Embracing the Iterative Product Development Culture

Pierre Montagano’s blogpost today is about Iterative Product Development


When I was working for traditional publishers I began to dread being roped into the “LARGE initiative.” The one where the completion cycle is measured in years, the investment in millions of dollars, and the number of people involved read like an Italian wedding guest list.

The first two “large initiatives” I worked on were exciting as we were transforming publishing from print to digital. We were no longer a publishing company but becoming a full-service content provider focused on users. The trouble started when these “large initiatives” never produced the desired outcomes, cost more than originally planned, and didn’t meet the schedule. Users were less than satisfied as expectations were set not by our competitors but by online consumer environments such as Amazon and iTunes.

The thinking behind the large initiative is all wrong

I now realize it is all about the process—hence my love affair with iterative product development, but we will get to that later. The root problem with the “large initiative” is that the thinking behind it is all wrong. The idea that you can pour a ton of money, resources, and time into an initiative and get it perfect at the outset is fundamentally flawed.

Unlike small start-ups, publishers are mature companies with massive amounts of content and customers so our initial builds had way too many goals, variables, stakeholders, and inputs. Our thinking was also polluted from working in an environment and with systems put in place when the business models centered around print.

Start-ups begin small and usually try to work with a singular goal or solve one problem. The culture is all about iterative product development where they test and learn. They are fast, flexible, and agile. Publishing companies need to adopt that approach and truth be told, they want to, but much of the time they can’t pull it off.

The first thing publishers need to do is stop the madness of the large initiative and figure out the primary goal or metric for success. For most publishers that would be full-text views or downloads. The more content that is viewed and downloaded the higher the price point you can charge.


Increases in usage will not come from market share

In order to move that metric up you can do three things: increase the market, increase your market share, or improve your platform performance. The market: the market isn’t growing at a significant rate. There aren’t enough new researchers, students, new universities, and uncovered markets to grow the business in any significant way. If anything, the market is shrinking with open access and other forms of content leakage. Market share: growth traditionally came organically by producing more content or through merger and acquisition. There is very little room left for further acquisition and content has become ubiquitous. That leaves platform.

The gains in your primary metric of full-text views and downloads will come from improvements in the UX, discoverability of content, and speed of the platform. This isn’t done through the “big initiative” but through quick reiterative changes that are only accepted if they are adopted by users.


Publishers need to work in an agile way

The platform isn’t a product, but a service. A good service understands how their users behave and facilitates core user journeys. Behavioral analytics needs to be the primary source of evidence. Publishers need to work in an agile way with many small releases that are betas, AB tested with a small set of users, leading to continuous improvements and then when optimized, released to all users.


It’s all about the user and having a process that allows you to understand the user and address their needs. This seems simple, but simple is hard and it took me a very long time to understand it. So why was it so hard for me to get it? I needed to accept that growth wasn’t going to come from content or the market, but the platform. When I did understand, the whole concept of iterative product development made sense to me.


Written by Pierre Montagano