Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Blockbusters Versus Bombs: Storyboards and The Pilot

(I continue my temporary digression from my usual posting about the mobile industry to blog about a topic near and dear to my heart: Product Management.)

Product Managers at technology-driven companies are challenged to evangelize their exciting new product ideas. Effective product managers need to paint the big picture first and foremost - whether to management or to their peers. To this point, there are some amazing parallels between the making of a blockbuster movie and the making of a blockbuster product. I'd like to draw your attention to three of these points: (1) The Pitch, (2) The Storyboard, and (3) The Pilot.

My previous blog post was about The Pitch. This blog post finishes with a discussion on the final two items: The Storyboard, and the Pilot.

All movies - be they animated or be they live action - all start with a storyboard. It's during storyboarding that writers and directors work out the plot, the flow, and the structure of the movie. The structure of the movie includes things like lighting, and camera angels.

In the world of software application development, storyboarding is akin to requirements gathering and feature definition. The concept of storyboarding fits nicely with the Agile software development methodology in which requirements are defined in terms of "user stories." If you're not familiar with the Agile methodology (or others like it), user stories are small and atomic feature implementations that when strung together, make up the full product, or product feature functionality. If you've ever seen Agile development at work, you'll see a remarkable similarity between the user story cards pasted on a wall and the individual scene drawings of a movie story board. Just as scenes of the story board cards are quick hand-drawn sketches, user stories are quick definitions of a specific feature capability.

In my opinion, all software development processes should include storyboarding. This enables all stakeholders including Product Management, Developers, Executive Sponsors, Sales and Marketing, and Technical Support, to map out the framework of a product or product feature long before a single line of code is written. Unlike traditional full blown requirements documents that can take weeks or even months to write up, storyboards are fluid, dynamic, and easily modified.

Television series for both comedies and dramas always have a pilot. No television executive would dream of providing full financial backing without the pilot. The purpose of the pilot is to test the concept of the series in real life. Feedback from the pilot is crucial. Projects many times never make it past the pilot. Other times, modifications are made to the cast of characters, to the story concept, and even to the title. (Quick Quiz: for those of you alive during the '90s, what was the original title of the "Seinfeld" comedy series? Who were the original characters and actors?)

Once again, the Agile software methodology fits well with the concept of The Pilot. Basic functionality is quickly introduced to the marketplace. Though not the full-blown product, the initial releases are used to gain valuable market feedback. Is the market need for the product still viable, or has it changed to something different? Better to know quickly before sinking time and money down a black hole.

The art and science of developing toward the first product release is so much like the television serial pilot. The pilot does not go into any depth and detail of character development, or of where the series will be going. It's only purpose is to see if the audience (a.k.a. the marketplace) will accept the concept. In like manner, the first iterations of a product should not be the full solution - but yet they should be complete enough to effectively tell the story of the product roadmap to the marketplace.

Here's also where people used to traditional software development are uncomfortable with the Agile process. They are more comfortable selling a complete solution; they are more comfortable supporting a fully end-to-end developed solution. Frankly put, these people need to "get with the times." Waiting around for a full solution before unveiling it is very risky. Market needs move at light speed because competition is fierce. If you take too long to move, someone else will. Believe it.

So, in conclusion, how do you increase the likelihood of a Product Blockbuster versus a Product Bomb? Take a lesson from Hollywood. Adopt the concepts of The Pitch, Storyboarding, and The Pilot into your product management process.