Lessons from creating our breast cancer app: Why chilling out is an essential part of product ownership

Breast Cancer Care designed and developed their support app, BECCA, on CAST’s 2016 Fuse accelerator

This is a guest blog from Krissie Barrick, Digital Innovation Manager at Breast Cancer Care and Fuse 2016 alumnus.

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Relax.

The most important thing I’ve learnt this past year in product development has been to chill out.

As a Product Owner, once you have the problem you want to solve and an idea of the solution, you have to balance three key areas of work:

  1. Product design — the build, measure, learn loop
  2. Relationships — you can’t do this alone!
  3. Vision — the bigger picture.

Product design is your day-to-day. This is why you were hired. You need to make a tried, tested and beautifully designed solution and then it will fly, right?

Wrong!

You might have your solution, but you can’t get it off the ground without other people — loads of them, in fact. You also need a vision to sell and to work towards.

The people

I’ve talked before about being user-centred, and we have continued to do so in developing our app for women recovering from breast cancer. We engage with our users on an ongoing basis and 1,597 people have registered through our website to test the BECCA web-app (our beta version).

We also have our committed Product Champions — wonderful women who are contactable and happy to feed into the project at a moment’s notice. They have helped us not only with testing, but they’ve contributed to in-app content and blogged about BECCA. They’ve also fed into design and content decisions and been integral to our press activity.

My colleagues! Where would I be without them? For starters BECCA wouldn’t be what it is today without an incredibly supportive Digital Team, two hard-working Digital Interns and the unwavering dedication of our Team’s Content Producer. We have had a cross-organisational Working Group involved from the get-go, and boy have I relied on them! Services have so much knowledge and insight to share around the experience of your service users — and you need to work on a seamless integration process across Services in time for launch. Fundraising teams need to be involved to apply for funding for the project and to support the business model. The Research team will help you shape the (always daunting, highly essential) Impact Evaluation. Then there’s Marketing for the brand check and to promote the app, Publications and Clinical to input their expertise and make sure your product’s content is safe and accurate for users — and don’t forget Database!

Sweating the small stuff can have a negative impact on these relationships. I have an image of myself: I’m sat in a team meeting panicking, white-knuckled. I’m failing to contribute and, essentially, failing to ask for help. I’m thinking about my to-do list.

If you’re hunched behind a desk ticking off a to-do list, you’re not using your greatest assets — your colleagues. You need their expertise, their buy-in and their help.

With a lot of work to juggle, pressures to keep up momentum can seriously impact on the overarching success of your product.

Here are a couple of quotes that have helped:

“Perfect is the enemy of the good”

Wise words I heard during CAST’s Fuse programme — took a while to sink in though!

Take a step back. What are the essentials? Focus on them. Keep it simple. You will hear a lot of opinions and advice from others, and this can be stressful. Don’t let it pile up on your shoulders but make a note of it and give it time. For Pete’s sake, don’t get bogged down with feature creep — this can really derail things. Chances are, some of the advice you receive is premature, but you’ll be glad for it when the time is ripe, and if you’ve made a note, you’ll know who to go back to to consult at that stage.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day”

That one’s from my Dad.

Stress will fog your horizons and clog your creative energy. Without room for headspace, ‘blue sky thinking’ doesn’t occur. Believe it or not, having a life outside of work is a big factor in this. I’ve taken up boxing and painting — opposite activities which both help me unwind. It doesn’t matter that I’m terrible at both!

As a Product Owner you must be firm on realistic deadlines — build in extra time, block out some half-days for external meetings and networking. It’s essential to bounce your thoughts off others, from different walks of life, and to listen and learn from them.

Latest views of Breast Cancer Care’s BECCA app

The future

Something I found very daunting was shaping the vision for BECCA.

How do we describe what BECCA could be in three years’ time when working in an agile way? All I could see was BECCA in three months… and then wouldn’t we develop it based upon how people interact with the tool? Surely a conundrum?

At no point could I get my head around this whilst sat at my desk.

With emails flying in, phone calls to make, data to analyse, meetings to set up and reports to circulate, your head just isn’t in the right place to absorb new information and consider the bigger picture.

It took some confidence, but the vision for BECCA has been born out of getting out of the office…

  • Networking — attending talks and presentations, asking questions, going for coffee with people, reading blogs and articles, listening to podcasts (I don’t do much of the latter, but I intend to!)
  • Thinking time — long walks, short runs, staring into the distance, eating cornflakes. Sometimes it’s on these occasions that a lightbulb moment occurs — I’ll take some haphazard notes on my phone and email them to myself, excitedly
  • Input from our BECCA Advisory Board — made up of experts from a range of disciplines, it’s been invaluable to meet with these guys quarterly and have their ongoing support and advice in between these meetings. We now have two startup CEOs on-call, a Senior Content Strategist, an expert in change management, user experience and design experts and CAST’s very own Simon I’Anson (service design).

Our vision for BECCA:

“An innovative new mobile product to curate the world’s trusted information on breast cancer and deliver it to every woman affected by the disease in a meaningful, personalised way.”

The solution is the same, the technology more advanced. Content curation and personalisation can be streamlined and automated with algorithms and machine learning. This essentially expands our pool of content and keeps it fresh and updated.

Any advancements in research or learnings around breast cancer recovery — BECCA is the first place you’ll turn to find out. It will source the latest and greatest breast cancer bloggers, articles, forum posts, video content, healthy recipes, mindfulness tips — anything our users find useful in moving forward from the disease. The app presents this information in a comprehensible, bitesize and friendly way. It will also learn from its users’ preferences so they do less searching for the information they want and need — it won’t send someone cards that aren’t relevant to their diagnosis, for example, or won’t tell someone who hates running about the benefits of the Couch to 5k running app.

With this technology in place, we can also automate content generation and personalisation for people managing other conditions. BECCA could be used as a solution tailored to people moving forward from other types of cancer, or managing their diabetes or mental health.

The vision informs our long-term planning, our processes and strategies, our funding applications and gives us something to be really excited about and strive for. It focuses our day-to-day and, if we do occasionally face a few white-knuckle moments, we are confident they are worth it for the impact BECCA might have on the world.

You can follow Kristina on Twitter @KrissieBarrick.