Building CrowdED: The story of three future product managers and the choices they made along the path to MVP

by Barry Malinowski, John Phillips, and Daniel Heller 

When the three of us sat down to solve a complicated educational problem with a simple technical solution, we each had different goals. Combined, we wanted experience wireframing, prototyping, and testing an application that we would shepherd from mere idea to working product. Over the span of a semester we took deep-dives into these elements of product management and technical development. At every step of the way we were faced with a myriad of choices. Here is some of what we did and learned. We hope it can serve as a guide and roadmap for other product managers facing similar choices.

Wireframing

Wireframing tools span simple pencil and paper, multi-purpose vector graphics editors, etc. We chose to use Balsamiq, a web-based application designed specifically for mockups. Balsamiq retains the benefit of pencil and paper (i.e. stakeholders don’t get distracted by details at this early stage of development) by mimicking the look-and-feel of sketches. Balsamiq’s advantages over pencil and paper include speed (via pre-drawn widgets such as a browser) as well as easy editing and collaboration (think Google Docs). One potential downside to Balsamiq is limited flexibility/customization, which can not only prevent you from representing your idea, but also stifle creativity. This tradeoff is likely to be most acute for websites whose primary differentiator is design (e.g. Gojee) -- not an issue in our case.

Equally important to the choice of tool is the process, especially if you’re working in a team. To maximize creativity, our team’s first step was for each of the three of us to independently create wireframes in isolation. The next step was to share our mockups with one another. What we found was that there wasn’t a single wireframe that we all gravitated toward, but rather, we liked bits and pieces from each of the three. The final step in our process was to string the winning components together into a single, cohesive mockup.

Prototype Development

It’s important to spend time selecting the right development tools. First, go with what you know best, and then choose tools that are easy to learn and widely adopted. There are many web application frameworks and content management systems, and most will typically suffice for a simple MVP. If starting from scratch, pick a language that is easy to learn (e.g. Python) and tools that are widely in use. The advantages of picking widely adopted technology include open-source code and thorough documentation. With tools such as Twitter Bootstrap, one can put together a professional-looking site without in-depth knowledge of HTML, CSS, or Javascript.

Involve developers early on and communicate in terms of the customer. Also, become acquainted with the constraints of development tools being used. Should developers need to make important decisions without consulting product managers, having a mutual understanding of the product in a common language is essential. Flesh out the top users stories. Establish the product principles. Moreover, if you aren’t aware of the development tools being used, don’t wed yourself to elaborate wireframes. Custom front-end design work can be time consuming. Tools like Twitter Bootstrap include many suitable, professional-looking building blocks for the front-end of an MVP.

User Testing

When interpreting the results of user testing, keep in mind the context in which you are testing. We tested the product in “Competing with Social Networks” during the final days of school. Nevertheless, quantitative metrics were positive: of those involved in the test, 28% contributed content. See https://crowded.johnphillips.co for the prototype used.




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