A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of presenting at the O’Reilly Web2Expo in NYC (thanks @brady!). My talk was entitled “How to Create a Location Aware Group Chat App in 6 weeks” and was based the experience of building Ask Around for SXSW 2011.  I have to admit, the title was a bit misleading. While I certainly shared details about how we discovered the concept, organized the team, planned, built and launched – the real story was in the unexpected  positive side effect this project had on the team and the company. It wasn’t my original intent to share that subplot. But, as the presentation took form and I relived the experience, I realized that this project impacted us as individuals and as a team in many more ways than I had imagined.Let me bring you up to speed first.

The Ask Around project as an unusual one for Ask.com for a few reasons. First, it was an experiment like none we’d conducted before. We had set SXSW as our debut event which meant we had 6 weeks to build & launch! Second, we were building an iPhone app which was something we were relatively new to, and third it was our first use of location on mobile. Here are the key ingredients to how we did it, some of which are extras I didn’t share at the conference. If you’re not into Cliff’s Notes -  the full 20 min presentation can be viewed below.  


- Know how much you’re willing to risk. We used a Freelance Developer found through tapping trusted networks as the dev lead and added members of our Mobile Scrum team as our confidence grew. This allowed us to rapidly prototype early with little (1 week slip) disruption to existing strategic roadmaps. We chose mobile to reduce risk to our entrenched user base and monetization model. 

- Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. Agencies told us it wasn’t possible. Their priorities and constraints are different from yours – be persistent and find a way. 

- Scrum – The team was used to daily meetings, releasing often, removing obstacles and pivoting quickly. This was key to being able to build a full feature chat service in 3 weeks.

- Inspire yourself – Setting an extremely challenging goal and fighting to hit it was motivating. The team shared a defining experience that bonds them to this day. Make it inspiring! 

- Constrain yourself – The time and budget constraint forced us to focus on what was really important, be creative, make decisions quickly and be scrappy. Try it – see what happens. 

The REAL lesson wasn’t learned until we got to Austin. We took 11 people, including the Scrum team, to SXSW with us. Best decision we could have made. Without them the after effect wouldn’t have happened. The team spent 4 days on the ground, using the product, face to face with users in their natural (well, as natural as sxsw can be..) habitat. It was like fast forwarding through months of usability tests!  We saw how users search for apps in the Itunes store, what they think about before they sign up with Facebook (photo & name are ok as long as you don’t post to my wall!), how few techies were running the latest iOS, and most of all – how EASY it is to talk to users and gain valuable insights just by sharing a beer (and maybe some cell phone power…). 

The best part was that every one of us there was touched in the same way by the time spent with people using the product with us. Everyone had a different story when we got back, a different nugget they’d learned or gotcha they’d uncovered.   

 That’s the story I wanted to share at Web2Expo. Sure, the tips/tricks about how to build something new quickly are valuable. But what I was really hoping for was to inspire just one person in the audience, to dare to take on a challenging experiment, and then launch it, as a TEAM, discussing feedback from the users – listen, and learn, and observe what happens to the team. Because for us, the real win wasn’t in the # of people using Ask Around, but in the ah-ha moment, the mental shift that getting developers closer to the end user is the secret to  success. We’ve come a long way at Ask.com since March. We now have a 300+ Ask.com User Panel that we tap for feedback on upcoming launches and issues we struggle with. We also use tools like UserTesting.com and watch the videos as a team and in company wide meetings. And as I shared this story with the folks at Web2Expo I was reminded of the importance and that we can do even more to open our minds to creative possibility, take more risks in experimentation and find news ways to connect with our users for the sake of building innovative products for them. 

I’m tempted to share early breakthroughs from an Improv Skills Program we’ve started here at Ask…but I think I’ll leave that for a future blog post…Until then – throw in some constraints, conduct an experiment, introduce a developer to a user and see what happens! I’d love to hear what you discover!

 

Lisa Kavanaugh, Chief Product & Technology Officer