Pre-MVP: What to do before you start making a product (Web, App, Software)

Date: Originally compiled between 2012 and 2017


Who is this essay for?

This essay is for anyone who would like to build a new product (web, app or software), but wonders where to start. Since I wrote this originally for one of the first product teams I worked with, several concepts are introduced at a basic level for interns, junior developers/marketers, specialists, etc. who were new to the topic. 

Note: If the content seems stitched together and not uniform, it is :) Different sections and examples have been added at different points in time. Hopefully, some content will still be relevant as today. Experienced product management professionals might be familiar with a lot of the content. 

What is product development process?

A process to describe the steps needed to take a product (software, website or app in this case) from idea to launch.

Why do we need a product development process?

The most important reason is to avoid building a solution, without a proper problem definition. A lot of ideas start as a solution. Only later in the stage of building the product it becomes obvious that the solution solves some insignificant problem. Or does not solve anything significant for any particular set of users. 

How to build a new product? - TL;DR 

Product Development Process TLDR

A few things to note in the above TL;DR version:

And, a couple of important things to keep in mind:

A short example to demonstrate (actual definitions will be much detailed and even more focused):
Background: 20% of adults suffer from chronic pain globally, and 10% are newly diagnosed with chronic pain annually, making it an enormous global public health priority. The prevalence of chronic pain increased with age, ranging from 18% among those aged 16-34 years to 53% among those 75 years and over. Nearly two-fifths of those aged 45 to 54 years reported chronic pain, indicating that many people of working age experience chronic pain. You want to build an app to provide chronic pain management. 

Define the problem: you'll need to get actual audience numbers for 18% 16-34 years olds, 2/3 of 45 to 54 years olds, and so on. If for whatever reason, you cannot, use the best available data or make educated estimates. 

Focus on a market: The world is diverse, different languages, health systems, habits, mobile usability etc. Narrow your focus on your home market or the market where chronic pain is the most prevalent. 

Focus on a segment of the market: You can decide to focus on the 16-34 year olds (they are likely to live with chronic pain longer that older groups) or 45-54 year olds (if this is the largest age group in the country), or 25-40 years (largest paying, potentially most mobile savvy, etc.). Essentially, look for the audience for whom you could make the greatest impact, and in turn could offer you the greatest revenue (or at least traction so you may figure out better monetization later). 

Focus on a category: Chronic lower back pain is the most widespread form of pain. Public health and private health are both targeting this, so there is awareness,  and there are no or few competitors in the online space. So this could be a great category to enter the market. 

This way, you are first defining how widespread the problem is, and which are the specific customer cohorts you can target. And then narrowing in on the market, cohort and category you are going to focus on. Thus instead of pushing your small team deep into the unknown, you have established a way point: An app with chronic back pain management course for 25-40 year olds in the UK, supported partially by public and private health initiatives. Because this is a large segment of people, who will stay in the workforce relatively long time, probably have the means to pay for this, probably also willing to use online courses.

How to build a new product? - Some more details

Ideation and validation phase

This stage is crucial as it involves brainstorming and generating a wide range of ideas for new products or features. The objective is to encourage creativity and innovation, allowing for the exploration of various possibilities without immediate constraints. This step is essential in product development, as it lays the foundation for what will eventually become a tangible product. Following are the major milestones in this phase, which I would recommend you to document. This documentation will not only inform your business case, but also create a reference guide for the definition of your problem, your target audience and some sort of solutions. 

Create an initial scoping

It's a document structured to guide a team through the foundational questions that frame a project. Divided into four sections, it asks teams to outline the project's objectives, understand the audience, define the project's scope, and identify the key team members and advisors. The sections are:

Why: Why are you doing, what you are doing/going to do?

E.g.: Not enough is being done to stop climate change, even though majority of the population is extremely concerned/alarmed about it.

Who for: Who is the core audience?

E.g.: Age group, income group, use case etc.

What: What are you going to do?

E.g.: Allow busy people to compel corporations and governments to speed up actions and policies to stop climate change, by spending just 5 minutes every week.

How: How are you going to achieve, what you plan to do?

E.g.: Build an app that breaks down complex corporate and policy changes into steps, and allows the user to take these steps from the App itself.

Conduct research to gain market insight and inform buyer/user persona

A thorough research is crucial in defining problems and developing effective product strategies. There are several research methodologies involved in gaining audience and market insights for new product development. These are:

User/Buyer persona

A user/buyer persona is the outline of your users (and buyers in case they are not the same person). It includes demographic information, job titles, personality traits, interests, marketing preferences, technology savviness, and reasons why the user might use a particular product. The persona is meant to encapsulate a user's characteristics such as being a problem solver who values efficiency, their professional roles, preferred communication channels, and tools they use. To put together personas, you will either employ primary research (interview your target audience directly) or secondary research (find data sources which will give you the persona).

An example of user persona:

Let's say you want to build a product which provides the fastest and most collaborative note taking application over the internet: Zap. You focus your solution on few use cases, such as one for recruiters. A recruiter user persona would look like (the name Sarah is for reference only):

Sarah (30-35 yrs) is an enthusiastic problem solver, looking for the fastest way to interview prospective candidates and coordinate with the hiring team.

Titles: Talent Acquisition Manager, Recruitment Manager,  Recruitment Specialist/Consultant

Reports to: Head of HR/Talent Acquisition/Recruitment, Senior Recruitment Manager

Demographic: SMB segment, <150 employees 

Messaging (towards Sarah): Messaging should have an informal tone. Highlighting benefits, simplicity, affordability & ‘international’ company.

Personality: She is a people’s person, optimistic with a quantitative bend.

Interests: She is interested in making the hiring experience as painless as possible on both sides (internally, externally).

Marketing preferences: Sarah gets up to date with Industry trends primarily on Linkedin (#1). She spends her evenings (usually) on that platform. Email (#2) is still preferred from vendors over other channels. Articles, Podcasts and Webinars are preferred content types. YouTube, LinkedIn and social media (Fb, Instagram) are increasingly used at the workplace for HR functions.

Reasons to use your solution: While recruiting she aims to strike a balance between talking and taking notes. She would like the option to capture notes automatically from the call, and share them on the applicant management system (for the hiring team's update). 

Tech savviness: Chrome user, moderate, Uses tools like Jira, Teamtailor (Recruitment Software), G-Suite, Bamboo (HRM), ADP Platforms

Willingness to pay (and how much): Believes that she can get a £ 15-25 per month charge approved from cost center. 

Other notes: Sarah mentions that candidates might be vary of automated note taking applications due to privacy concerns. 

If Sarah is not the decision maker when it comes to procurement, it would be best to put together a buyer persona. In Sarah's case it could be her manager or the Chief People Officer. All/most sections of the persona might be different for Users and Buyers.

Creating Proposition

Start writing the key features and respective benefits they offer. This will start shaping the product you will build. Using the 'Zap' example above:

Key feature: Automatic summary of call notes.
Benefit: Saves time, and let's user focus on the conversation.

Key feature: Integrates with major video calling tools.
Benefit: Allows user to switch to different video calling tools for different providers.

Key feature: Integrates with over 30 major applicant tracking systems
Benefit: Allows users a wide range of ATS options to choose from.

Key feature: No personal data is recorded, including voice samples, unless agreed. Even if,  then uses state of the art encryption.
Benefit: Meets high privacy standards.

And so on...

Competitor mapping

Competitor mapping is a strategic method used to profile the market landscape. It involves identifying and categorizing your competitors to understand their strengths, weaknesses, products, and market positioning. By analyzing these elements, you can uncover market trends, identify gaps in the market, and find opportunities for differentiation. This helps in crafting strategies to compete effectively. It's like creating a map of the business world to navigate and position your solution better.

Following is one competitor map for 'Zap'. It is drawn up using 2 axes: 

X Axis/Horizontal: Types of tools (Transcription only, Transcription and Summary, and Transcription, summary and collaboration)

Y Axis/Vertical: Real time note taking vs. delayed.

Product Development Process TLDR

There are other ways of creating this map as well. For e.g. if you are entering a market which already has similar tools, you could price as one of the axes'. As you learn more about the competing solutions/products in the market, you will start to figure out different ways of doing competitor maps. This way, you will learn more about the features and respective benefits offered by competitors. 

Competitor maps are also a great visual aid, especially when you want to present to teams or investors. 


By now you have,

Also, in the process of doing the above, you have probably talked to a lot of your target users, and gone through tonnes of information from experts, etc. 

Before you move further, now will be the time to give a bit of life to your product in the form of drawings called wireframes. 

Wireframing in product development is akin to an architect’s blueprint for a building. It is a skeletal outline or a two-dimensional illustration of a webpage or app's interface that specifically focuses on space allocation and prioritization of content, functionalities available, and intended behaviours. Wireframes are used early in the development process to establish the basic structure of a page/screen before visual design and content are added, and they are often used to plan the layout and interaction of an interface without being distracted by design elements such as colors and images.

Building wireframes with features and a flow of users expected behavior not only helps you visualize the beginnings of your product, but also helps you validate the solution with the same users you interviewed. This gives you an opportunity to validate whether you are on the correct path. Build wireframes, especially one showing the user's journey through the product, and then get feedback from the users you interviewed initially.

An example:

Example wireframe showing a login screen on smartphone

1. Login

Example wireframe showing a call recording screen on smarphone

2. Start recording meeting audio

Example wireframe showing 'Share' functionality on smartphone

3. Share meeting notes summary with others

Business Case

Once you have feedback on your wireframe, you are ready to put together a business case. Business case combines all the information you have put together in the product development process till now. This way, you have one uniform document to share with everyone on your team, investors and/or other interested parties. You will find many ways to write a business case, and also many ways to document it (e.g. text document, presentation, spreadsheet etc.). You may choose the what works for you best, but do include the following in your business case:

There are other things which can be included in a business case depending on audience and/or your preference. However, to kick off product development the above information should be a sound enough business case. In case you are pitching to investors, you might need to go deep into:

With the business case ready, not only have you documented your once nascent idea properly, but in the process also learned in depth about: the problem, users it influences, potential solutions (and features and benefits), revenue potential, etc. 

Now you are ready to actually start coding your website, app or software, and enter the world of iterative product development.