GrabCAD’s product development process: how new features come to life
If you are using GrabCAD Workbench, you might have noticed that we’re always adding new functionality and improvements. We are passionate about solving problems and work in a very fast and, literally, agile environment. Here is a quick walkthrough of our process along with a key takeaway for each step.
We are building our products for mechanical engineers all around the world and it is important for us to work on functionality that people might actually use and care about. Constant user feedback keeps us on the right track. To make sure we can listen to every wish and thought, we have set up different channels for our users to get in contact:
- Starting with the most basic – Email. The product team reads each and every email we get.
- Call our support team and get a quick solution to your problems or questions. Unless it’s Friday night, we’ll get back to you within a day.
- Hit the "I wish/Support” buttons from any page and your message goes straight to the support team.
- Join one of our webinars about upcoming functionality.
The only way to know what your customers truly want and need is to ask them. Figure out different ways to make it as easy as possible to get the discussion going. You are still the one who needs to make the decision, but all that feedback helps to guide the internal conversation.
After gathering ideas and requests, we prioritize our backlog to make sure we work on the most useful stuff first. From there, our product team dives into more in-depth research. We start by scheduling discussions with different users and booking both whiteboarding and brainstorming sessions with team members. Then, we lay down a basic framework for the new functionality.
That brilliant idea you had during your morning shower might not be the best one that you can come up with. Always put some extra time into learning about different possibilities and insights from other people.
Involving different teams into the internal decision-making process is crucial. Our sales and support teams always have the best insights and intuitively understand the biggest pains that our customers feel. It is also important for us to involve our software engineers to help early on with technical possibilities and limitations.
Having an open office space with most of our product, marketing, and sales teams in one big room makes it really easy to not only see what other teams are working on, but it also makes it easy to have a simple conversation. If I have a question or need a second opinion, I just get up and walk over to whomever I want.
With team members in other locations we use Slack as our main communication tool and whenever possible have video calls with Google Hangouts to keep everyone up to date. Our goal is to be transparent in everything we do so we can find mistakes early in the process.
Product design isn’t a competition between you and your coworkers, it’s a team effort. You will always come to a better solution working together as a team. Use all the resources you have in your company. Talk to people with different backgrounds and skillsets.
By the time we have finished a bunch of whiteboarding sessions, walked through the main user stories and put together a basic spec in Google Docs, it’s time to start wireframing the functionality. We use a variety of different tools to come to the best solution for the task at hand. Which tool we use usually depends on the complexity of the project. It can be as easy as paper sketches of different flows, modified screenshots from the current product, or clickable Invision prototype to experience the interactions as close to reality as possible without putting too much effort into building the real thing.
Designing the best user experience means that the design process isn’t an isolated step, but the entire process from research to released functionality. Decisions are made throughout.
Our goal when designing products is to build something that is useful, usable, and enjoyable.
Don’t think of design as a final step to polish your product. Involve designers in the process from the beginning and work together with them.
Now that we are confident about our project, we talk things through with our engineering teams so they can start working on it. As our teams are located across 3 sites, we have a lot of video chats and live discussions to avoid long, boring spec documents. Face to face discussions are always more productive.
From time to time some technical barriers or details that the product team missed will pop up in this stage. We keep the discussion going throughout the whole process so we can solve those problems immediately.
It’s never too late to fix things. If you notice something that can be easily made better, then just jump in and figure out what can be done. It is a lot easier to fix things while building them than planning another iteration somewhere in the future.
After testing and making sure things work, we introduce new features to our most passionate power users to get the last round of validation and give the first taste of what’s coming.
Even if you are super happy about the solution you came up with internally, always get feedback from smaller group of people outside of the company before unveiling it to the world. Fresh sets of eyes can see your product in a totally different way.
This entire process is fast. An easier project might take a day or two while more important functionality might take a couple of weeks to build. If a project gets finished and published, there’s no time to waste. New improvements are waiting to be worked on and the cycle starts again.
Let us know what you think about our products and how we can improve them for you. Want to send me a note? Reach out on GrabCAD!
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About the author: (Mikk Olli)
Mikk is one of the first employees at GrabCAD. As the Head of Design he is responsible for the user experience and visual design of all our products. When not working on how to make GrabCAD more awesome, he is drawing illustrations or updating his photoblog with new photos.
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