Product inception: the first step in knowing what to build

By James Randall

James Randall, SIMS Chief Architect, continues his series of technical blogs by looking at the inception phase and how ideas are formed to build a product.

I’m often asked, how do we come up with the idea for a product? The simple answer is that ideas can come from anywhere and we’re constantly asking ourselves questions. Whether it’s internal discussions, talking to our customers or analysing the market, I always find the closer you get to the problem the customer is having, the better you can form a solution.

In my last blog, I looked at SIMS Labs, which is an intense development process that enables us to get an early version of the software into schools to pilot more quickly, leading overall to a quicker release to market. It’s also particularly appropriate for new innovations.

This time around I wanted to give you further insight into this process by taking a step back and discussing how we assess what ideas are viable to develop. There are many people throughout the business who consider ideas for products that can be built through SIMS Labs and it’s my responsibility to collate all of these into one big pot. Will it meet the needs of schools? How long will it take to build? What are the risks? When it comes to kicking off what we call the product inception phase, these are just a few of the things that need to be considered.

After we’ve narrowed down the list of ideas, we take the top three to the SIMS board to outline the project and present the technical and commercial aspects. I wanted to give you a more in-depth look into how we followed this process for some of our most recent products.

The core idea

Once we’ve confirmed the product we’re going to develop, we build a team and involve all the key people from day one in the decision-making process. You want everyone invested in the idea, to deeply understand the problem we are trying to solve and to have the same vision.

We then try and strip things back to the very core of the concept; what’s the heart of the problem the customer is having and will it address that? This is very important because if we’re developing the project through SIMS Labs we have a much shorter development cycle to build it, which means we need to decide if it’s a good fit for this short, compressed process.

If we take a look at SIMS SchoolView, which is aimed at multi-academy trusts (MATs), we needed to get into the mindset of understanding how MATs work and how they operate. The core idea was to have the trust’s data presented on a dashboard, which brought up lots of questions to help us shape the product – do they design their own dashboards, who can access them, what data do they require, and how up to date does the data need to be?

We also consulted a diverse range of MATs and really appreciated their time and support in providing us with their input to help shape the final product.

I truly believe in development, the hardest part of a product isn’t thinking up the initial idea, it’s making sure you have something that is genuinely useful to customers. The catch here is that you cannot fully answer that question until the product is in their hands.

It’s why customer feedback is so important at every stage of the development process. If we take SIMS Activities for example, we started off with the principle of creating a booking system which was really simple to use. But we also listened to a lot of feedback and the end product is actually very different to what it was on day one in terms of enhancing the design to follow processes typically used by schools to manage their extra-curricular activities, and we’ve continued to make changes and enhancements based on customer feedback.

A different route

Of course, not every product will be a natural fit for the compressed SIMS Labs process. For example, the next generation of SIMS Learning Gateway, the SIMS Parent and SIMS Student apps.

SIMS Learning Gateway is an established SIMS product and it was important that the apps recreated schools favourite functionality from the product, as well as providing added value to match the needs of schools, parents and students in today’s world. Therefore for the SIMS Parent and SIMS Student apps while we wanted to improve and innovate, we started with a much clearer view of what we needed to deliver and a higher baseline of required functionality. This meant that a longer development cycle was necessary to ensure we delivered the best product, but customer feedback was still key throughout the process.

The building of the product will always be the most challenging part, but it’s why product inception is so important. It not only helps to set the scene, but you come away with a clear sense of why you want to build something.

I hope this blog has given you a snapshot of the work we undertake with product inception and if you want to find out more please feel free to leave a comment below.

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