Creating a desktop product

Anatomy of a process from idea to launch

By Beverley Watters

Ever wonder how a good idea evolves into a tangible product — the process, the pitfalls, the lessons learned?

Eight months after its conception, an innovative yet simple Web search product was launched by Workingfaster.com, a Toronto-based Internet search training company founded in 1995 by Rita Vine, one of North America’s leading experts on Internet research and end-user training. Search Portfolio’s story clearly illustrates that a new product does not necessarily require extensive people and material resources. A sound concept based on a defined market need, an entrepreneurial approach and the judicious use of a network of intellectual capital, experience and expertise can make it happen.

Search Portfolio is a desktop search tool for enterprises that offers a collection of Web sites that are starting points for zeroing in on high-quality information. Sites are pre-selected and organized into easy-to-browse categories, including: five, four and three star starter meta-sites (the stars indicating quality levels); Specialized Search Engines; Quick Fact Lookup; Indexes & Bibliographies; Search Engines; Metasearch Engines; People Finder Worldwide; Groups & Associations; and General & Internet News. Each category contains up to six dynamic links with a brief description of each. Users can easily and instantly see where they need to be.

Good idea!

The concept grew out of Working-faster.com’s experiences in its core business — training people in organizations to search the Web. The trainers saw that desktop users were becoming more and more frustrated with searching as the Web grew larger and more commercial.

“Companies told us that they needed to better manage where their employees were conducting online research,” says Vine.

Most people don’t understand how to use search tools well (poor query formulation is rampant). Add to that the questionable and varying quality of search engine relevancy rankings, many based on pay-for-placement, pay-for-spidering, advertising or partnerships. Here Vine saw her opportunity– a desktop Web research product that delivered content based on quality only, and free of advertising or relationships with the sites included in the service.

The first step was to scope out the competition. “We looked carefully at competitors. The difference between us and them goes to the heart of our Internet learning vision. Almost all of the competitor products are meta-search tools of one sort or another and rely on keyword searching. We wanted to move away from keyword searching. We have found that most users get better information through browsing rather than search formulation. Clicking through a directory results in better information faster than the large results lists retrieved through keyword searches,” Vine explains.

Brick by brick

The project was scoped out on paper, and developed over six months. A professional librarian, Vine combined her core expertise — linking users to the information they need– with her experience as a trainer of desktop users, to oversee the design and development of an effective product. It was determined early on that an application developer would be required as a partner, but it wasn’t easy to find one with the depth of understanding and programming skills to deliver what was required. About 15 developers were approached with the working plan and about half of those submitted proposals. The working relationship was at least as important as the promises made on paper.

“A personal approach was the only way to do this successfully. This was very important for us, because the development path is always bumpy and the partners have to work effectively together, says Vine.” DIBA Canada of Toronto was chosen and she was very satisfied with the relationship and the end result.

Challenges, challenges

Two thorny problems — interface design and name — had little to do with what the product does. Design proved a huge challenge. The product had to look corporate and businesslike, but still intuitively draw the eye to the best starting points. Because the Web resources and folders are dynamically generated, and each folder can grow or shrink depending on what’s inside at a given time, the design had to be simple and flexible from a coding standpoint. Another hurdle was finding a dot-com name where the domain hadn’t already been purchased or where a registered trademark didn’t already exist. Workingfaster.com tried to purchase one dot-com domain name and thought they had a verbal agreement. Then the owner backed out at the last minute.

A pricing model was another business issue to be tackled. Working-faster.com looked at comparable products, factored in the added value of Search Portfolio and came up with a price point. Focus groups were then consulted to ensure that pricing levels were acceptable. This step was important, stresses Vine. Comfortable that the revenue model could be sustained at the enterprise level, the issue became the single user. When support costs (high, even for an easy-to-use product like Search Portfolio) were factored into the equation, single user pricing was ruled out. “Any revenue would be lost with the first telephone call,” explains Vine.

I get by with a little help …

Vine alpha-tested with a handpicked, trusted group of colleagues and Internet search experts at a number of stages in the process. Near the end of development, she hired a consultant to run focus groups to obtain more formal feedback on usability and business issues. But the process was not without its glitches. Based on input, adjustments were made to the product. “We probably could have saved about two months if we had modeled the entire product before the interviews, and dealt with the feedback prior to actual coding,” laments Vine.

Then there was a pre-launch heart-stopper. Vine explains, “In the movie Startup.com, there’s a scene that takes place a day or two before the official launch of the company’s Web-based application, where staff sit down at computers and try to break it through the interface. They discover that it doesn’t work properly and can’t be rolled out on schedule. When I watched that scene, it was déja vu, because we experienced the same trauma during our final testing when the application didn’t work as expected. At the time, I thought our experience was unique, but I know now that it’s pretty commonplace.”

To market, to market

The product’s developed, debugged, named and priced. Now to market. Search Portfolio was not rolled out in the traditional way, with lots of fanfare and expense. Vine’s approach was to create awareness with selective groups, then monitor the feedback. Its first public exposure was at the March 2001 Information Highways Conference. Feedback was positive and constructive. A few modifications later, Search Portfolio was shown at the Special Libraries’ Association Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas in June.

Workingfaster.com could not afford big advertising campaigns or mass direct mailings for roll out or building the brand. Instead, they relied on word of mouth, conferences, seminars, speaking engagements, email newsletters on Internet training and research and selective advertisements in a few print and Web sources. Even so, in the business plan marketing was allocated three times as much money as product development. In practice, it required ten times as much! “Even modest marketing plans are expensive, especially for the crowded information marketplace. For every $1000.00 spent on development, you’ll spend $10,000.00 on marketing,” Vine confides.

With inquiries coming in from all parts of North America, even Australia and Europe, Vine is happy with the sales of Search Portfolio in its first few months.

If she could do it over again, she’d do some things differently: run the product past focus groups earlier on in the development process, and consider third party capital. The first time around, the project was entirely self-funded. Asked if she’d do it again, Vine replies, “Of course.” So watch for more search-related products from Workingfaster.com, one at a time.

Build and launch — doing it right

– Conceive the idea

– Work through the vision and how the product will work

– Write a rough budget for product development, marketing and product support for the first year

– Take time for sober second thought

– Write a detailed business plan

– Find application developer

– Develop a detailed model or layout for the product

– Run the product model past potential market (focus groups)

– Develop product

– Test product

– Write marketing plan

– Execute marketing plan

– Develop sales and post sales support plan

Courtesy of Rita Vine

Beverley Watters is President of TCE Research Solutions, a Toronto based company that specializes in providing critical business and market intelligence to clients who want to take advantage of the power of information. She is also co-founder, former editor and publisher of INFORMATION HIGHWAYS Magazine. She can be reached at bwatters@tce.on.ca.

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