How to work with a minimum viable product

When creating something new and totally amazing, it can be really tempting to hide away in your secret lab until you get it absolutely perfect. However, it's way more cost-effective and efficient to create a simple, early version of your product or service - otherwise known as your Minimum Viable Product, or MVP - and get it out there to customers as soon as possible. You can then use their feedback to improve your product or service and ensure it meets what they really want (as opposed to what you think they want).

It saves you wasting money on unnecessary features or dead-end design, and hopefully means you'll build up an engaged audience on the way who can't wait to find out what's next for your product. Ace. We asked Will Crosthwait, the co-founder of Auditionist - a platform where productions can cast actors direct and pay them online with a single click - about how they used customer feedback to develop their minimum viable product.

What did the first version of your platform look like?

The first version of Auditionist in September 2014 was pretty basic! It gave actors a pretty profile that encouraged them to upload showreels that told their story visually. We got to a point of building out the site that we needed to get some users on board, so we contacted loads of actors and asked if they’d like a profile. Here's what the old site looked like - and below it, the new version.

old platform

new platform

How did you capture the data from users that you needed to improve?

Early on in a product's lifecycle, it’s really important to talk to your customers to get feedback on their experience. From the get go we were talking to our actors via email, phone and Twitter. Sometimes we got great suggestions for features, as we still do today, and other times it was users reporting software bugs. We’re always really thankful for feedback as it helps improve the experience for everyone.

Did you work with your audience from the beginning?

When we introduced the ability to audition via video or self-tape for paid jobs, we were speaking with productions and casting directors constantly. Their needs helped shape the user experience to what it is today. We gain valuable experience from each role cast through Auditionist, which translates into new features that makes the casting process smoother and better.

What was the most significant thing you learned?

The most significant thing we learned was to keep things really simple. When you live with your product day and night for months or years you can start believing that the process is easy or complete, when for a first time user it might be complicated. The epiphany moment for us was seeing the confusion symbols caused. We used to have a + sign for add media and thumbs up/down icons to invite or decline actors, but we massively boosted conversion when we swapped these for “add media”, “invite” and “decline”.

Were you surprised by anything you found out, and did you have to compromise at all?

The most surprising thing about user feedback for us was when we made mistakes. One time an employer posted a job for a young female actor and it was accidentally emailed out to every actor and producer on the system. One director emailed back saying “I’m not an actress!” It turned out okay though as our early adopted understood the mistake and found it funny, which humanised us. We’re glad to say the director cast again using Auditionist!

The big compromise we made was changing videos from a square aspect ratio at our launch to a more standard rectangle. We were getting actors to choose a crop square on their video, which just confused them and added an extra step. We solved the problem by changing the aspect ratio and getting rid of the need to crop at all.

How many reiterations did the platform go through? Did you make little tweaks all the time, or big changes now and again?

Auditionist is constantly evolving. We had a clear idea of the big milestones which, for us, were actor profiles, production jobs then payment handling - but there were constant bug fixes and improvements along the way. Every now and then a user would suggest a feature that was either something we embarrassingly forgot, like dance ability, or was so great that we wanted to implement it immediately.

Any tips for other businesses looking to get customer feedback to refine their project?

Maintain a dialogue with your customers, identify your super users and the channels they use. Not all your customers will want to give you feedback on your product, but you can quickly find the power users who normally have a good opinion on the product and how they could use it better. Many actors are on Twitter, so this proved an invaluable way to communicate and reward customers who gave us great feedback.

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