Imagine for a moment that you have just received funding to build the next best thing in software development. After a year or two of building and iterating on your core idea, you have finally succeeded in securing investors and have validated that your idea has legs - people believe in you. It’s time to make good on your promises. No problem: you have a clearly defined vision and a set of features to get you there, right?

Well...maybe, but chances are your vision will not line up perfectly with the expectations, needs, and wants of your first customers. This is the moment of truth. Right here you have an opportunity to blindly push forward with building to the spec. outlined in your vision, or you can take a step back to seek feedback from a core set of potential customers that can help you better understand the benefits, prioritize features and improve your product faster.

What would you do?

User Experience is Everything

Is there anything more important, in terms of guiding the direction and focus of your product development, than the user experience? True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features. In order to achieve high-quality user experience in a company's offerings there must be a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines, including engineering, marketing, graphical and industrial design, and interface design.

There’s no denying that happy customers make successful companies, and in a world of instant gratification (the era of same day Amazon deliveries) people don’t have the patience to wait for you to perfect your product at their expense. They’ll slam you on Facebook and Twitter, seek alternatives, switch to your top competitor, complain to their friends/colleagues, and before you know it you’re fighting to win back the trust of your customers when you could have empowered them as co-creators and accelerated your product evolution.

How to Properly Include UX in Your Product Development Cycle

At mabl we have chosen to include our customers in the development of our product. Early on, our co-founders made the decision to organize an alpha group of users to help guide and prioritize product development. This is an important strategic decision that helps ensure we are are all clear on the personas we are building for, that we are iterating on customer feedback related to product features, and separately (this is an important distinction), that we are are incorporating customer feedback on usability into all updates.

I’m not a software engineer, but being a tech marketer involves understanding the product development process and balancing our priorities with what’s important to our customers so we can deliver real solutions to their problems. There’s a lot to consider, especially in the early stages of growth when the engineering team is cranking out new features daily and the product is changing so quickly. I’ve seen first hand how handling all of these moving pieces properly helps an engineering team operate with more efficiency with more drive.

Our team is able to move incredibly fast because we are all laser focused on delivering value to our alpha users. When you’re building a new product, focusing on delivering core value to your early customers is critical to maximizing velocity. This is one reason why injecting UX into your product development lifecycle makes so much sense.

Clear Direction and Priorities

When all of engineering (the whole company, really) is clear that everything being worked on is focused on the customer, there less room for distraction and feature creep. Because we have stories that are themed around a core component of the user experience, the team is able to make significant improvements to an area that is painful for users in very short periods of time.

If we get user feedback today on an area that is causing friction in the user experience we can brainstorm, come up with a plan, and build the work into the next sprint. Once the work is completed we can then go back to the users who gave us the feedback for the update, and show them the changes. Giving early users of your product this type of influence over the direction of your product is powerful and it builds long term relationships.

For example, early on we had usability issues with displaying evidence from the output of a newly created journey. Initially, the user was aware that they completed a process because they submitted the form, but there was no clear confirmation that mabl was actually doing something. We identified this as a point of confusion during usability testing, and after confirming it in various sessions we brainstormed a plan and built the work into the next sprint.

The solution the team came up with was to enable customers to view test output live while mabl is running the journey and looking for errors. This update addressed a core usability issue, and provided us with an opportunity to deliver value to the customer more quickly.

From here we informed our customers that we addressed their issue, confirmed that the implemented changes work for them, and thanked them for helping us improve the product. Giving early customers this type of influence and over the direction of your product is powerful, it creates loyalty, builds trust, and establishes long term relationships.

Making Happy Customers

While having clear direction and priorities is important, loyalty is invaluable. When you invite potential customer to take an early look at your product, in exchange for their candid feedback and opinions, you build a base of loyal customers. Now, I’m not saying that’s WHY you adopt a customer focused mindset, but it sure is an added benefit.

Think about your favorite company. Why do you feel the way you do about them? 9 times out of 10, that's because at one point you were made to feel special. You got to know the company from the inside out. This company is not just an entity to you, but a living organism with drive, steered by a vision.

Co-creation gives customers an opportunity to take part in your vision, to influence a product that they have already identified a need for -- this is a rare opportunity for them to be heard, to have their opinions validated, and for them to help drive your product or application forward.

It’s not enough to have the perfect product -- you need customers too. Happy customers. The type of customers who can’t help but talk about your product in team meetings and at meetups. The kind of customers that keep you honest, and push you to get better. The kind of customers that tell you when something just isn’t working, and offer suggestions on how you can improve. The kind of...well, you get the point -- you serve at the mercy of the customer.

So focus on the customer early, when you’re building the product and you’ll get there faster, with more advocates, and with less mistakes.

So what does all this have to do with software development?

Everything. No matter how big and impressive your vision is, you NEED customers to bring it to life. Injecting user experience into your application lifecycle helps to ensure your customer is the focal point of the effort and that you’re iterating in the right direction.