Ideate, Build, Iterate, Repeat: Why Building Ideas Quickly Matters

Communication barriers exist in every organization, regardless of size.

Discovering a point of friction — and then solving it — is often a crucial part of streamlining team development. Most of the time, we solve those challenges for other companies. But from time to time, we get to take a step back and explore ways of improving our own operations.

We’re passionate about understanding the nuances of how people connect in the workplace and we relish the opportunity to explore issues on a smaller scale, to leverage our own staff as a testbed for interesting ideas.

So when three of our designers — Katie McCoy, Amit Jakhu, and Jerry Low — got the company together for a demo of their new side project, we were all excited. They developed a web-app called AskAway that was designed to solve a communication problem we’d been having for a while. We couldn’t wait to see the results.

Here’s how they tackled our issue:

Identify The Problem

The first thing the team did was pinpoint our issue.

We have staff stationed all over the world and we rely on telepresence to connect and communicate. It works, but it’s not a perfect system.

From her experience with prior company-wide events and based on feedback received then, Katie knew our remote co-workers often felt disconnected from discussions — especially during question and answer periods. She began researching how widespread the issue was and began interviewing our remote staff to get a more complete picture of the problem.

In the end, it was crystal clear: remote-staff alienation was a major barrier to company-wide engagement.

Set Tight Time Frames

The goal was to move quickly, test ideas and get something off the ground. To focus in on the core of the problem and not let scope creep, well, creep.

So they designed, prototyped, and built it in three weeks. Three very short, very harried weeks. The intention was to have a testable product ready by the time the quarterly all-staff meeting rolled around.

Establish A Process And Go With It

Ideate, build, iterate, repeat.

Katie, Amit and Jerry began by asking themselves a few key questions to help focus their thinking: How can we create a simple solution to amplify engagement? How can we get everyone involved? Who are the key people concerned? What is the ideal flow? How could we give our out of office staff the option to “raise their hands remotely”?

Once they had focused in, the team created a story map. Working after hours, the trio mapped out the problem and some potential solutions for how to solve it.

Initially, their concepts centred around the idea of a light or noise cue, but after thinking through the logistics, the team decided to focus on a more straightforward concept. Instead of just remote people using different communication tools, what if everyone — in office or not — used them?

Pick Your Framework

Once they had settled on a tool for universal use, they began their build. With Jerry in Vancouver, Katie and Amit in Toronto and all 3 of them still working full-time during the day, it was a lot of late nights, Skype chats, and coffee to bring their ideas together.

The team decided to develop the prototype on MEAN stack. We use Drupal a lot of the time, so an off-hours project was a good chance for Jerry to play around with something new and learn a different skill.. With development underway and Amit’s design’s in place, it was less than three weeks to deadline for the MVP. And it had to be completely responsive, too. Remote staff would be on desktops but in-office users would likely be on mobile, and we needed both parties to have access if the app was to work for us.

The Application in Execution

Here’s how AskAway works:

  1. The host of the meeting creates a virtual meeting room using AskAway. Meeting attendees — both in-room and remote — join that room.
  2. All audience questions — again, both in-room and remote — are submitted through the app and put in a queue with a first-asked, first-answered priority sequence.
  3. Presenters answer the questions, in sequence, when they’re ready.

It’s a simple sounding solution to what was a frustrating and fascinating challenge for our organization.

Real World Testing

With full-staff participation, the trio was able to gather real responses to the app: what worked, what didn’t, and what features were missing that would make it even better.

AskAway Beta, the initial launch version of the app at our company-wide meeting, was a resounding success. After explaining the app to our staff, Katie, Amit and Jerry had us all log-in to the app and begin using it, right then and there.

Anyone that had a question at any point during the meeting simply typed it into the app. No hands raised, no interruptions, just ask and wait for the answer.

Real World Results

Success! Our key objective of enabling greater remote staff engagement was achieved and our in-office participants were able to use it as well.

We’ve also seen some interesting, unanticipated outcomes from AskAway. Aside from the immediate win for our far-away friends, the app gave us a number of key insights and benefits for all users.

  1. More thoughtful questions — As it turns out, when people have to type out their questions, they think about what they’re going to say and produce more thoughtful, carefully worded questions.
  2. Less lag and drag — Instead of waiting for people to respond to the “Any questions?” prompt, presenters answer what’s already waiting for them in the queue, reducing meeting lag time.
  3. Captured questions — Questions can be saved to be answered or referenced to later.
  4. Equal footing — Not only do remote staff get a stronger voice, but more shy staff have a way around their fear of public speaking.

Next Steps

Ideate, build, iterate, repeat.

Katie, Amit, and Jerry continue to iterate and incorporate user ideas for improvement as they refine the product. The goal is still to move quickly, working with lean and agile methodology while maintaining the essential core concept.

Based on user feedback from the launch, they added both edit and trash functions, which allow users to withdraw or alter questions as needed.

They also added a new upvote feature, another user-inspired improvement they got from beta testing. This allows other meeting attendees to push questions ahead in the queue — ensuring the most relevant issues get covered first. (They contemplated a downvote feature as well, but ultimately decided it wasn’t helpful or necessary.)

An idea that started out as a side project — paired with the right tools and innovation — has helped solve our own communication barriers. Now we’re taking it a step further and working to incorporate this into a larger, custom enterprise project.

— —

Have you experienced communication struggles in your organization? How did you resolve the issue(s)? Leave a note below.

You can follow Jerry — @jerrylowm or Amit — @amitjakhu or Kate — @K8_McCoy on Twitter.

If you found this article helpful or insightful please, hit the recommend button or like button.