digital consultancy

Why You Might Not Be Getting Anywhere — and How to Fix It

Why You Might Not Be Getting Anywhere — and How to Fix It 650 650 Kim Donlan

The book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp, talks about the importance of testing ideas with a prototype mindset. (Thanks to IoT product design manager Erin Pearson for the book recommendation) Jake says that to get a genuine response, your prototype should “show them something realistic.” Prototypes are often referred to as MVPs (minimum viable products) — and one might be the best “first” thing to prove your idea has what it takes to succeed.

New product teams and marketing departments are starting to see MVPs as the fastest way to prove an idea fills a niche and to test customer preferences without impacting the brand or wasting valuable resources. And this works because consumers want products that meet their personal needs, and they are all too happy to tell you how to build them.

An MVP is a wonderful shortcut. It’s a direct path to consumer opinion and can grow your leads list, help secure funding, close deals or launch your product well before any code is written. Yet it won’t work unless it feels realistic, stays on brand and answers the question you set out to prove.

Here are the 5 signs you don’t have an MVP (yet).

#1 You’re Testing a Small Problem

MVPs are the path to game-changing differentiation. You are testing potential — an idea, a new market, a following, funding and support of the super-influencers. The inclination is to break down the process of a new idea into small steps that change behavior and begin to test the incremental change. That approach takes too long and will cause you to lose your way.

Struggling to pay their rent, Airbnb founders, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky built a mini website to find out if attendees of a big design conference would pay money to sleep on an air mattress. They would also serve breakfast. Three people said yes.  

Approach an MVP by asking and testing the right question. Focus on defining the ONE BIG SIMPLE CHANGE that you believe people want.

#2 Customers Aren’t Involved

Dropbox famously built an inexpensive “explainer video” to verify if people would want a file sharing tool. The video featured functionality that was still in beta and generated 75,000 subscribers.

MVPs need to be seen by potential customers to be of any value to you. An authentic customer response to what they perceive as a real (or soon to be) product or service is a shortcut to understanding what customers are willing to give for it: an email, an endorsement, a share or money.

#3 It’s Not an Experience

According to a recent survey by Walker, customer experience will be more important than price and product by 2020. In fact, 86% of buyers will pay more for a better customer experience.

It stands to reason that an MVP needs to be part of a great experience that can stand on its own or make sense within the context of a larger experience. Customers need to quickly get to a simple idea unencumbered by bad design. They can then embrace (or reject) the idea.

#4 It Lacks Personality (aka It’s Lame)

Nothing will stop a MVP in its tracks faster than placeholder text. In an environment where you are trying to establish the validity of a new idea, words matter. It imperative your MVP make a good impression and an emotional connection. This is even more important given the fact that most of the product isn’t available. No matter who the MVP is built for — customers, funders, partners or an internal audience — great copy can completely change the outcome.

Here are eye-opening examples of landing pages, videos, presentations and  mini websites that can provide inspiration as you develop the messaging for your MVP.

#5 It’s Built on the Wrong Device

If you are launching a mobile application, the MVP must be shown on mobile. If you want to simulate a new feature on your site, it needs to work within the existing online experience. I know. This is crazy talk.

There are lots of prototype tools to select from and each has its pros and cons. Will it mean a little more work? Yes. But it is nothing compared to an investor looking at you and saying, “Will it work on mobile?”

MVPs are being used more and more by lean startups and large enterprises to get traction and validation. MVPs are live use cases of the existence of a real need. And they can be continuously improved in a rolling thunder strategy that builds a company that has customers before a bit of code is even written.

RedSwan5 has built MVPs that have led to million-dollar sales and funding while still in the concept stage. To learn more, contact Kim Donlan.

Better Client Relationships

Better Client Relationships 650 650 Kim Donlan


The client/agency relationship and business model are changing as each grapples with the best way to support rapid innovation in a digital age. Just as CMOs are being held more accountable for the business strategy and creating a complete customer experience, agencies are finding themselves tackling difficult assignments that require deep collaboration, total transparency and often an unclear idea what the final deliverable should be. One thing is clear: the old (and some current) ways of doing things just aren’t working and a new path is something clients and agencies need to forge together.

At RedSwan5, our unique approach is working and we offer our insights into what is working.

1. Rethink the Discovery Process

Your client’s problems will not be solved by a single creative marketing campaign or a new website. Organizations face complex business problems that must be understood to make a true impact on the business. It is important to investigate internal issues that have hurt the client in the past and to have insight into how your work will contribute revenue or impact operations.

According to Leslie Collins, executive director of, “An open dialogue at the very beginning of the assignment about how we get in our own way allowed us to acknowledge when it happened — and course correct when we needed to.

At the start, both clients and agencies should know:

  • What internal processes will get in the way
  • Who should really be part of decisions
  • How the data might be collected and used
  • What they wish would have happened when they’d done this in the past
  • If everyone will be okay if the assignment changes based on what is collectively learned in the discovery phase

2. Embrace the Iterative Design Process

Forget counting revision cycles and restricting feedback — a better model allows for collaboration around an objective that is tied to a timeframe. With the objective clearly established, design decisions can be prioritized based on how well they fit the objective. If they do not, they can fall lower on the list or be addressed in subsequent work.

In order to successfully embrace this process, both client and agency must agree to:

  • Remain focused on the agreed objective
  • Start with prioritized requirements that tick and tie to the objective
  • Prioritize design ideas and functionality based on requirements
  • Limit the time frame so work can be managed and delivered
  • Address related items later if they do not directly support the objective


3. Get to the MVP (Minimum Viable Product) or Prototype Fast

Gathering feedback from potential early users is the best and fastest way to test beliefs and requirements. An MVP is also a way to screen for user experiences that may be based on potential client bias. Real users clicking through actual designs that demonstrate the user flow teach both the agency and the client what customers are willing to pay for.

“It is more productive and far more gratifying to be collaborating with all the right people in the room focused on a single objective, without worrying about getting it perfect right out of the gate.”  

Darryl Settles, Catalyst Ventures Development

Before finalizing design or spending big on development, use click-through prototype tools like Invision, Optimal Workshop, JustInMind or even a presentation application with links to verify your assumptions.

The tools can be used to:

  • Gain valuable market intelligence
  • Tease out the real competitive differentiator
  • Attain additional funding and support
  • Prove the concept

4. Remember: Change (of Scope) Is a Good Thing

It used to be that a change of scope was a sign of things gone wrong. In today’s world, it is a sign of a growing relationship. RFPs or scopes of work (SOW) written before the collaborative thinking and discovery (steps 1 through 3 above) will never fully capture what ultimately needs to be delivered.

There will be a more refined project plan based on the discovery phase findings and results of user testing and feedback. It may be a more elaborate scope of work or, in some cases, a fundamentally different project altogether. In fact, it could even mean a decision to not pursue the project at all — a shiver-inducing prospect for many agencies.

“As part of the branding process, you reach several forks in the road where you need to select the right path. Sometimes, the best decision is to not move forward – or go in a completely different direction. It takes the right agency relationship and very competent people to choose it.”

— Andrew Boyd, former CMO, Dimensional Insight


The truth of the matter is that what is best for the client and their customers is best for the agency. If the scope is bigger, smaller, different, difficult, uncomfortable, exciting or simply out of your wheelhouse, it is an opportunity for both the agency and the client to continue to build a relationship based on trust.

Often this re-scope will:

  • Build a foundation for a long-term relationship
  • Lead to a larger project
  • Support new partnerships or extend the service offering

5. Propose Alternative Budgeting and Payments

Introducing new models of collaborative, iterative cycles means that controlling costs can be very hard for both agencies and clients. Restricting hours in the discovery phase can end up costing far more in development when a feature is more difficult than originally thought.

Budgets and pricing models can be adapted to the work effort. It is perfectly acceptable to have different models for each phase of the project. The most important issue is to discuss pricing and payment plans based on what is required for each phase — and acknowledge that one size or price does not fit all — and mixing the models for different phases of the engagement is actually appropriate. For example, the discovery phase might use a consulting model while development is a fixed cost.

For the agency and client relationship to improve, both sides must be open to a better way of working together. This relationship needs to be based on a stronger connection, transparency and trust. It is imperative that agencies understand the client’s full business problems and are able to listen to and embrace the internal client hurdles while focusing on developing an external solution. It is important for clients to keep agencies continuously involved on the front line of the business where (if you are doing it right) the real magic happens.