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The benefits of beta: using ‘agile’ techniques to build Octopus Choice

Posted on 22/04/2016, by Stuart Sheppard

You’ll hear the word ‘skateboard’ uttered a lot in the Octopus Choice team. It’s become something of a mantra at our daily morning ‘stand-ups’ – the ten-minute meetings in which everybody in the team updates on the status of their projects.

What does it mean? Don’t worry, we’re not a bunch of Silicon Valley hipsters who skateboard into work. Well, not all of us. Instead, it’s become shorthand for the way we’re approaching the task of building Octopus Choice.

It’s inspired by this brilliantly simple (and accurate) cartoon, which charts the best way to build a new product.

Taking a vehicle as an analogy, it explains how the best products aren’t built by locking yourself away for two years, tackling all the discrete parts separately and sequentially, only to put them together at the very end.

Instead, they’re created by working iteratively through a series of self-contained working products, each one better and more functional than the last.

We start with the ‘minimum viable product’, or ‘MVP’ – the absolute minimum that is required to prove the concept behind any product. Bare boned, yes, but it still fulfils the overall product objective (in this case, to get someone from a to b more quickly than walking).

Why do we think it’s important to build like this? Because it’s faster, more effective and, ultimately, leads to better products.

Octopus Choice is a functional product with, we think, lots of great benefits. But we know it’s still incredibly early stage – it’s still a skateboard – and we’re not afraid to admit that. The important thing is to get out into the market quickly with a ‘beta’ product, so that we can test with those who really matter – our customers – rather than making dangerous assumptions.

It’s very likely that the product will look very different in two years’ time to how we could ever have predicted. And that can only be a good thing – because it’ll be customers who will have shaped it.

This skateboard philosophy is part and parcel of a whole new approach to product development: ‘agile’. According to the official ‘agile movement’, ‘agile approaches help teams respond to unpredictability through incremental, iterative work cadences, known as sprints. Agile methodologies are an alternative to waterfall, or traditional sequential development.’

For many of us who have grown up in the more rigidly structured corporate world – a world of Gantt charts and spreadsheets – this new ‘agile’ methodology has taken some getting used to. Six months ago, most of us thought ‘scrums’ referred to burly men wrestling over a bit of leather, not lean teams of product developers all pulling together towards a common goal.

But it’s safe to say we’re now all converts to the cause. It’s this focus on incremental development and concentrated bursts of activity that has allowed us to go from zero to pilot in a matter of months. Here’s to the next sprint!