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The Complexity Trap Of Digital Products

A digital product pipeline is a large responsibility.

by Sebastian Mueller, Chief Operating Officer at MING Labs

Many companies eagerly engaging on the path of digital transformation start by building a pipeline of initiatives first. A legacy organization is usually rich in opportunities for change. Many areas of improvement can be found easily — low-hanging fruits are around every corner. While some business units might be more eager to engage than others, the modern changemaker with their digital tool belt will easily create a full pipeline of initiatives worthy of attention.

As the new values include a bias for action, those are often eagerly undertaken, either with an in-house team or with partners. To have some early successes, the bigger picture is typically relegated to a later point in time. We need to show value first, get traction for this new movement and create buy-in throughout the organization. Or so goes the thinking at that point.

This can easily turn into a complexity trap though, as every new digital touchpoint is a responsibility.

The MVP Is Only The Beginning

While finding relevant problems to solve, going through the motions of prototyping and testing, and coming up with a relevant solution, the goal is often to build and launch the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)—the first set of features that will really add value to the internal or external audience. It has a clear value proposition and is supposed to alleviate substantial pain for the target user.

This is only the beginning of the journey, though. While it can easily take six months or more to arrive at this point, victory is nowhere near. All we have at this stage is a bunch of validated ideas put together in functioning code — yet this rarely actually satisfies the target user. Now we have the task of change management: helping the customer adopt the product, change their own workflows and then making them successful in working in a new way.

During those early stages, often there will be a myriad of discoveries of what was not actually thought about. While early prototypes are nice to validate pain points and solution directions, they rarely give a rich picture of the full solution needed. Once a user is asked to change their behavior to embrace a new product, they can truly appreciate what that means for them and their workflow. And the problems and requests begin mounting, as the MVP is clearly falling short.

That is why best-practice digital product management does not plan for a team up to the point of the release of the MVP. The team is dedicated to the product for its whole lifecycle.

We need to continuously release, test, learn and iterate, to truly create something of value and ensure it remains valuable over time, as requirements and workflows change.

This is the true complexity trap of a digital product pipeline. An early internal transformation team might be able to handle one, two or three digital products at the same time, but every new product means a whole new team fully committed to that product. So, while the number of products increases linearly, the effort to maintain them and make them useful can often increase exponentially. Not a great place to be in very early, especially when you haven’t thought about the big picture.

Based on our experience, another big trap for many clients is underestimating the effort or resources needed for an MVP itself. For an organization that does not have much experience with digital products, it is hard to understand the cost of a high-quality digital system. This sometimes leads them to work with partners who deliver quick and unscalable software. These low-quality MVPs usually cannot be extended to a real product. More than that, some are too buggy to solve the target problem and thus fail to provide any value.

How To Get The Fundamentals Right To Scale

One way to escape the complexity trap is to actually think through governance from day one and to be strict about the implementation of best practices that help digital efforts scale across the various touchpoints. There are several ways in which that can work, of which the most popular ones are:

  • Design Systems: To avoid having to maintain different touchpoints with different design elements and languages, a Design System is critical. Design Systems, in their most rudimentary form, are a collection of various design elements and patterns in a Sketch or Figma library. More sophisticated versions include fully coded (HTML/CSS) elements that can be utilized and centrally updated to scale across touchpoints. It is not only a shared classification of a style guide and its components but a whole process that is built and maintained by a company so it can develop superior, consistent experiences and strengthen their brand.

The upsides of a design system are numerous: New touchpoints can be created much faster, as less rework is needed. The visual identity of the brand is consistent across touchpoints. Design and development are closely linked and share the same resources. New team members or outside partners can be onboarded quickly. Changes can cascade easily, without complicated change management processes.

  • Modularity/Shared Codebase: As global enterprises often have to provide very similar touchpoints in slightly adapted versions in various geographies, maintaining a foundational shared codebase can make efforts highly scalable.

The key is to define what the foundational aspects of the product in question are, which the variable aspects are, and to implement clear governance around those.

Ensuring that as much code as possible is shared across various touchpoints guarantees that the least amount of rework is needed and that all components are as up to date as possible. The central codebase, from which all implementations cascade, would typically be maintained by teams separate from those owning the concrete touchpoint, to ensure that they are kept at a high level of applicability.

  • Micro-Service Architectures: To make the infrastructure of the enterprise exchangeable and scalable, direct references and linkages need to be avoided at all cost. While legacy organizations might start out with a de-personalized infrastructure base, over time they would often like to migrate to best-tool-for-the-job infrastructure.

The key here is to abstract the infrastructure through an API layer that provides different interfaces for different services— independent of the underlying infrastructure. This allows infrastructure components to be exchanged over time, as long as they adhere to the same logical interface. It therefore avoids high switching costs, which often come from having to modify all the touchpoints using it over time.

In Summary: Avoiding The Trap, Delivering Scalable Value

While it is easy to get directly to the action of building new digital touchpoints, by and large that is not a great idea. The first question should always be whether the touchpoint needs to be built in the first place. Often there is good standard software available that can be implemented with little customization to serve the purpose.

In many cases, it can be more efficient to examine the workflow in question, redesign the process itself and support that with available enterprise SaaS solutions that offer best-practice approaches.

If a bespoke implementation is truly necessary, then ensuring strong governance is key. From design, to data, to implementation, we need to think about scalability of work and processes before getting down to action.

Otherwise, the complexity trap awaits, with exponentially scaling maintenance efforts, over linearly scaling improvements over time. Companies need to ensure that the right IT infrastructure is in place (ideally with a robust micro-service architecture), that there is a shared and scalable codebase, and that they have a well-governed design system to build on. Prepared with these important building blocks, the complexity of a digital product portfolio can be tamed.

Sebastian Mueller is Chief Operating Officer at MING Labs.

MING Labs is a leading digital business builder located in Berlin, Munich, New York City, Shanghai, Suzhou, and Singapore. We guide clients in designing their businesses for the future, ensuring they are leaders in the field of innovation.

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Related Reading: Expectation Management For Digital Products Done Right

The first version of a product is never a hit. Learn how to manage expectations and persistence towards digital products

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