New Feature Testing - Prototyping with Cross-Functional Collaboration
Want to use new feature testing to scale your startup quickly? Learn how simple prototyping habits can help break down silos across your teams.
April 1, 2022
Head of Design
Most SaaS startups like yours probably built version 1.0 of their product around one or two core features. Now that those are shipped — and now that you’ve received a new round of funding — you’ve got to think about next steps.
What new features will you add and when?
You’ve got plenty of ideas. But it’s critical that you proceed with caution.
To scale your product rapidly and successfully, you’ve got to figure out how to quickly validate new ideas. Then you will know which features are worth pursuing and when.
Leverage prototyping for new feature testing
A good prototyping cycle won’t just help you understand which features you should be building. It'll also help you identify the scope of those features and how to make them as user-friendly as possible. Here’s how to incorporate prototyping into your product development process.
Start with a simple prototype to get to the ideal version faster
Let’s say you’re building out a new three-screen feature and decide to add a new pattern. Instead of jumping right into a complex wireframe or other digital rendering, start with a flow chart drawn on paper. This could be the product of one person and their ideas, but it’s a good idea to get multiple team members to contribute their thoughts to the feature’s flow.
It takes half an hour (give or take) to map out a flow chart; it takes multiple hours of development time to create high fidelity mockups.
Sketches are easier to manage at the beginning
Hold off on that rendering until you’ve gone through the rough-sketch process a few times. Doing so can yield important insights that make it easier (and cheaper) to produce a higher-fidelity prototype down the line.
You might discover in early sketches that you need to bring in a new library for data visualization. Because you're still in the "paper prototype" phase, your team can quickly and easily incorporate the necessary additional steps.
Collaborating on rough-sketch prototypes
You may find that it makes sense to go through several rounds of drawings as you work with your team to iterate on your initial ideas. Once you’ve come up with what feels like a promising solution, you can transfer your ideas to a crude wireframe for the feature.
Have different members of your team click through the wireframe. They’ll come up with additional thoughts about necessary pieces of the feature flow to take into account.
As team members are confronted with different states of the feature, the sooner you’ll be able to plan solutions for them.
Consider the following:
What does the happy path look like?
Do we have any error states we need to capture?
Do we have any intentional friction in our flow?
Does a certain screen need a skeleton loader while data is being populated?
What happens when I resume the flow at a later time?
Making visual problem solving a habit
Every time you run into a new problem, create a new prototype with a tentative solution in place. As you run through iterations of your feature idea, your prototype will get more and more complex until you reach a point when building the prototype in a sandbox becomes practical.
Increasing fidelity over time
In each iteration, you’ll be trying to understand different aspects of the feature. Once you have our user interface layered on top of the feature, you can begin looking for issues with the user experience. This allows you to work from the abstract to the more concrete. There will be fewer things each step needs to focus on. Each iteration will become closer and closer to the final product.
Collaborating with the development team
Covering as many nuances of the planned feature in advance speeds up development. It allows the development team to more quickly provide you with information on how long it’s going to take to build that feature. The development team can also help you place your planned feature in a logical place on your product roadmap while also considering other features in the works.
Multiple iterations of prototypes mean your team becomes more intimate with the feature, faster
Your team needs to produce well-designed features as fast as possible. Good news: Speed is a primary benefit of going through iterative prototyping cycles. Because you start with a quick sketch on paper and progress to more sophisticated prototypes with each round, you’re going to move a lot faster.
Prototyping allows your team to quickly become very intimate with each feature you build. The more time you spend thinking about a feature from an internal perspective and with your users’ perspective in mind, the more familiar with the feature your team will be.
As good as the real thing without code
After multiple iteration and testing cycles, you’ll arrive at a prototype that is as close to the real thing as you can get without actually building it. From a development perspective, it’s much easier to understand what actually needs to be done.
That’s a huge, cost-saving benefit.
Better resource management and communication
This approach to prototyping also helps when it comes to resourcing your project. For example, if you’re onboarding new developers to your project, a high-fidelity prototype will enable them to get up to speed much more quickly than a brain dump in a meeting would.
Break down the barriers between product and marketing teams
The biggest benefit of prototyping is that, with multiple iterations, each increasing in complexity, you’re able to more quickly anticipate needs, problems, and solutions. It follows that the sooner you can bring all the internal stakeholders to the prototyping table, the faster you’ll be able to align those teams on the necessary next steps for a feature.
Keep other teams in the loop on what's next
Instead of waiting until that new feature is built or half-built to bring in other teams, ask for feedback early and often.
For your product team to understand the feature they need to build, it’s helpful to share the why behind each feature idea in order to create empathy for the client. If you don’t understand why you’re creating a feature and how it will make tasks easier, it’s difficult to weigh whether you’re building it in a way that will actually benefit your users. It’s through empathy that your product team develops an understanding of how this feature will help the client.
Invite the marketing team into the process
Instead of developing a product and then handing it over to the sales team to sell, remember that they’re directly in touch with your ideal customers on a day-to-day basis. The marketing team may not be developers and product designers, but don’t be afraid to loop the marketing team into the roadmapping conversation.
Ask them what they are hearing from potential users. The collective insight of the marketing team can provide information as to whether what you’re creating is in demand — or whether you’re setting yourself up to waste time on something at the bottom of users’ feature wishlist.
The sooner different teams are able to get, at minimum, a bird’s eye view of an upcoming feature, the sooner they’ll be able to provide feedback to facilitate a successful feature release.
Don't leave the development team out of prototyping
There’s an idea among digital startups that a developer’s time is sacred.
After all, developers need to focus their time and energy on writing code and troubleshooting problems.
It’s certainly important to protect developers’ time. But for them to fully understand and empathize with the reasoning behind a product or feature, it’s important to include them from the earliest ideation cycles.
Collaborating with developers early and often
It’s difficult for designers to produce a prescriptive set of blueprints without developer input. Developers are integral to creating a customer-centric product.
If you don’t include them in the prototyping process, the development team is just creating something they were told to make. While there’s a place for that, developers are going to produce work that meets the customers’ needs more quickly if they are involved from the beginning.
Developer insight can reduce scope and increase velocity
Getting development involved in prototyping also helps circumvent potential problems. Development’s job is to consider technical aspects that the rest of the product team might not have insight into. Such as where other features stand in the pipeline and the architecture already available to support your new feature idea.
That’s helpful in roadmapping conversations. A well-defined prototype (and understanding of where the feature fits in the roadmap) provides clarity when it’s time to actually develop a new feature.
After taking a look at the feedback from development, the design and product teams may find that they are able to repurpose or leverage something development already has in the works. That will help reduce scope and increase velocity.
Instead of skipping prototypes, these rough drafts bring with them irreplaceable benefits. Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and remember to bring in the perspectives of your development and marketing teams sooner rather than later.