Introduction To Dual-Track Agile Product Development For Digital Startups
Digital startups find themselves faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, and they are aware that the one thing they can do in order to enter the market and become successful is to develop products that offer value to users and customers. This is why they put so much focus on their product development, because that is where it all starts for them.
The conventional method of product development used in other industries will not really work very well in software development. Software development has certain aspects that are markedly different from, say, development of electronics or even food and other similar consumer products.
In software development, digital startups often use either the Waterfall or Agile methodology. In brief, the Waterfall methodology follows four phases: Analysis of the product requirements, Design of a technical solution to meet the product requirements, Implementation of the approved design, and Testing of the software prior to release. The major downside of this methodology is the high amount of expense or cost involved, especially when changes in the design have to be effected. Once a change is found to be necessary, they will have to go back to the Analysis and Design phases, and that takes a lot of time and money.
This is why more software developers prefer to make use of agile methodologies instead of the Waterfall approach.
In this article, you will learn about 1) what is agile product development, 2) what is dual-track agile product development, and 3) benefits of using dual-track agile product development.
WHAT IS AGILE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT?
In Agile Product Development, we are looking at software development approaches that are based on iterative development. Product requirements and the solutions that are developed to address the problems that are spurred by these requirements are processed, evaluated and made to evolve through the collaboration between and across team members and teams.
Agile puts more emphasis on interactions among and between individuals and teams, particularly those who are directly involved in the product development. The environment takes on a collaborative atmosphere, and one of the most defining characteristics of the approach is its iterations. Product development is basically performed in iterations, which often result to high-quality software, which is produced in a cost-effective and efficient manner, meeting deadlines or time constraints set on them.
The process begins with a “backlog”, which is a list that covers all the prioritized requirements, or everything that has to be done. The list will be the starting point of how the team will set the scope, schedule and cost of work to be done, starting from the work that must be completed first. Of course, when setting the schedule, scope and costing, they will always take into consideration the target date of release of the product they are developing.
The work will be divided into what we call ‘iterations’ or ‘sprints’, where specific requirements are expected to be delivered within each sprint. Each iteration is seen as a complete development cycle, with its own expected result or deliverable at the end of each sprint or iteration.
Compared to the Waterfall methodology, Agile poses less risk, because the more difficult tasks with the higher risks are addressed at the beginning (they are on top of the list of priorities or backlogs). Productivity of the developers and other members of the cross-functional teams are also increased because they are expected to have an output at the end of each sprint. Monitoring of the progress of the product development process is also more stable, thanks to the daily stand-up meetings that are conducted. Testing is also performed on new features or functions as they are delivered, so they will immediately know whether it works or not. This is opposed to other product development methods, which waits for the entire release to be finished before conducting testing. As a result, they will incur more time and cost when some functions do not pass testing, and they have to go back to zero.
There are several methodologies in Agile, including Scrum, FDD, XP, and Crystal. For this discussion, however, we will be focusing on the methodology known as dual-track agile product development.
DUAL-TRACK AGILE PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
The first question we have to get out of the way is: “what is dual-track agile?”
Dual-track agile, which is also known as “dual-track scrum”, is the approach in software development that assumes that agile product development has two key tracks: the Discovery Track and the Delivery Track.
When you ask software developers and designers why they prefer using the dual-track approach over the conventional approach, their answer is most likely to zero in on how it is more efficient, as it eliminates a lot of the costs usually associated with agile product development. But we cannot fully get a picture of the benefits of dual-track agile product development without understanding what this dual-track agile is all about.
Before you read further watch this awesome video on how to build products customers love using the dual track agile approach.
Step 1: The Discovery Track
Also referred to as the “discovery cycle”, this track involves the quick or fast generation of “validated product backlog items in collaborative interactions and sessions with designers and engineers, to make way for the Delivery Track”.
As the name implies, this phase involves gathering information and gaining knowledge. Therefore, it involves talking to users and using the information you obtained to figure out what the product requirements are.
The common activities implemented in this track include:
Naturally, you have to first identify who your stakeholders are. Stakeholders are the individuals and entities that can be affected or, in turn, can affect your organization. The discovery team would have to conduct interviews with the top management or the owners of the startup, learn of their objectives and policies. These are bound to have an impact on how the product development would unfold.
You are creating software or a product with specific users in mind, which is why you have to pay attention to them from the start of the product development process. There are several user research methodologies that are being used, and they include inquiries through interviews and surveys, and ethnographic and demographic studies.
Interviews are often highly recommended because you will be interacting and connecting with the users in their natural environment. Of course, digital startups may not have its specific users yet. One option is for them to direct their attention to the users of their competitors for their research.
During your research, focus on the problems that they are faced with, the requirements that they are looking for, and the features or solutions that they would want or need.
Development of Personas and Scenarios
From the information gathered through user research, you can now develop your product persona. These are particularly useful when you are going in-depth with your user stories. Essentially, you are establishing patterns which you can use in the next steps of product development.
This is the same as creating scenarios that will also aid you. For example, you can ask users to give you a scenario on a specific task they accomplish on a daily basis. What are the problems they encounter when doing this task? How do they solve it or get around that problem to still accomplish it?
Prioritization is very important in Agile and, in dual-track scrum, all that you have obtained through user research must also be prioritized in order to make sense of them. Story mapping, particularly the user stories you have gathered, will help you understand user experience better, so you can prioritize features better. For instance, you have a list of features that you plan on incorporating into the product. Through story mapping, you will easily be able to distinguish those features that are deemed most important or indispensable, from those that have little to no value.
Step 2: The Delivery Track
This involves the development of software that may be released, based on the backlog items that have been defined and qualified previously in the Discovery Track.
The natural response of product development teams after they have conducted all their user research and other Discovery Track activities is to go straight ahead to the design stage. Before that, however, the team should first be clear on what the deliverables will be, and how they will be delivered. Once they have agreed on those, they can proceed to the other activities of the delivery track.
Rapid prototype creation
Digital startups want to finish product development as much as possible and release them to the market quickly. However, it is suggested that prototypes be created first for testing. One effective testing method is the RITE, or the Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation method, which can be done in person, or even over the phone
Informal and iterative testing
Getting feedback from users is something that is done throughout the delivery track, not just AFTER the final product has been released. Getting the users involved will help the delivery team catch problems while it is in the development process, instead of finding the problem only after majority of the work (and the costs) is done.
We have made mention of how Agile is all about collaboration. By involving your users, product development teams and the managers are more in touch with the customers, putting them in a better position to understand what the customers want and need.
Polishing of the user interface
This is connected to user research inputs and customer feedback. Product designers and developers continue working on their product, even after they are done with the prototype. You can say that this is a way to fine-tune the product. By getting the thoughts of the users, they can better polish the user interface of the software and, ultimately, improve user experience.
There is a reason why it is referred to as “dual-track” instead of a “two tracks connected to each other in a continuous line or loop”. One important point to be remembered is that Discovery and Delivery tracks run parallel to each other. It’s not about one waiting for the other track to be finished before it can get started, and vice versa. The two key tracks work together and complement each other.
BENEFITS OF DUAL-TRACK AGILE FOR DIGITAL STARTUPS
One thing not many people understand about digital startups is this: they do not have unlimited resources. Often, they have to start on a very tight working capital, and they do not really have the luxury of time to be relaxed in their pace. Technology moves at such a fast speed, the software you are working on today may be rendered obsolete in less than a couple of months. That is why digital startups have to consider cost and speed in their product development. That is where agile product development, particularly dual-track agile, comes in handy.
1. Dual-track agile results in less rework and waste
If the backlog items have not been properly qualified, defined and validated, expect several reworks that must be done. Lots of rework and even more wasted time and resources will result in slow work velocity. Deadlines might not be met and, even if they were, the results would not be satisfying at all. Agile is mainly about iterations, so expect to go through the cycle in more than one or two gos. It is already a given that the team will have to do iterations repeatedly, but if you end up doing more than you should, mainly because you were not able to do it right the first few iterations, will already mean wastage that you could have avoided.
The mere fact that you keep conducting meetings just to clear things up about backlog items that were not made clear in previous meetings is already indicative of resources wasted. The discovery and delivery tracks will ensure that the members of the product development team will have all the information they need, so they can reduce the number of iterations and, consequently, the costs and time incurred.
2. Dual-track agile leads to the development of higher quality products
By having well-defined backlog items, product developers are able to eliminate features that have very little or no value at all. This reduces instances where you release software and the users end up using only about 50% of the functionality.
Dual-track agile’s validation ensures that there is an actual and real need for a feature. Through implementing the discovery and delivery tracks, you are able to pay attention to the user experience. In short, you are able to put yourselves in the shoes of your users, so you will know which features will be useful to them, and which can be eliminated, without compromising the quality of the product.
3. Dual-track agile makes validation more cost-effective
Validation is one aspect that is often overlooked or even pointedly ignored by many product developers. Some think it is redundant; others simply do not see its importance. Validation of ideas is very important, if only to ensure the quality of the product. However, it involves the use of codes, rendering it time-consuming, tedious, and expensive, which is the reason why it is often ignored. Or even when developers do it, they do it in a half-hearted manner, which completely defeats the purpose.
As a result, developers are looking for a way to make the validation of ideas more manageable, faster, and cheaper, and dual-track agile is one way of doing exactly that. This is through the actions undertaken by the members of the Discovery Team, who can use surveys and paper prototypes, instead of codes, to validate. This is certainly easier and faster, and makes validation more cost-effective.
4. Dual track agile increases startups’ ability to cope better with change
Flexibility is one trait that all businesses – not just those engaged in digital technology – can benefit from. We are all aware how fast-paced and volatile the information technology industry is, so digital startups should learn how to keep up and cope. By implementing dual-track scrum, they are already training themselves to get there.
5. Dual-track agile promotes improved overall user experience
There has always been a discordant relationship between agile product development and user experience design, so much so that even the experts in agile find integration of the two to be very difficult. They find it difficult to focus on two things at one time; it is either focus on the product development iterations, or concentrate on design focused on user experience.
Dual-track creates a clear separation between the discovery and delivery track teams, so one team can focus on one, and the other team on the other issue. The discovery team, in building prototypes, can already integrate user experience design, and the delivery team will pick things from the specs that the discovery team will provide them. You should also not forget that the discovery team is the one responsible for validation, so they can incorporate the validation of user experience on their end as well.
For digital startups, the use of dual-track agile is highly recommended. When done right, they are looking at great results. Of course, they should keep a level head and focus on the work at hand. Choosing the right people to assign to the teams and their tasks is very important, and making sure you have a schedule is also needed. But there should also be a lot of room for flexibility. Depending on your scheduling, the nature of your startup, and your goals, your dual-track agile implementation may differ from that of other digital startups.