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Case study

Embedding product excellence in a fast-growing startup

How we helped Much Better Adventures put in place the product team and process they needed to level up.

Taking leap into product management. Image: @jeremybishop

Much Better Adventures is going places. Having raised their latest round of crowd funding, they’re preparing to scale their adventure travel business globally.

The team is growing too. And in 2019 Alex the CEO decided it was time to hand-off product management of the website and customer experience to someone he could trust, allowing him to focus on building the company.

Nik, a senior engineer, was keen to step across from technology into product. But that’s a lot of responsibility for someone so new to the role. So they asked us to provide some guidance to help Nik get off on the right foot, and lay the foundations of their product management culture.

Approach

A new framework for collaboration

There’s no point in having a product manager firing on all cylinders if the rest of the company is working in a different way. So the first task was to create a framework for product management at MBA, which makes it clear who is responsible for what, and how everything fits together. Once we had that, we could help Nik and others build their skills and assume their roles.

Al started by getting his head around the status quo. He and Nik did interviews and ran workshops with the team (design, operations, customer service, marketing) to capture how things were working, what felt good, what was frustrating, and what they hoped for (and feared) from putting some proper product management process in place.

Output from our Hopes & Fears workshop on day one

MBA has a small team (just 17 people at that time) so it wasn’t too complicated. They wanted to focus on what’s important, be more user-centric and have a more transparent process where everyone could contribute ideas.

On the flip side, they were concerned about getting bogged down by process and jargon, and the risk of reverting to old habits once Al had left the building.

One council and three boards

We started by creating a Product Council with representatives from Marketing, Operations, Customer Service, Technology and Design. They would meet every fortnight to make key decisions.

Then we created three boards in Notion, their tool for managing work (which is great by the way).

Our first board was the Opportunities board. Anyone in the company could post to this board. All they had to do was fill in a little form that captured a ‘how might we’ opportunity statement, the potential benefit to users and the company, and their solution ideas.

Every two weeks the council would decide which opportunities to take across to the next board – the Discovery Board.

The Discovery Board has all the opportunities the company thinks are worth spending some time investigating – by doing desk research, and prototyping and testing ideas with users. When the team finds a solution that’s valuable to users and the company, and that’s feasible to deliver, they bring it back to the council and make the case adding it to the Delivery Board.

The Delivery board is a classic Kanban board, with work broken down into user-stories, passing through In Progress, In Test and Released. MBA are pretty experienced at working this way.

Putting it into practice

Having sold in the theory we needed to demonstrate the process in action. So Al and Nik gathered and sorted through all the opportunities the company was thinking about, talking to stakeholders and sifting previous backlogs. We had agreed to make improving conversion the goal for the quarter, so we prioritised opportunities through that lens.

Discovering Discovery

Then we got a stuck into Discovery. This was the missing piece for MBA. They had not really done any Discovery work before. Good taste and a feel for their market had taken them a long way. But now they wanted to be sure they were investing in changes that really mattered to users, and that would make a difference to their business

The team had been working on a new product page with a set of enhancements baked in. So we set up a research study to test this new design, and also to begin building up a picture of the way users think about adventure travel, in a living ‘Insight Library’ that they could come back to when making product decisions.

We did a mix of face-to-face and remote interviews and watched participants use the site. Much of the new design was validated, but new issues came to light (as they always do) which created new ideas to add to the Discovery board for the next iteration.

It took a couple of rounds of testing for the team to get into the groove, but soon they were arranging and conducting their own research unaided.

The product council meetings also took a couple of iterations before everyone knew their way around. How many opportunities can we move into discovery at once? When do we starting factoring in delivery effort into our prioritisation decisions? Can we move straight to delivery if the solution is obvious? What happens to validated solutions that don’t get taken into delivery straight away?

We worked our way through these question together and tweaked the process each time. After a few sessions the meetings were flowing and decisions were being made efficiently.

Outcomes

Nik and the team had come a long way in a short period. At the end of our three month engagement they had a new process that was more transparent and more collaborative. Not too much process. Not regimented. Not dull. But just enough to enable everyone to work well together, to breakdown complexity and to avoid circular debates, and to focus on what matters to users and the bottom line.

And, perhaps most importantly, Nik has the confidence of the whole team in his new role as Product Manager.

Before Alastair joined us we were a development team without a Product Manager and a company with no formal user-centred process in place. He not only mentored me through a transition into becoming a full-time Product Manager, but our entire approach and philosophy to product development changed.

Nik Martin, Product Manager (extraordinaire!), Much Better Adventures.

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