The stages (and jargon) of digital product innovation

Will Heinemann
Will Heinemann

New Business Director 7 Aug 2020 5 min read

Looking to kick off a product development or innovation project but feel like you’re drowning in industry buzzwords!? Look no further! This step-by-step guide will walk you through the main stages, terminologies and behaviours of digital product innovation.

Co-authored by Torchbox and Ben Holt, Technology Innovation Lead at British Red Cross.

Problem space

First up is understanding what problem you’re trying to solve.

You know there is an opportunity to solve a problem and make the world a better place. First you have to understand what causes the problem and what influences the current solutions. When you have your head around that you will come up with much stronger ideas.

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problem space | solution space

Start with the ‘centroid’ – the key issue you want to solve – and start to map all the things that impact it. The trick is to always ask yourself “what problem do I really need to solve?” and to be open to shifting your focus.

Imagine someone pops up and says, “I need a pink drone to solve this problem”. You could jump to it and build them a pink drone. But if you unpick the request – asking “why?” and “what are you trying to change” or “what do you want to do better” – you can dig right down to the real issue. You can then map the system of influences and look for the most promising approach. It might not be pink. Or even a drone.

You will spot new opportunities, new space for unexpected solutions or a nice niche no one else has noticed by taking the time to map the problem space.

Ideation

Problem space explored. Next up is developing ideas.

‘Ideation’ does sound like buzzword bingo bullshit, but it is a useful concept (and a real word). It’s the process of forming new ideas, and it’s the ‘process’ part of ideation that is the critical bit to understand.

Humans generate ideas all the time – which clothes to wear, what to put in a sandwich – but we don’t pay a lot of attention to how we come up with these thoughts. Ideation is simply a set of tools, frameworks and approaches to generate powerful, useful ideas. It is critical for creative problem-solving.

Did you know there are rules for brainstorming? It is not just lobbing post-its at a wall. The four key guidelines were set down in 1939 by Alex F Osborn:

  • Go for quantity
  • Defer criticism
  • Welcome wild ideas
  • Combine and improve ideas

There’s a whole world of techniques that will help you come up with quality, creative ideas. You don’t need to slavishly follow a strict process, but it is a great idea to build up a personal toolkit of interesting ways to think creatively.

Check out Gamestorming and the approach we took working with Barnardo’s innovation team to help define a challenge to take into a design sprint.

Design Sprint

Idea formed. Next step is to test it rapidly with users. Design Sprints are perfect for this: A 4-5 day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas.

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Innovation planning

Design Sprints are a great tool for co-designing new products or services with people outside the digital or innovation team. Read more about how we rapidly co-designed Sue Ryder's new online bereavement counselling service and MQ’s new Participate platform to recruit people into mental health research studies - both these products are now live.

Story Mapping

Armed with a prototype and some early feedback about a new potential product or service, it’s now time to start thinking about the delivery phase.

Created by Jeff Patton, Story Mapping is a collaborative way of creating a Product Backlog (a prioritised list of everything that is known to be needed in the product). It’s based on the journey a user takes through the system and captures all activities and tasks associated with the journey.

Run as a remote or co-located workshop, Story Mapping helps us to move smoothly between the design and build phases, by spotting gaps, prioritising based on value and building team consensus.

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Innovation-design

MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

The MVP is the minimum set of functionality we need to deliver before a new digital service or product can be made available for real users. It could be as simple as a page on your website to get feedback on appetite for a new service or the first, stripped back release of your revamped website.

Working towards an MVP launch forces you to prioritise the things your organisational needs (e.g. being able to take online donations) and what you think your users need. Crucially, it reduces the risk of spending time and money on designing or building things that users don’t want or need. Most importantly, it helps you to get fast feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

Sounds great! So, why are MVPs misinterpreted (and often disliked!)? Mainly because defining what it means and how it’s applied is so contextual. What drives the decision making to include or exclude something from the MVP is not universal, and is often misunderstood.

If you’re struggling with this we would recommend listening to this podcast, or if you’re really keen, reading The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.

Scaling

Nothing appears in the world fully-formed – everything takes time to grow. Businesses and brilliant products are no exception. ‘Scaling’ means transitioning the prototype or pilot to the real-world, where it can unleash its full power and reach its full potential.

But this is a really difficult trick to pull off. A lot of ideas seem brilliant as prototypes but fail spectacularly once they have to scale. The idea may be so ‘isolated’ in the innovation environment that you haven’t built in key elements it will need to survive. Always remembering that you want your new idea to scale – whether that’s in one team or globally – will help you plan ahead and consider what your product needs to thrive.

Dan McClure offers a great critique of the problem in his ‘missing middle’ paper.

Fail forward

Whilst the approaches we’ve outlined in this blog reduce the risk of designing and building the wrong thing or launching a new product that no one needs, innovation projects don’t always succeed.

And failure is a tricky subject, especially in the nonprofit sector. How can you go to your boss or beneficiaries and tell them you wasted time and money on something that didn’t work? Surely, you’ll be sacked, ridiculed, scolded or shouted at?

It doesn’t have to be that way.. If you are using lean principles, iterating MVPs, building evidence and staying user-focused, you’ll be able to rapidly pivot. You’ll be failing forward – taking everything you’ve learnt and using it to make the next effort better.

We recommend encouraging your team to share and analyse their screw-ups; the projects that collapsed, the ideas that turned out to be flawed. Sharing and learning from these experiences will make your team stronger, bolder and more ambitious.

Check out Pizza for Losers and our recent roundtable on embracing risk to find out more.

That’s it. Please get in touch if there are any other terms you’d like us to address in our next blog or if you need some help with your innovation project.

Will Heinemann
Will Heinemann

New Business Director 7 Aug 2020 5 min read

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