Sketching the Future

Sketching out quick experiments and demos to get user feedback earlier in the development process can help validate and refine product ideas.

by Ben Allums
February 23, 2010

I, like most folks, am fascinated by the future. The reason is pretty clear. All present possibilities may become realities in the future. Years ago, I was happy to wait for others to create a future for me (Thanks Steve!). I began creating a future for myself back in college; began shipping a future to other people in the form of WebWorks Publisher in the mid-1990s.

Lately, I've been working with the rest of the team to improve our process for realizing the future. We started back in 2009 with the RoundUp 2009 feedback session. This year, I asked for reader's help in last month's Focus, Focus, Focus blog entry. Those ideas have been added to the great material users submitted as enhancement requests on the WebWorks wiki since 2006.

It's time to start turning those possibilities into reality, one sketch at a time!

For those of you wondering just what the heck “one sketch at a time” means, allow me to explain myself.

Last year I attended SxSW 2009 here in Austin, Texas. It was a great experience. I took several lessons away from my time there, as well as a copy of Bill Buxton's Sketching User Experiences. Bill's book talks about creating sketches, quick experiments which can let users see a potential value, interact with it, and then think about how the world might be if such a product were to exist. Sketches are a great way to fail faster.

Applying Bill's lessons to, I could clearly see our sketching skills left much to be desired. We committed to shipping new features with relatively little market feedback. We did not do a good job of asking customers, “How could feature X help you in your environment?” Instead, we put features on the road map, built them, and shipped the result. Imagine our surprise when those features turned out to be less valuable in practice than they were in theory.

Things haven't always been this way. Certainly, ePublisher Express grew out of extensive market research to understand how to improve publishing workflows in customer environments. Heck, ePublisher, and Publisher before it, grew from the strength of user ideas shared on wwp-users. We can do it. We've done it before.

The challenge we face today is the sheer size and scope of our products. We have a huge customer list. We have a vast array of features. ePublisher includes support for three distinct authoring environments. DITA itself is no small feat to corral (DITA 1.2 anyone?). Thus, our efforts are spread across an ever expanding range of technologies and environments.

To address this challenge, we worked hard over the last few years to bound complexity. We limited release lifetimes, from “whatever” down to 2 years and 8 active releases. Further, we found ways to help our users keep up with us. The introduction of legacy format support in ePublisher 2009.3 is a great example of this effort. Now, we're taking the next step by using the power of sketches to refine our understanding of user expectations.

This approach, in the form of descriptions, demos, webinars, or one-off builds, will enable us to learn and do more than ever before.

So I'm warning you now. We're going to push a lot more ideas out in front of you in 2010. We're going to try a few crazy experiments. And we're going to learn, one sketch at a time, how to increase ePublisher's value for everyone.

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