How Much Money Are You Losing on Your Digital Product Right Now?

These 3 common digital product problems will exponentially increase your project costs.

In 2013, a five-story-tall tunnel boring machine, the world’s largest at the time, began a 2-mile journey to build a tunnel underneath downtown Seattle. The project was estimated to take 14 months and cost $2.1 billion.

Nearly four years later, the project is expected to be another two years away from completion, with $149 million in cost overruns (plus a lawsuit for $480 million from the contractor). Labor disputes, sinkholes, & unexpected pipes in the way were just a few of the causes for these cost overruns. While we’ve come to expect this for such huge public works projects, the reality is they can be avoided, and the same is true for your digital product.

Let’s explore some areas where your budget might be bleeding.

Problem 1: Design Flaws

Thankfully, we’ve seen design take on a larger role in software development, thanks to increased appreciation for good user experiences. Unfortunately, that hasn’t necessarily resulted in the careful planning required to stay on budget.

The best designs are the ones that are given ample time for review, feedback, and testing in front of real users. Even if you’re following an agile product development method and are comfortable with both design and development iterations, you’ll want to make sure your initial design efforts are thorough. Static design layouts, while aesthetically pleasing, don’t always tell the complete story of how a given user experience feels to the actual user.

So, issues will be hidden behind your design file’s lack of interactivity until it’s been built. But by that point, it may be too costly to go back.

Solution: Prototyping
Suppress your urge to start development right away and start with a simple prototype to get early user feedback. Prototyping tools have come a long way in recent years, and there are various options, such as InVision, Marvel, and Principle, that can help you put together a polished looking experience without a single line of code.

At Helpful Human, we’ve developed our own spin on the Google Design Sprint called Mission Control™. We help clients find rapid clarity via week long sessions with stakeholders to explore problems, prototype solutions, and test in front of real users. Critical lessons we didn’t even think about always arise during those user tests and help us avoid last minute changes down the road. That gives us an ideal launch point for development with a better understanding of what to build, and increases excitement from the project stakeholders.

Problem 2: Technology Choices

Much like a 119 foot long well casing in the way of a tunnel boring machine, unforeseen circumstances can cause real havoc during the construction of a technical product. Perhaps the third party API your data lives in doesn’t have the flexibility your product needs. Perhaps the hardware you expect to run your software on isn’t powerful enough to handle peak demand. Or perhaps your existing system is outdated and therefore cannot accommodate new features and integrations critical to your product roadmap.

In some cases, this can be attributed to poor communication between disparate teams. In other cases, simply too much time and budget have been spent before these big surprises are encountered. There’s almost always a viable and reasonable solution to whatever challenge lies in your way; it’s just a matter of time and money available to do it.

Solution: Tracer Bullets
Part of the canon of software developers is The Pragmatic Programmer by Andy Hunt and Dave Thomas. One of the key lessons they teach is the concept of tracer bullets: approaching development in a way that provides feedback early and often. With an artillery weapon, it’s much easier to gauge your accuracy and make adjustments quickly if you can see your bullets as they land.

Applying that to software development, it’s much easier to see how well your product will do by releasing completed features and immediately testing their viability. That interactive 3D experience you’re building? Build a small but process demanding part, install it on the hardware it’s destined for, and see how it performs. Even if that code doesn’t end up in production, you’ll find out way sooner if it’s going to work and if not, you’re not too far along to start over.

Problem 3: Project Delays

With any digital project, there will be inter-departmental or inter-agency coordination to think about. So while your developers may be ready with shovels in hand, they’re going to be limited by how far along other teams, say, designers, are. We’ve experienced this numerous times while waiting for content and it can be quite painful not only to have content arrive late but in a different format than designers and developers were expecting.

Solution: Pad Your Schedule Between Stages
It’s smart to set aggressive timelines for milestones on large projects, but a small delay can cause a chain reaction that affects the entire project. By giving the individual phases aggressive deadlines but allowing for downtime between them, you have room to accommodate those minor delays without jeopardizing everyone else’s schedule. Furthermore, a little extra time to review, test, & revise a given phase is almost always helpful.


No one can guarantee success for the development of original software. Shit happens, and at Helpful Human, we’ve shipped enough work to encounter our fair share of it.

But those experiences have taught us where to look for budget sinkholes. With the right team of experienced professionals, thorough planning, and an approach geared towards ongoing feedback, you can avoid these costly surprises and deliver a product with minimal cost overruns.