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Success Factors for Digital Product Development in an Agile Workflow

Becoming better, sprint by sprint.

At my job at dmcgroup, we have been developing software for our client FAS Research for over three years. In a collaborative, agile workflow together with our client, we’ve been successfully developing their software called Situation R®.

“The use of agile workflows and user story mapping has allowed us to achieve unmatched speed with consistently good output.”

Photo by Steven Lelham, showing a group of runners from top on a red racetrack background.
Digital product development is a team sport. It takes the whole team to cross the finish line…
Photo by Steven Lelham from unsplash.

First I’ll give you a little background on this digital product development project. FAS Research is a leading company in network-based creation of situational maps and strategies. They conduct workshops for stakeholders, where consolidated situational pictures are being created. This creation is supported through the use of artificial intelligence and participatory decision-making processes directly via participant’s smartphones. Situation R® enables FAS Research to prepare and conduct these workshops and empowers participants to contribute their evaluations in the process.

This digital product development project is a success story for our team, as well as for our partner-turned-client FAS Research.

What makes the project a success?

  • Project duration of over 3 years
    Despite a challenging start and extensive technical evaluation at the beginning, we quickly entered the iterative development cycle.
  • Project goals met or exceeded
    We managed to achieve all of our initially formulated goals for the first “Workshop 0” release. Furthermore, all medium- and long-term goals could be turned into working features.
  • High customer acceptance
    The software is very successfully applied by the FAS Research and is well received by end customers in workshops.
  • Team & setup remained consistent over 3 years
    Workflow and project setup have been very stable from the beginning: continuous development and reliable stability for the project.
  • Embracing iteration
    We embrace iterative development in the project. In agile, sprint-based work, we typically complete new features every 2 weeks, allowing the software’s functionality to grow continuously.
  • Robust “foundation”
    We are particularly proud that even after over 3 years and intensive development of the application, the basic assumptions and the application’s foundation have proven themselves. This foundation allows us to quickly yet robustly expand the functionality.

The combination of user experience principles with agile methodology is a recipe for successful software development and digital product development.

Projects with high complexity in a dynamic environment are almost impossible to plan ahead. Therefore, they require approaches to generate continuous output and ensure immediate response to new insights and changes.

Continuous output in a dynamic project environment

From the beginning of the development process of Situation R, the usability in real use cases was our focus. Thus, with the first release of the software, FAS Research conducted a real customer workshop using it. The new tool scored with user-friendly features for real-time voting right from its start.

The flexible project setup is particularly suitable for short-term readjustment and the re-prioritization of features at any time. We’ve added many state-of-the-art features to the software since the beginning – many of which we hadn’t even thought of initially.

Burnchart - Project velocity over time. A bar chart showing the overall development in sprint velocity in our digital product development over the project time of 3 years, with an average of 10 story points per sprint, and a maximum of 29 story points for one sprint.
We’ve had a few sprints with zero story points as well as some spikes with 20 and more points. Our average velocity of 10 story points per sprint has been very stable most of the time. An excellent help for estimating stories and planning ahead.

How did we achieve this? What recommendations can we give, based on over 3 years in this particularly successful agile software project?

Success factors for digital product development

  • Initial project kickoff with the entire project team (client and agency)
  • Formulation of project goals and project vision as a common basis to start with
  • Development of a story map in the initial project kickoff to break down the project into smaller work packages
  • Cross-functional project team from both the agency and the client
  • Product owner on the client side with full decision-making authority for the product
  • Open team communication on an equal level
  • Regular meetings for collaborative work: standups, analysis sessions, refinement, and reviews – Regular retrospectives serve to improve teamwork
  • Measuring team velocity in every sprint proved very valuable for estimation and planning in the project
  • Collaborative estimation of stories within the team – based on the assumed technical complexity
  • Involving users to test each new feature (or to analyze requirements for development)
  • Regular refactoring of code and user interface ensures the highest quality even over a long development period

I would like to emphasize the importance of using story mapping in our process. It sharpened the team’s discipline to balance between consistency and speed when adding new features in our digital product development.

Not losing sight of the goal – thanks to user stories

User story mapping is a method from agile software development for planning, maintenance, and prioritization of individual software features. A single user story is the smallest unit in the story map. It represents requirements formulated from the user’s perspective for a feature of the software. The user story can contain acceptance criteria and other technical details in addition to the basic specification of the feature.

User stories are a powerful tool for us to formulate complex software projects as a sum of smaller, manageable parts. This makes the implementation of a project more predictable and ensures continuous delivery of valuable features.

Advantages of user story mapping in digital product development:

  • Breaking down a large product vision into epics, tasks, and user stories makes it more tangible.
  • User stories are the smallest unit of what creates new “value” for users of the software.
  • User stories estimated by the team are excellent for planning and prioritizing the next releases.
  • This plan allows for change at any time if new insights or events occur.
  • User stories encourage team discipline in estimation and implementation. If a story is too difficult to estimate, it is usually too large and needs to be divided into multiple stories.
  • This ensures that the focus in implementation is on the essential benefit of each user story.
  • User stories should initially be built as simply as possible to avoid wasting time. Adding extensions and improvements to stories is a next step – involving new user stories.

Initially, it was a challenge for us to keep user stories small. As an ambitious team, we struggled to resist the aim to implement new features as best as possible. Over time, we learned that this approach ultimately slows down development speed.

Less is more – Faster is better

It’s better to reduce new features to the essence of their usefulness and to implement them as small as possible. This speeds up the process and makes new features testable and useable much faster. So, the “Build – Measure – Learn” cycle is paced much faster. Any new insights can directly influence the refinement and perfection of the software. Additionally, focusing on the essentials allows us to keep the product roadmap in mind and work towards the bigger picture.

Exemplary screenshots from our Digital Product Development iteration. A UI element representing a workshop in the software compared between different releases.
An exemplary UI component from our software illustrating the iterative development process: over time, more features have been added and design details have been revised.

The use of agile workflows and user story mapping has allowed us to achieve unmatched speed with consistently good output. It ensured the creation of a product that meets the target vision yet allows adaptation to new requirements and circumstances.

This way of digital product development workflow is also very fulfilling and efficient for the product team. Once you’ve started, there is no way back.

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