Originally published at onix-systems.com.
In a world of intense global competition, where everything is continuously evaluated via online customer satisfaction ratings, laser focused service or product improvement is essential. Simultaneously, automation and other business process improvements have become indispensable for the viability and prosperity of modern enterprises.
In 1986, Masaaki Imai published ‘Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success’ about the philosophy of continuous improvement. Originating in post-war Japan and most notably practiced as part of The Toyota Way, it has spread globally in different economic sectors. W. Edwards Deming described continuous improvement as a continuous feedback loop of delivery. Working in cycles of planning, delivering to a customer, gathering customer feedback, and acting on it, product developers can consistently satisfy customers with new enhancements and useful changes. In software development, continuous improvement is promoted by Agile methodologies.
As an IT outsourcing company, Onix works on product improvement in two ways. Firstly, the philosophy is embedded in the corporate culture. Everyone, from the CEO to a junior tester, works to add more value to the web applications and sites, mobile apps, VR games, or other software for our customers. For example, the project managers always start with studying the end-users’ needs. The knowledge helps ensure the future product will be useful for the target audience. Years of experience allow our experts to give advice when it comes to the selection of features or solution architecture. User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers work on the product’s usability and delightful look-and-feel. The programmers build it following the Scrum or another Agile approach and using the most appropriate technologies. The QA staff tests the software not only to identify the bugs but also to address any inconveniences in the user interfaces. Once the minimum viable product is released, a new cycle begins with fixing bugs, analyzing users’ feedback, and considering changes and features that would be useful to add. Thus measures for product enhancement are taken at all stages of product development.
This article focuses on another scenario: improvements to a customer’s existing product.
Types and Examples of Existing Product Improvement
This is what people generally understand under the term ‘product improvement’: making meaningful changes to a product that is already in the marketplace. A new version should bring in new customers or help increase benefits realized by existing customers.
The primary reasons for product improvement are:
1. Poor sales. Declining sales may signal that the product is not relevant or competitive anymore.
2. Pressures from competitors. If rivals offer more or better features or finer design at the same price, your product quality requires urgent improvement.
3. Changing customer needs. An unchanged single version of a product can’t stay relevant over time. The changing requirements in the marketplace urge business owners to find out what users want and give it to them faster than competitors do.
4. Technology improvements. Nowadays, innovation in manufacturing systems, engineering, materials, and other technology-related areas happens faster than we notice. However, this does not exempt companies from the necessity to integrate innovations into products before a competitor does.
The required change may be small or more significant, involving one or two of the product features or resulting in a complete overhaul of the system. It’s wisest to focus on usability improvements first. UX/UI related issues may be detected during a basic audit or customer interviews. These issues are usually easy to fix, yet even minor changes or enhancements add value to the software.
The basic ways to enhance a product are:
- to improve existing features (including improved design);
- to enrich the product with new features;
- to remove features that don’t work.
I. Improving existing features
There are three ways to improve an existing product or feature:
- make it better so that current users enjoy it more (deliberate improvement);
- modify it so that it can be used more often (frequency improvement);
- modify it so that more users can utilize it (adoption improvement).
1. Deliberate improvements
The owner selects a popular feature, finds out why users like it and how they use it, and makes improvements for that task.
Here is an example from Apple, one of the champions in continuous product improvement. In September 2019, within one week after iOS 13 release, it pushed out iOS 13.1 for old iPhones. It came with several bug fixes and new features. A refined Siri voice is one of the improved ones. As it sounds less robotic now, the virtual assistant has become nicer to talk to.
The easiest way to add value to a feature that most users already like is to make it work faster. The most important reported stats of iOS 13 include half the time app launch and Face ID unlocking 30% faster than before.
There’s also Dark Mode which in built-in Apple apps inverts white interfaces for black and light gray interfaces for dark gray. This way, the screen can be more pleasant on the eyes, especially at night. It may also save battery life on devices from the iPhone X onward.
Currently, Onix’ iOS team is working on the support of Dark Mode for several clients.
2. Frequency improvements
When a business owner has reasons to believe that the majority of users would benefit from using a feature more often, it’s time for frequency improvements.
Apple’s iOS Shortcuts app has become smarter, with an easier way to set up new routines. For example, users can use the Speed Dial shortcut to add people they phone most often to a menu and store it as a Today Widget, or start their favorite playlist at any time from any place with one tap. This convenience is sure to increase the number of times users will open Shortcuts.
3. Adoption improvements
Adoption improvements may help you win over those users who don’t use a certain feature.
For example, iOS 13 includes refined photo editing capabilities. Almost all tools and effects are mirrored by the video editing portion. Users who were unskilled in video editing may now venture into tinkering with their videos and get used to it.
II. Adding new features
New features expand the scope of an existing product. They are most conspicuous to power users and typically the only product improvements that non-customers learn about.
Our cooperation with Adoric started with a short-term task of fixing the plugin for a WordPress website. After Onix’ team got familiar with this marketing tool, they persuaded the customer to build a global service. Onix successfully implemented a distinctive functionality that allows business owners to create and manage marketing campaigns on the Adoric system without using any coding skills. In a drag-and-drop editor that works like Photoshop, users can create popups for all screen resolutions and browsers, adding forms, working with graphics, and more.
Recently, the graphic editor has become even more efficient and easier to use. Users of the Shopify ecommerce platform can utilize an Adoric extension that scans the content and visual design components of their website. The system almost instantly generates a lightbox mockup that emulates the business’ branding, fonts, and so on, as if it was created by their designer. The business owner just needs to click ‘Publish.’
III. Removing features that don’t work
The uCat project proves that feature culling works for product improvement as well. Over the years, when startup was testing numerous hypotheses, the system had accumulated a lot of functionalities. In the ballooned project, changes in one part would require that the entire body of code should support new features. With one of the updates, Onyx integrated an analytics tool that could show which functionality was being used and which wasn’t. A few months later, using the analytics insights, we were able to refactor the code and remove superfluous parts. This improved the user experience, accelerated the introduction of new features twice, and helped reduce the maintenance cost.
Whether it be new functionalities or minor changes, the business owners need to verify if they are worthwhile. We never recommend any changes if they are not going to add real value to the product.
Our recommendations are often technical. When misterb&b first approached Onix, the website was written in PHP by less experienced developers. As a result, technical issues were affecting the site speed and maintenance. Once we had fixed the most critical bugs, the team studied the development plan and suggested changes to the architecture and technology stack. The client agreed, and the implemented changes have since facilitated easier modifications and adjustments in the system, speedier development, quality code, and better implementation of business plans.
The Bottom Line
Correctly executed product improvement should ideally result in the following:
- better user experiences and higher engagement, which leads to longer retention, more repeat business or higher average orders per user;
- the brand continues to be perceived as relevant and innovative;
- every new and improved product can become a part of the company’s marketing communications and make a big splash;
- it attracts new customers and creates new use cases for the product;
- sustainable competitive advantage.
The success primarily depends on the understanding of where the opportunities for meaningful improvements are within each product. Leading companies are leveraging direct and ongoing customer engagement to shape their product development decisions. The experience of their customer support teams is invaluable for innovation, and a robust base of engaged customers may be a source of suggestions, ideas, and criticism for products and features.
For startups and organizations that don’t have rich customer intelligence yet, there are UI/UX experts and seasoned software architects and developers.
The culture of continuous product improvement is codified in the way software is conceived, designed, developed, and maintained by Onix. We believe that better products are a natural consequence of software development processes improvements and open and creative cooperation with each customer.