Associations need a strategy and process for developing new educational products, services, and events, otherwise assumptions and biases enter the picture. You shouldn’t rely solely on the opinions of your committee, board, boss, or colleagues, or feedback from program and event evaluations—these limited perspectives don’t reflect the desires and needs of the wider market. Instead, you must implement a product development process that helps you focus your limited resources.
If you’ve been winging it up to now, we learned about a product development framework at the ASAE Annual Meeting in Nashville. In their session, How to Think Like a Product Developer, Bill Zimmer, vice president of strategy, and Brooke Wilson, CMP, experience design manager, from 360 Live Media shared this framework along with a product development exercise you can try out with colleagues and/or committee members.
The product development cycle
Bill and Brooke introduced us to the five steps of the product development cycle: empathize, identify, ideate, prototype, and refine. This iterative, non-linear process might remind you of the stages in design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
Both processes focus on creating a product or service that solves a user problem. Bill and Brooke shared a quote from Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, that reflects this approach: “When you put humans at the center, you always make the right decisions.”
To develop the best possible understanding of users, customers, and/or members, you must dedicate a great deal of time to researching their needs, motivations, desires, challenges, problems, aspirations, and goals. The goal is to emulate the success of Steve Jobs at Apple, who said, “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.”
Wouldn’t that be something? It’s not impossible if you make decisions based on research, not assumptions. Tagoras suggests tracking, listening and asking—their Market Insight Matrix offers an approach for doing this.
Tracking involves data analysis. Dig into website, LMS, and email analytics to identify popular content, downloads, sessions, courses, and webinars for different market segments. Look at average watch time, consumption preferences, and hot topics in online community discussions.
Listening and asking involves uncovering what you need to understand through surveys, customer feedback, focus groups, and interviews. You should also look at your competition and compare product/service portfolios: education, events, content, communications, and career resources. Which market segments are you serving and which are you overlooking? Where do you see gaps in your portfolio? What differentiates (or could differentiate) your offerings from the competition?
Now that you understand your user’s needs, define the problem you want your product to solve for them. Identify what the user wants your product to do for them, i.e., what job needs to be done? Here are examples from 360 Live Media:
• Learn new skills or information, advance career, explore, or satisfy curiosity.
• Get leads, make deals, increase brand awareness, or find talent.
• Earn credits or meet requirements.
• Collaborate or share ideas.
• Feel a sense of exclusivity.
Don’t limit yourself to obvious answers. Think also about emotional desires. Here are more examples from 360:
• To feel important, be popular, stand out, gain respect.
• To be liked, be loved, be appreciated.
• To make money, save money, save time.
• To make work easier, win, achieve, give life meaning.
• To gain knowledge, satisfy curiosity, be right.
• To be secure, fit in, belong.
• Out of convenience, fear, greed, guilt.
Bill and Brooke shared a matrix for digging deeper into each user segment to clarify your understanding of their needs and desires.
• Who I am: describe the segment.
• What I want: to get out of your product or do at your event.
• Why I want it: their desires, goals, and aspirations.
• How I will: use the product or participate in the event to achieve their goals.
Here’s where it gets fun. Later in the post, I’ll describe the ideation exercise we did during the session. You can also use the exercise we did in our ideation session with the Non-Dues-a-Palooza and Matchbox Virtual Media teams last year.
It’s time to get to work creating possible solutions for the user problem. Tagoras suggests pre-selling and experimenting with minimum viable products, not only to see what works, but to gauge actual market demand.
To develop a course or other educational program, use an Agile version of the ADDIE or SAM instructional design model. SAM is a rapid design and development model that helps you get products to market more quickly.
An iterative product development process means you will test the solution—or elements of the solution—and then accept, reject, or improve it, perhaps not just once but several times.
Practice product development with these exercises
In the ASAE Annual session, we practiced the Empathize step by conducting partner interviews. Our questions helped us get a better understanding of our partner’s situation, needs, challenges, and desires.
After the brief interview, we were given a Design Brief about an imaginary association attempting to redesign their annual event after the pandemic. The brief provided the following information:
• Primary objectives of the event.
• Event personality—characteristics of different attendee segments and the group/event vibe.
• Existing schedule.
• Key issues facing the industry.
• Design mandates related to the learning experience, value, and attendee desires.
• Notes about the event and attendance history, including new developments in the past few years, popular sessions, concerns about particular attendee segments, competition, and lessons learned.
Our Ideate phase had two stages: solo and group work. First, by ourselves, we each did a rapid ideation exercise focusing on one problem. In my case, the challenge was to help introverted sandwich artists connect with each other and with extroverted sandwich shop owners at the National Association of Sandwich Artists’ annual conference and trade show.
In three minutes, we each came up with as many ideas as possible, not worrying about quality or viability, just writing them down as fast as they popped into our heads.
In the second stage, we completed the exercise with four to six others.
• We each shared a few of our favorite ideas from the rapid idea generation list.
• As a group, we built on these ideas by using the “yes and” approach.
• Eventually, we combined and tweaked what we had until we came up with one solid idea.
We wrote a brief description of the idea (product or activity) and its desired outcome. Our idea had pre-event, event, and post-event elements. 360 suggests asking:
• What job does this idea do for the audience, and for which audiences?
• How does it remove friction?
• How does it enhance the attendee experience?
In their slides, Brooke and Bill shared another exercise: a fill-in-the-blanks template, like Mad Libs, that walks you through a description of:
• The user persona or segment, including their demographics and function/role.
• What the user cares about—motivations, desires, and jobs to be done.
• The purpose of your product or event.
• The issues the user cares about most that the product will focus on, for example, hot industry topics, concerns, fears, uncertainties, or doubts.
• The experience you will provide for the user—360 describes this as “an irresistible and indispensable experience.” Describe its features, benefits, rewards, X factor, the 4 Ds (physical, physiological, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of the experience/event), and the 4 Es (realms of experience: entertainment, education, escapism, and esthetics).
Going through both these exercises is helpful for getting familiar with the steps of the product development cycle. And who knows? You may come up with an idea worth exploring after you do the requisite research.