Product Development Cycle Fundamentals — Michael Seibel | YC 

Before  Justin.tv  grew into  Twitch  and Socialcam we spent years with a broken understanding of how to build  product . We had meandering  product  meetings where we didn’t write down our decisions. We didn’t carefully spec new products so team members often had slightly different  ideas  about what we were building. We always wanted to build fully formed products instead of MVPs. And we rarely spec’d the analytics for new products so we often didn’t know how they were performing post-launch. 
Development cycles often ran months. We were sick of the new feature by the  time  we launched them so we didn’t iterate. Our  product  roadmap was so long that team members weren’t excited to brainstorm new products because it was unclear if they would ever be built. And most horribly,  product  decisions were made exclusively by the founders in a non-transparent process. Things were a mess. 
In this  post  I’m going to cover  product  development cycle fundamentals that I learned to help solve all of the  problems  above. This will help you rapidly iterate, measure,  test , and improve your  product  while fully engaging your team. This is not that same as shipping an  MVP . I’m assuming you’ve released an  MVP  and are figuring out what to do next, which is where most  startups  spend most of their  time
 

Define Your Development Cycle Length 

Your development cycle should be dictated by your  product . At Socialcam we were building for iOS so we settled on a two week cycle, which allowed us to thoroughly  test  before releasing to the App Store. If you’re doing a web app your cycle can be shorter, if it’s hardware it might be longer. The key is to structure the cycle so that teammates stay excited and still feel like they can brainstorm new  ideas
 

Determine Your Goal(s) and Identify the  Product  Lead 

We ran one and only one team meeting. It was the  product  meeting and it happened on the first day of the dev cycle. Sometimes this meeting would go for five hours (sorry). 
Every  product  meeting was focused around one of three  goals
  • Increasing content creation 
  • Increasing new users 
  • Increasing retention 
Whichever goal we chose would be the focus of the meeting and, therefore, the next two weeks. 
As the  product  person on the team my role was to protect and improve the dev cycle and moderate the  product  meetings to ensure all team members felt comfortable contributing. Oftentimes just getting the opportunity to voice your idea and having it written on the board - even if it isn’t built - massively increases buy-in of the process. 
 

Organized and Inclusive Brainstorm 

While we were brainstorming,  ideas  would be written on the whiteboard in one of the following categories: new features/feature iterations, maintenance, and A/B tests. Everyone was expected to contribute. Debates or putting down other people’s  ideas  wasn’t permitted. This was the  time  when everyone felt free to contribute without fear of judgement. The  product  lead is responsible for creating and maintaining that  environment
From there each brainstormed item would be graded by the engineer in the meeting as easy (several can be done in a day), medium (half a day for one person), and hard (most of the dev cycle). No item could be so hard that it would last into another cycle and if it was, we’d break it into smaller chunks. Usually this grading would be done item by item by the engineer with the most experience in that specific area. iOS features were ranked by the iOS guy and so on and so forth. This really helped non-technical people understand which of their  ideas  were easy to build and which were hard. With this realization they often got better at thinking up easier and easier MVPs of their  ideas . These easy  ideas  would then get built and, if they worked, would be iterated upon. 
Building a  Consensus  Once we’d written our  ideas  out we began to pick what we would  work  in through  consensus . We would start with the hard ideas–it was easy to form  consensus  because we knew we could only do one and because we knew that we would start a new dev cycle in two weeks. Then medium and then easy. Developing that  consensus  wasn’t very hard because everyone had the opportunity to suggest their own  ideas  and because there was a clear goal and objective measurement of how long each idea would take to build. This process allowed you to grade the quality of your own idea and didn’t allow personalities to bully their pet  ideas  through. 
 

Clear Spec and Clear Measurements of Success 

Afterwards we would spec out each of the items on our list in detail and assign each item to a team member (or multiple team members). We would also spec the stats we needed to track in order to measure how effective the feature was. We would never release a feature without releasing the analytics for that feature and understanding what specific measurable result we wanted to create. Finally, we separated out the need to haves from the nice to haves on the list. If there wasn’t  time , the nice to haves would not be built. After that was done we would take a picture of the whiteboard and delete it. We didn’t have a  product  roadmap outside of these two weeks and every  product  meeting we would start from scratch with the new goal, new analytics data from our last two weeks, and also often new  insights  from in-person user testing, which we tried to do once a month. 
 

Working During the Development Cycle 

For me,  work  after the first monday of the development cycle was a silent affair. My job was to get all the business and operations tasks done. Then I’d dig through Mixpanel looking for interesting  product   insights  or potential bugs. Finally, I also ran monthly user testing sessions in our office. My teammates -  engineers  and a designer - would  work  quietly and quickly knowing they had projects with limited scopes that were well spec’d out. Finally, during the last three days of every development cycle we would all stop building and  test . We had a testing list in Excel that included manual tests for all of our basic functionality. Every cycle we added tests for new features built in that cycle and we tested all items on our testing list twice. Everyone on the team tested and we often had competitions for who could  test  the fastest and who found the most bugs. Testing sucks so it’s important that the burden is shared. 
 

The Results 

At the end of the day, Socialcam did not achieve our dream of being the “Instagram for Video”. In fact what we should have built looks a lot closer to Snapchat. But this process did allow us to iterate extremely quickly. As a result we were able to produce a laundry list of cool features very quickly:  video  filters,  video  borders,  video  titles,  video  soundtracks,  video  feed optimizations, multiple visual redesigns, user profiles, recommended channels, front back camera switching during a  video , and much much more. It also allowed us to experiment with  growth  features that produced 16 million downloads in about 3 months and over 100 million people watching  video  on our website during the same period of  time . Most importantly though, we did all of this  work  quickly, efficiently, without major arguments, issues with founder commitment, or really any team  problems  at all. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if instead of selling the company we kept building for another year… But that’s another story. 
Thank you Jared, Geoff, and Craig for helping me with this  post , Ammon and Guillaume my  co-founders  at Socialcam, and Justin, Emmett, and Kyle for surviving all the pain from the good old days at  Justin.tv
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