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Whether it is a new product launch or a major software upgrade release, the fear of failure always grips the mind of the product owner. Questions like “Have I made it good enough to satisfy the requirements of my target market?" or “Will I be able to beat my competitors?" will keep you up at night. Unfortunately the answers to these and many more such questions will only be answered when you can measure customer acceptance and adoption. A wise product owner will try to get answers to such questions long before the product launch to minimize loss and improve the probability of product success.
A wiser approach is to test the water before you get in too deep. Offer your product to a select few customers or prospects before announcing an official release. Pilot projects will allow users to use the product in the way they would have used it in production. The purpose of a pilot project is pretty straight forward; validate assumptions and designs via user feedback. Product owners should collect comprehensive user feedback on a regular basis. User feedback on features implemented, user experience and performance are of paramount importance for product owners. Product owners should analyze user feedback and product use on regular basis, discuss them with your key stakeholders and take corrective action as required.
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The Advantages are Tough to Ignore
1. An Opportunity to Validate Product Against Customer Expectations
It is wise for a product owner to widen his focus and start looking beyond meeting customer requirements to meeting customer expectations. While requirements are largely measured against features and functionality, expectations should be measured against user experience and non-functional aspects of the product. It is a typical output vs. outcome debate ending without any conclusion in conference rooms and mostly answered by product adoption rate. A Pilot project is a good tool to predict product adoption (by its target user group).
2. Minimal Cost of Failure
Product recalls not only cost money but will also tarnish the brand image. Pilot projects are insurance against such failures, where a little extra cost in the development phase secures your product from serious failure. They also help in gauging whether a customer will get into a commercial deal or not. There cannot be any better economical way to predict product acceptance and adoption.
3. Setting Expectations with Customer
Pilot projects ensure that the customer is not taken by surprise when they see your product on the day of launch. Pilot projects are opportunity for potential buyers to get a feel for the product, provide feedback and get their expectations aligned with your implementation.
4. Eliminate Production Risks
Things that could not be imagined in labs or are overlooked or undermined during the development and testing phase could be a potential road blocker in production environment. It could be due to heterogeneous real life situations, some habits of users or the ecosystem under which product is used. Whatever it may be, pilot projects helps in detecting and in mitigating such risks.
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Why It's Important to Have it Managed
Pilot projects left on auto-pilot often crash. Simply releasing the product to a select few customers and hoping that they will both use the product, and provide quality feedback in a timely manner is not going to produce results. It is important to ensure that the pilot project meets the objective it is devised for. Because of this there should be ownership by someone in the project office or in the product management team. Without ownership, pilot projects are likely to crash mid-way or end up on a cold note.
The owner of the pilot project must plan, monitor and control activities that will lead to success. Just as an engineering deliverable requires a delivery manager who takes care of intrinsic engineering deliverables and works out a project plan to track critical paths, similarly a dedicated pilot project owner role ensures smooth progress and timely closure of the pilot project.
It is important that product owners demand a dedicated resource working on one or more pilot projects, someone who is good in dealing with customers and has a thorough understanding of the product philosophy. Such a resource may own one or more pilot projects at a given time depending on the various complexity levels. Key deliverables of such a resource should be to ensure that the correct pilot builds are deployed at a customer site, training to users who are identified to use the product in pilot phase and timely reminders to the customer to use the product.
He/ she should also ensure that the product is used in the manner it is supposed to be used by regular visits and follow-ups. Pilot project owner should collect and analyze user feedback in order to present the findings to all stake holders. Pilot projects should be managed by separate owners and not by an operations team that would normally own all production releases. The pilot project owner is a Single Point of Contact for all customer needs that can be reached with least possible formalities.
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About the Author: Abhay Mathur is a product management professional with nearly 14 years of experience in the field of engineering and marketing. An Engineer and Management graduate, Abhay has managed automation and software products at fortune 100 companies, Indian super-brands and at start-ups. You can read from him on http://successmanagers.blogspot.in/ and on http://productmantra.net/