Problems (and Developers) Left Alone
With most of the development work in our studio I’m only tangentially involved in the day to day development and that’s no different with Electratype. So, when I want to see progress, nothing beats leaving for a couple of weeks of vacation. At the end of my first week back there’s a lot to show.
The typewriter elements are looking great: the roller, the 3D paper. A number of the navigation and publishing workflows are starting to take shape. And our guys are working hard to give the interface some beautiful visual embellishments. Equally as important, we had a little breakthrough with our themes and stationery design.
At one point, we wanted to create a single, distinct visual style that people would recognize as “Electratype”‘ when they saw it on someone’s Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr feed. Instead we’re kind of circling around a number of distinct styles. It looks like each typewriter theme will feature stationery and card stock from each of the styles. And I expect that even after we go live we’ll be adding new styles.
While there’s more work to do, I’m starting to feel the love. Take a look at some of the samples at the end of this post.
Eating Our Own (Consulting) Dog Food
This brings me to an inescapable observation about the whole process: it’s taken a lot longer than I wanted or expected it to, just to get to this point. But, I think that this has been good for the App. Honestly, if we’d had it out by now, we might have missed a bunch of critical ideas that we only encountered as we kept revisiting the design.
It’s a little ironic, because when customers come to us with App ideas, or requirements, we’re looking for crisp definitions up front. And where those don’t exist, our first task at hand is to design the uncertainty out of the engagement. As a consulting practice which works almost entirely in fixed price engagements, it’s a matter of survival. And we get really nervous when customers don’t seem to know what they want, or start to evolve their ideas after development has begun.
To be clear, our experimentation has mainly been during the design phase: Electratype has a 188 page interaction design specification that the developers are working from. Our view is that iteration and experimentation are best done during the design phase. Development should be relatively linear and predictable. Still, any project that’s any fun will have some development unknowns.
Your first point of order in the development of software is to identify technical risks and build out prototypes or proofs of concept to solve those problems, and validate the approach. At that stage your project progress may not go exactly the way you want. But unless your technical architecture has a box on it labelled, “A Miracle Occurs Here”, you can usually predict the possible paths resulting from your experimentation. From there on in, the development should proceed (relatively) predictably.
Stay the Course (Eat That Dog Food!!)
The question is, what if you see something along the way, during development, that you think is going to really benefit the product? Stop and make the change? Or just deliver what you’re working on?
I’m going to argue pretty hard for “deliver what you’re working on.”
We worked for one customer for nearly two years who conceived of, and designed, beautiful interactive software (web-based in their case) but who no sooner saw the stuff working before they wanted changes. Often significant changes. Great for those that have unlimited budget and no pressing need to ship.
That’s not us and, I suspect, that’s not you either.
Water Under the Bridge
The best way to think about development, from a product management or design point of view, is that it’s water under the bridge. Without the sense of resignation. Once you’ve put your stamp of approval on a design, then you have to trust your judgement and let that ship sail. Interfering with the development process to change the design does not give you a better design, it gives you a messed up development process.
Plus you’ve got work to do: the planning and designing the next version or release. If you involved yourself heavily in the development process you’re not going to be prepared for that.
There is, obviously, a threshold of functionality, usability, and polish that an App will need to be credible, but past that point, tinkering in the absence of real feedback provides diminished returns. Still, the urge to tweak is very hard to resist.
Fortunately for us, Electratype still has lots of follow on content to develop and tweak. Themes and stationery, cards, … the whole shebang. And as I mentioned in my previous post, there’s some new ground there for us to cover, in terms of creating original content, copyright and licensing, etc. And after we have the first set of themes ready to go, we want to expand the set of typewriter styles, add new theme packs, and add new fun stationery to all the themes.
My big hope is that it’s as fun to use Electratype as it is working on it.