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Running a 2.5 Hour Feature Sprint with a Startup Mobile App

Justin Mertes
February 21, 2020

Mythumb is far from green. Not only this, but my brain has a hard time with ambiguous instructions. Combine the two and you can imagine the confusion young Justin had when he was “hired” by his grandparents to water their (many) plants while they were out of town for a couple of weeks.

As we walked through the house, Gran told me to “water this” and “water that” and “give these a little more water because of the sunlight” and that “these don’t need more than a couple of times a week because of the something something soil.” I was confused and destined to fail.

Were it not for my mother who understood this nebulous set of vague instructions (my opinion), any hopes of success would be futile. Even with her help, Gran and Grandad lost several plants under my short stint as “plant parent.” And they weren’t the only victim! Many a neighbor lost many a plant under my care… or lack thereof.

Turns out I’m not the only one that has a long history of plant-killing when left to my own devices. Enter Vera who will use our mobile devices (see what I did there?) to bring to life those lifeless indoor potted houses plants that previously grew so healthily, and empower the plant parents of said flora.

The problem

When Pamela Porto, the founder of Vera (previously Plant Pad), and I first discussed their context, I was encouraged by what I heard.

Not only was the need there, but a team was ready to work. Pamela was an experienced and skilled (to put it lightly) designer, Luiz & Lex were two developers who had already begun experimenting with tracking moisture levels of plant soil, and Gabby was an SEO expert hungry to put her skills to the test. They had a dream startup roster.

With passion, a niche market, and an able team, what Pamela and her team needed was determining what key features are a priority to complete for the MVP (Minimum Viable Product).

“The biggest thing [for me] was clarity. To be honest, I don’t think we would have finished the app without it… I absolutely doubt it.”

— Pamela (Founder, Designer)

More specifically, her team…

  • Had been “going in circles” when talking about next steps
  • Had a lot of ideas but didn’t have a starting point
  • Lacked clarity about the specific value proposition for marketing, web, and social content

Here’s the trick… they only had 2.5 hours together to sift through some of these problems. So sure we would ideally say, “Let’s bring the full team together for a full week and we’ll prototype some key features, and hear what users prioritize!” Alas, c’est la vie.

So where do we go from here?

The Process

Ihad recently read about Tom Corfield’s Three Hour Feature Sprint and Jake Knapp’s Three-Hour Brand Sprint, and we’d been tweaking AJ&Smart’s Lightning Decision Jam. All this being said, the idea of piecemealing multiple exercises into a customer flow was growing on us here at Crema.

Knowing the key goals of Vera, I mocked up an agenda and walked through it with Pamela. After a couple of tweaks, we ended up with the following agenda:

  • What, How, Why? (30 minutes)
  • 10-Year Roadmap (30 minutes)
  • Break (10 minutes)
  • App Review(s) (30 minutes)
  • Feature List (30 minutes).
  • Effort/Impact (30 minutes)

Let’s break these down, shall we?

Oh, but first! If you’re running one of these yourself, make sure you have a Decider, someone who is the team lead that will be the ultimate decision-maker for each exercise. They should know about this before the workshop begins.

What, How, Why?

This exercise (based on Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle) forces your team to play the part of Hilary Swank in 2003’s ludicrous science fiction film and get to The Core of why your team exists.

Is it a doomsday sci-fi action-adventure film or is it based on a Tim LaHaye book?

The way it works is simple. You as a facilitator are going to draw 3 concentric circles, with the words “What, How, Why?” written in each respective circle (leaving How in the middle).

Explain to the team that “what you do matters, but how is done? And why is it done in the first place?” You’re then going to give them 7-or-so minutes to write one sticky note for each circle, answering the following questions:

  • What does our app do? (very practical elevator pitch)
  • How do we accomplish this? (what’s our secret sauce? Is it our tech, our team, our network, our investors?)
  • Why do we do this work in the first place? (what gets the team out of bed in the morning?)

The beauty of going through this exercise is that you’re going to be forced to examine your product and team far beyond functionality — it forces you to examine why your team exists. When you look at Walmart, Apple, Airbnb, Amazon, Google, or any other tech or retail giants, you’ll see that their what has changed over the years… but their why hasn’t. They’re faithful to what’s been driving them all along.

Like Hilary Swank so courageously stated before descending through the ocean depths, “we’re going in.”

The fact that she didn’t win an Oscar for this proves to me that the system is rigged.

After the time is up, each teammate is going to come to the board and present each of their three, in order. After that, you’ll number each of the what group, read them aloud a couple of times, and simply ask the team which one they think best reflects their understanding of what they do. You can dot vote, but I’ve found it convenient to simply ask them to make sure they know their vote and then raise their hands when I say the respective number.

You’ll tally up each, mark it on the board, read the results, and then ask the Decider to select one that they feel best about. Circle it and repeat for the how and why.

You’ll then restate, and say something like this…

“Alright, so the team and the Decider has spoken. Vera is a (what) care management app for plants. Vera is this because they are (how) making tracking as fun as the care itself/seeing the plants grow. The Vera team is doing this (why) because they believe that anyone can be a successful plant parent.

Viola!

Due to space, our middle circle of “why” was a column on the right side. It was sloppy but, hey, it worked!

10-Year Roadmap

Now we have clarity about the what, how, and why, it’s time to look at what the team’s plans are with a 10-year roadmap. Now, I get it, you’re a startup. There’s no way of really knowing where you’re going, what pivots you’ll make, what functions will be a game-changer, what competition will appear, etc. This exercise is done with a great deal of humility and taken with a grain of salt. Acknowledge that. The purpose of this activity is to align the team on the broad, vague plans of the app, clearing up assumptions about your hopes for the future.

So you’re going to right “MVP, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years” on a simple timeline, and your team is going to do the same thing they just did. You’ll set a timer for 10 minutes, and your team is going to spend that time by writing what they see the future of the app at each checkpoint. The possibilities are endless — you can discuss acquisitions, features, user count, the industry as a whole or more.

This provided the big picture — it was good to have something guide us.

— Luiz (Developer)

Again, it’s about aligning the team on a vague trajectory. It’s blue-sky. That’s okay… so long as your team understands what the point of this exercise is, and isn’t.

Have each person present their 4 sticky notes one-person-at-a-time, and then you’ll vote on each checkpoint one at a time just like before. Tally, circle, move on, and summarize!

Note that the Decider selected options 5 & 6 for the 2-year plan. That’s okay — there’s freedom here.

App Review(s)

Thus far, the exercises were very “us” centric — what we do, how & why we do it, and what our timeline is. Now’s when we turn it over to our users… kind of.

This exercise is a simple fill-in-the-blank exercise, repeated twice, and voted upon at the end. It uses the processes we’ve already used twice now (seeing a pattern yet?), so the team should be ready to jump right in.

Vera’s most recent reviews.

To kick things off, ask this question:

Your app is live — what does the ideal 2 sentence review look like?

Set the clock to 10 minutes, and your team will fill in the blanks of the following “app review template” (again, one blank per sticky note).

This app ____ed me _____, _____, and _____. Now I can _____________________.

This App ____ed me: This blank will the team evaluate what service they’re primarily providing. Is the app primarily educational? Is it one that’s meant to equip people? Does it connect them to others? Does it train them? What “helping verb” will the app primarily do?

________, ________, and _______: This finishes the thought you just began: it trained me to 1, 2, 3. It taught me how to X, Y, Z. It helped me… you get the picture.

Now I can ___________________: Ultimately, the app does the above things for an end goal. What’s the end goal? What’s the thing that you want your users to tell their friends about your app and the value it provided them?

We were going in circles, and for the first time we had consensus. This was a game changer for the team and the product.

— Pamela (Founder, Designer)

Now it’s time to (you guessed it) go around the table and read them aloud, one at a time. Take your time. Each person should read it twice, then go to the next person. After that, do it again. Each teammate should hear each app review four times.

Now, plot twist (like when Iverson was killed by a falling diamond 700 miles below the earth’s surface)! No voting yet. Set the timer for 5 minutes, and have people do a new review, without the formula. The formula was there to get your ideas going. Now that you know what direction you want to go, use as many stickies as you need to write your “ideal app review.”

Then, you guessed it, each person places their stickies on the board and shares it. Read them aloud again, and have the team pick their votes and raise their hand. Then the decider vote.

Vera’s “perfect review” went like this…

I finally feel confident enough to purchase & take care of my plants. I started with one desk plant and now my apartment is packed with vibrant plants. Vera is so easy to use and helpful, and I could not see myself without it. This is a must have for plant owners.

Feature List

You may be asking “why did you make the team write ‘perfect reviews’ when you don’t even know what the MVP is yet?” If so, fret not. My answer is simple: When a team is full of all kinds of feature ideas, wizz-bang surprise-and-delight moments, and API integrations, the previous exercise forces you to ask the team, at a base level, “what do your users care about?” It perfectly sets up the next exercise, because you may soon realize that several of those integrations or features might not be the core of the essential user experience. TL;DR: It provides the team with a unique perspective on the decisions they’re facing.

Now that you’ve built the foundation of what you want your users to feel & say, simply ask “What features will get this reaction?” Don’t ask “what features have you been thinking about,” or “what’s in the roadmap or backlog.” Forget everything except the features that will give you that ideal review.

Set the timer for 5 minutes. Each person writes out all of those features on individual stickies and presents them to the team. As you’re doing this, try your best to group them clusters with identical features.

Now give everyone 9 dots (or votes with markers), and each person votes on the features that they feel would get them the above-selected review. Feel free to vote on your own, or put all your votes on one. Just use all 9!

The most important thing to see here is Luiz wearing a short-sleeve button-down with avocados on it.

As the Vera team was doing this, we noticed that features were falling into four categories, each with several votes.

  1. Integrations (17)
  2. Education (12)
  3. Suggestions (5)
  4. Community (4)

Effort/Impact

With key features identified, we placed them on of my favorite matrices (other than Enter the Matrix): The Effort & Impact matrix.

Draw a 2x2 grid on your board. The Y-axis is “impact,” the X-axis “Effort.

You as the facilitator are going to take the features with dots on them and start in the middle of the grid. Simply ask the team “how much of an impact will this feature have?” If it would have a huge impact, move it to the very top. If “a little impact,” move it up a bit.

Now repeat on the X-axis… effort. “How much effort will it take to implement this?” If it will take a full dev team 9 months, then move it to the far right. If your team has what it takes, knows the technology, and feels confident about the amount of work they have to put in, move it further to the left. Tada!

Now, the “more-or-less” nature of this is a bit nebulous, but the goal isn’t to leave with tangible data-driven clarity that Feature A will provide 13.2% greater impact than Feature B. Rather, it’s a way of seeing what the team feels is more important and what will take a greater amount of work.

See that cluster to the top left? That’s what you can use on your phone now!

In general, work your way from the top left (High Impact, Low Effort) to the top right (High Impact, High Effort), to the bottom left (Low Impact, Low Effort), to the bottom right (Low Impact, High Effort). You probably won’t make it to those bottom ones, because by the top quadrants are live, your users will be telling you what they need.

Once you do this with all of the dot-voted features, the Vera team could step back and see clear MVP, V1, V2, & V3 feature sets (each of them having very clear thematic groupings). Will V1–3 change over time? Of course — that’s software. They’ll get user reviews and bug reports and feedback that will determine these things. It’s not meant to be gospel-truth. What it is meant to do is show you the things you’re going to prioritize in your timeline and the things that you will sacrifice for the betterment of the project (much like Dr. Conrad Zimsky had to do). That proved to be invaluable for the Vera team.

We used the results a lot, even 6–7 months afterwards.

— Pamela (Founder, Designer)

Wrap up

Put down the markers, put down the stickies, recline, and exhale. The team has evaluated why they do what they do, what their goals are, what they want users to say about them, what features it takes to get there, and which of those features are immediately feasible and impactful. Mission accomplished! With this information, Vera could get to work.

As the facilitator, it’s your job to take pictures of all of this, document it, and share it with the team afterward. This collateral is critical as it provides a single source-of-truth for the team to review in moments of discussion internally about “what we should do next,” or “why we’re doing this thing and not the other.”

Where is Vera now?

Finally, the team had a place to start. Quoting Pamela — “We had a starting point. We had a lot of ideas but didn’t know where to start. We nailed down MVP features and could get started on design and development.”

The Vera team continued designing out key flows, fleshing out features, and building a marketing campaign to let the world know they existed.

We kept referring back to these for our MVP. It was a very clear vision. Everyone was on the same page.

— Lex (developer)

9 months after this workshop, Vera is live on iOS and Android with nearly 10K users. Within weeks of launching, users were submitting feedback and leaving comments validating the features the team prioritized in this session, and requesting the features that Vera had in their immediate timeline. Suffice it to say, everything “went to plan.”

There’s much more in store for Vera, and their prioritized backlog is healthy and flourishing, much like the plants of new Vera users.

Are you ready to become a better plant parent? Download Vera today on the App Store and Google Play Store!

Justin Mertes is a Coach & Design Sprint Facilitator at Crema.

Alright alright, you’ve read the novel. Here’s the SparkNotes.

The Playbook

What, How, Why? (30 minutes)

  • Draw concentric What, How, Why circles.
  • Set timer for 10 minutes.
  • Everyone writes one sticky per circle.
  • One at a time, team members come up and present.
  • The facilitator reads 1 circle’s stickies aloud a couple of times, then everyone votes.
  • The facilitator marks votes, Decider makes the final decision.
  • Repeat for each circle.
  • Take the “win” and move to a summary space.

10-Year Roadmap (30 minutes)

  • Draw MVP, 2-year, 5-year, 10-year line
  • Set timer for 10 minutes.
  • Everyone writes one sticky per section.
  • One at a time, team members come up and present.
  • The facilitator reads 1 section’s stickies aloud a couple of times, then everyone votes.
  • The facilitator marks votes, Decider makes the final decision.
  • Repeat for each section.
  • Take the “winner” and move to a summary space.

App Review(s) (30 minutes)

  • Write out the following fill-in-the-blank on the board: This app ____ed me _____, _____, and _____. Now I can _____________________.
  • Set timer for 7 minutes.
  • Each person fills out 5 sticky notes (one for each blank).
  • Each person reads theirs twice.
  • Go around in a circle.
  • Each person reads theirs twice again.
  • Set timer for 5 minutes.
  • Each person uses however many stickies they need to write their ideal review (no formula, unless you want to).
  • Each person sticks theirs on the board and reads theirs.
  • Everyone votes.
  • The facilitator marks votes, Decider makes the final decision.
  • Repeat for each section.
  • Take the “winner” and move to a summary space.

Feature List (30 minutes)

  • Set timer for 5 minutes.
  • Each person writes as many features as they can think that will get users to write that kind of review (one per sticky).
  • Each person steps forward and reads theirs, and groups them with identical ones.
  • Each person gets 9 votes — all on one, on their own, however they want to vote. Just use all 9!
  • Group them and see if there are any categories.
  • Add top features to the…

Effort/Impact (20 minutes)

  • Draw a 2x2 grid, Impact on Y-Axis, Effort on X.
  • Start in the middle, and place the top voted features on their respective quadrants by asking…
  • “Does this require more or less effort?”
  • “Would this have more or less impact?”
  • Note the themes & categories that develop.
  • Prioritize the top left quadrant.

Wrap Up

  • Take photos.
  • Assemble a summary deck.
  • Share with the team.
  • Write a case study 9 months later.
  • Profit!

You can check out templates from this Feature Sprint on SessionLab.

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