launch.
  • Downloads or Active Users Metrics: The most common mistake when tracking important metrics such as number of downloads or active users is setting goals too low or too high. Doing research and aiming for realistic goals will both help to achieve milestones as well as avoid overreaching. It also better allows for measure of success.
  • Revenue: For apps that have a commerce or sales component, this goal is the one thing that most stakeholders tend to care about the most. It may not necessarily always be the initial focus or goal of version 1.0, but it’s important to track revenue goals against actual performance. Specifically, lifetime value (LTV) is arguably the most important number to track along the way and can provide a better perspective against what realistic costs to acquire customers/users (CAC) might be.
  • General Metrics: As with any product, setting key performance indicators (KPIs) based on your feature set is integral to determining future success. These metrics will differ depending on the type of app and overall goals, but might include things like usage, time in app, sign-ups, trials started, number of subscribers, retention, etc. These can be measured with standard tools like Firebase Analytics, Mixpanel, Google Analytics, Heap, etc.

Read 28 Metrics that Matter for Your App for more of a deep dive into tracking your goals.

    Work With Differing Opinions from Stakeholders

    Just as important as setting goals, determining key stakeholders during product development is crucial. The idea of building an app is exciting and new to many, which often means many want to be involved in the process. Oftentimes projects can suffer from “too many cooks in the kitchen”, where meetings can become stuffed with too many differing opinions and deviate from the original focus. Limiting meetings to key stakeholders is critical in accomplishing the goals of a project. Moreover, longer project timelines can sometimes see waning attendance at meetings or interest as time passes. It’s important to ensure that the core team is regularly present during weekly status meetings. If others do insist on being present, consider using tools like to Trello, as well as creating break-out meetings to update the rest of the team on progress.

    Be aware that team members from various specializations will bring strong and differing opinions. This isn’t necessarily a negative, as representation from a variety of areas can help make a well-rounded product. “Fresh eyes” are also always helpful in taking a step back and escaping the curse of knowledge for those closest to the project. In cases where you do see strong opinions, don’t be afraid to push back. At Savvy, one of our guiding principles is to “fight for the user.” Projects can experience pressure from stakeholders/executives for expectations of deliverables, both in timing and features, as well as budget. It’s important to create a feasible timeline and identify the feature set that makes the most sense for your users (i.e., the tentpole features) versus just what your stakeholders want.

    Lastly, getting a better feel for key stakeholders involved in the project is important in developing a strong working relationship. At Savvy, we use a “personal onboarding” form to get an idea of who our key stakeholders are as people. This includes questions to learn about anything from their responsibilities to what their ideal day off looks like. This helps everyone interact more seamlessly with each other.

    Determine Your “Must-Have“ Features

    Internal Discussions

    Stakeholders will often come to the table with a substantial number of ideas and pre-formed opinions around what they see as a core feature set. As such, it’s important to collect all background information and let everyone provide their opinions and have a chance to be heard. We call this the “initial data dump”, which provides opportunity to learn business rules and background context, as well as dive into initial feature ideas, no matter how easy or difficult to implement.

    Due to the amount of data collected, it’s important to try to categorize things into groups that make sense. It’s important to mark down any initial ideas, but being able to categorize them into general groups based on feasibility will help:

    • Tentpole Features: These are the core features that are integral to the app's success and should be included in a version 1.0 release.
    • Immediate Roadmap: Features that should be prioritized immediately after the first release that will have the greatest impact.
    • Someday: These are features that are interesting ideas, but won't necessarily have the greatest immediate impact or ROI.
    • Kill: Ideas that just won't work due to difficulty of implementation or other potential roadblocks, potential lack of use, etc. We prefer to "kill" these ideas rather than track them for later.
    Ideation With Stakeholders

    After the initial data dump, typically a clearer picture begins to form around tentpole features. In the early days of a project, conversations with key stakeholders should happen frequently and as soon as possible. If you can coordinate everyone’s schedules, aim to touch base several times a week during the discovery process. Narrowing focus to a core group of features and ideating through is key, but you should always recall and refer to goals. Ask questions: How can you work toward goals while still keeping the user’s experience at the forefront? How can you continue to focus on your core differentiating factor? What feature or features are an absolute necessity as a tentpole, that without them the product is DOA?

    Use the Right Tools and Exercises

    At Savvy, we often use a variety of brainstorming and ideation activities to narrow our focus on tentpole features and help to establish a tentative product roadmap. Below you’ll find a few valuable tactics to engage stakeholders and help narrow focus.

    Trello helps us organize our roadmaps and allows them to evolve over time.
    Brainstorming Session

    The idea of this activity is quantity over quality. It allows all team members to be involved and engaged, and ensures that potential key features aren’t missed.

    • In a group setting, allocate a set amount of time for all parties to brainstorm as many ideas as possible, writing them down individually, and then sharing them with the larger group setting
    • Nothing should be off the table in this session, no matter how difficult or unfeasible ideas might be
    • All feature ideas generated should initially be recorded to a “Someday” list in your roadmap
    Card Sorting

    This activity helps to eliminate duplicates from the brainstorming session as well as group similar ideas together.

    • All features should be written out on sticky notes and worked by the collective team, either in person or remotely. (Google Slides is helpful when doing this remotely)
    • Card sorting also helps to generally organize the hierarchy of your feature set.
    Voting

    We use voting as a way to determine which features people believe will have the most impact overall (usage, engagement, ROI, etc.).

    • After card sorting, stakeholders vote on which features they feel are most important within a specific group
    • Each stakeholder gets anywhere from 2 - 5 votes, and can vote on whatever given features they think have the most value
    • Participants may even vote several times for the same feature if they find it particularly valuable
    Difficult vs. Impact Ranking

    Once voting has concluded, all features that received votes should be assigned a “T-Shirt” sized effort - small, medium or large.

    • If you have the bandwidth, it’s good to get a general idea from development team members what kind of effort is required for a feature instead of assuming the difficulty without their perspectives

    Once you’ve assigned a T-Shirt size for level of effort, also assign an impact level. This is how significant of an impact a given feature could have on your business or organization.

    • “Small” is little-to-no impact and “large” is game-changing impact (e.g., significant impact to ROI, overall number of users, etc.)

    Finally, graph features based on difficulty vs. impact. This visualization can help you determine a feasible set of tentpole features, and truly categorize your features into tentpole, immediate, someday, and kill. We’ve provided an example to show the final product.

    The left quadrants show your version 1.0 tentpole features and your immediate roadmap items based on the provided exercises. This is not always set in stone, as adjustments may need to be made depending on other factors, but it can help to provide useful insight.
    Validation

    The information above provides context on who to involve, what types of exercises to use and how to narrow down your ideas into a more concise product roadmap. That said, multiple layers of validation should be used during your discovery process.

    As mentioned earlier, market research and competitive analysis should be done at the very beginning of the process. Knowing your place in the market will help you understand your product’s potential for success and set long-term goals.

    User surveys and interviews are necessary to validate the conclusions you’ve made against what your users actually want. While we won’t dive into the specifics of these here, we have a variety of resources to help with this, including how to conduct a robust user discovery process and how to user test your product.

    Consider using a combination of tactics, including surveys, user testing sessions. and interviews to gather information. Rapid prototyping is also a viable option that allows for ideating through specific features without investing significant time, energy, or budget. Prototyping can allow you to easily change and evolve your product before advancing to a much more finalized spot where things are much more difficult to tweak.

    The Takeaways

    In the end, the two most important things to keep in mind are: What do your users want? and What can’t your product succeed without? It’s critical to think about these key points throughout the entire discovery process.

    Ultimately, you need to always think ahead. Too often stakeholders only look at what’s right in front of them. As you go to market, you should already have several versions planned and aggressively triage your long-term roadmap. Continue to keep success metrics at the forefront and determine how you can iterate to better achieve your goals.

    Written By:

    Zach Satko

    Zach is a product manager at Savvy Apps, with an eye for detail, a love of new technologies, and a passion for finding the best GIFs.