Properly run pre-production part of the software development process always bears fruit but its advantages are usually being noticed and appreciated by the client during or after the workshops. Even if generally well-known, the values of this stage are often underestimated by companies outsourcing IT projects, especially when they already have their own designs and find any UX interference unnecessary. But to achieve a good project performance and provide on-time delivery this part should be conducted by a user experience specialist, even if they are not the full Product Design Workshops. To resolve all of the doubts we prepared answers for the most frequently asked questions that we receive from clients choosing the proper form of discovery stage.
How does the pre-production stage of software development look like?
Depending on a problem to be solved and a company activity we can distinguish multiple types of workshops suitable for projects in different phases. In Merixstudio we usually use two forms during the pre-production stage:
- Discovery session is a full-sized Product Design Workshops usually led at the very beginning of a project when the main concept of a product is not crystal clear. Through the session, the business perspective is clarified along with user perspective and their motivations. Furthermore, a competitive landscape along with the product’s uniqueness emerge. It’s more focused on searching for solutions to create a product.
- Scoping sessions are advised for projects in a more advanced phase, namely when a prototype has been created. The main aim of such a session is to, as the name indicates, assess the scope of the project. It can be done in many ways, but we usually use story mapping to split each element into views, steps, system behaviors and tasks to capture the flow of actions to leave no loopholes.
Whatever form client picks for the project we can run it in-house and remotely. The first type of sessions are normally a bit longer and we keep the participants in one room for most of the day. This enables everyone to focus on the project and work intensely on problems and solutions. We work on paper canvas, post-it notes and obviously markers. The by-product of such session is typically a crystal clear understanding of the project and scope and a smooth transition into how the real-life cooperation would look like. Face to face discussions encourage deepening the questions and facilitate developing business partner relations.
The remote sessions are a bit shorter and typically split into 2-3 days. They’re extremely demanding but as a software house based in Poland having mostly foreign clients we refined this kind of workshops to provide most efficient UX process. We prepare as much as we can beforehand and in-between in online cooperation tools (like Mural )to focus only on the core questions.
Why should I choose Product Design Workshops?
First of all, during the time spent together, regardless of the scope of workshops, all the teams get to know each other better and the clash that happens between different worlds - software house’s and the client’s - results in high level of custom web development. Product Design Workshops are also an amazing opportunity to ask questions and gather answers for both sides. It might seem slightly paradoxical, but it’s the questions that propel the discussions forward, not the answers. Questions lead to more questions and provoke digging deeper into the project. The session is certainly not just an extended Q&A, but more importantly, it’s a sharing experience in which both sides discover an approach on how to solve the problem through a series of workshop techniques.
A common part of discovery session is a discussion about users: who are they? What are their motivations? Etc. Once we learn that they are 10-year-old kids who want to gain new skills we can think about their motivations: do they want to learn by themselves or maybe it’s their parents who motivate them? If it’s e.g other kids who bring value to the play the focus could be shifted towards cooperation/competition. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to focus on supervising the progress of children and encouraging them to use the application.
A process of creating a tailored-made product is based on gathering similar insights and forging them into appropriate solutions. We conduct the workshops not only for the sake of product itself, namely understanding the bigger picture (learning about the background, scope, challenges, priorities, and requirements) but also to embrace the human factor. Getting to know each other and smoothly establishing the rules of communications are (and should) be named as one of the goals of the workshop session. After all, the team will be working closely with the client for a long period of time, so establishing basic rules of cooperation is crucial. Additionally, having all hands on board has an invigorating effect on the engagement of the members and results in more commitment in the next phases.
How do you prepare for the workshops?
There is nothing more important in a process of negotiation than being perfectly prepared. The best software houses apply the same rule in case of conducting workshops; the more we know about a project or idea upfront, the more effective meeting with customers will be.
The scope of research we perform depends on a project type. Before creating a totally new tool or website it is crucial to become familiar with similar solutions available on the market. Looking for benchmarks and inspirations across the web takes plenty of time but brings us much closer to the idea our customer wants to put in motion. The other merit is connected with saving hours of work - once something has been developed, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Already existing solutions can be a very good starting point to bring customer’s idea to the higher level Beginning from where others have finished gives a solid market advantage.
In case of projects that require lots of user’s input, major research should be done using analytical tools like Hotjar or Google Analytics. Measuring movement on the website and observing what is the biggest problem for the user is essential information to design and implement key improvements. What is especially important in doing research before workshops is preparing lots of out of the box ideas and suggestions. Sometimes the key to the new and revolutionary solution lies in an absolutely different playground.
Who takes part in scoping session and other workshops?
Participating in the discovery and the scoping session should be a fundamental experience for both teams. Not only it bonds them, but moreover, the knowledge and ideas are decently passed by a customer to representatives of a software house and on the other hand, a wider perspective is given to the client by external specialists.
There are no strict rules of who “has to” take part in this stage of the software development process, but diversity is priceless. People with totally different perspectives are very precious during such meetings, because the more multidisciplinary the team is, the more polished the end-product. That’s why we typically have an extended full-stack team representing a whole variety of skills and experiences:
- Project Manager who will lead the software development process so his presence is necessary straight from the beginning ;
- User Experience Designer, whose role is quite extensive as UX covers a variety of topics that are touched during the sessions, starting from strategic deliberations about a business model for the project, ideas for monetization through finding out new functionalities and drawing first wireframes. He/she is also responsible for moderating the workshops and assuring that the members' efforts are going in the right direction.
- UI Designer, if the project requires graphic designs;
- Frontend and Backend developers to take care of the technical topics of the work.
From the client’s side, it differs - we’ve run sessions with just CEOs on board and ones with the whole teams (in terms of different competencies). But to provide effective workshops’ performance the participation of those persons is a great value:
- Owner of the company/startup or CEO, so we can use his great knowledge of the company and ensure his/her impact on the final product;
- CTO and Software Developers to check the tech requirements of a created solution;
- Product Owner as he/she oversees the works during the whole developing process;
- Representatives of end users if the created tool is dedicated to a specific group of eployees in a company;
- Representatives of the department having broad knowledge about users like client service (most direct and everyday interaction with customers), marketing (creative impact) or sales (wide expertise of the market environment).
Everyone is welcome during the session (if the size of the group is not overwhelming), but usually, up to 4 people arrive at our office. The more diverse the group of people taking part in the workshop, the better the outcome. It does not necessarily mean a lot of people should be involved, between 5 and 8 is a good number to be most effective. What matters the most is the quality of participants’ work. Those experienced in cross-functional projects, with soft skills, eager to ask and reply on questions and ready to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes are highly welcome as they bring true value. Whoever is going to participate in which part of the pre-production process, it’s essential to provide a general overview of the project - everyone should be on the same page with basics.
What can I expect after the workshops?
The main deliverable for the scoping session would be a story map. Additionally, we split the map into priorities to provide MVP. Based on that the estimation is being made by the whole team. The list of stories is translated into ready-to-add backlog and transferred to Jira. On top of these, initial sketches are prepared, usually during workshops or right after. All of these are provided to the client shortly after the session, irrespective of the type of session (remote or in-house).
The discovery session covers also the bigger picture of the project, meaning the business context captured in a useful and clear-cut form. As previously mentioned the focus is also put on users, so the deliverables may include personas, user flows, customer journeys.
All of these deliverables and workshop methods are merely tools that help us evaluate the scope of work, find missing functionalities, verify the flow of actions and most importantly assess the actual cost and reduce superfluous functionalities for a specific user group.