Agile development explained – In a way that everyone can understand

24th August 2017

How to halve the cost of your next project and double its chances of success
(or how we explain agile development to non-techies)

agile development, how not to build an mvp Explaining agile development to our clients can be tricky. It’s difficult telling someone that there’s no need to commit their entire budget to a project they’ve never seen working, and how a stripped down, ‘lite version’ will ultimately improve their chances of success as well as save them money.

In this post I want to share how I explain agile development to non-techie clients, using the story of building my own home cinema, for less than the most competitive quote I’d received and ending up with exactly the product I wanted.

Agile development. You’ve probably heard about it but do you really know what it entails?

A lot of clients contact us with ideas for new websites or apps that (their owners ho pe) are going to change the world. Often, when the talk comes to budget we’re surprised to hear how much they’re prepared to invest.

While we’re more than capable of building exactly the product our clients want – complete with all the whistles and bells they want – what we usually suggest is a more agile approach. Creating a quicker, cheaper prototype of their concept – for a fraction of the cost – can begin delivering tangible results within days, rather than months, and provide the validation needed to continue through to full development.

To some of our new clients this is a very foreign concept.

how-not-to-build-an-mvpThey say things like; “I know my market, I understand what people want”, “We have to build ALL the features otherwise there will be no value to users”, “Why would I want an incomplete product?”

Explaining to somebody, who already has a strong idea of what they want, that building their project in stages will ultimately save time and result in a better finished product can be hard. Which is why I often turn to the true story of how I built my outdoor home cinema system using the principles of agile development.

How I explain our agile approach

I live in The Canary Islands – land of year round Summer – and I love watching movies. So when I saw photos of outdoor home cinemas on Pinterest a couple of years ago I wanted a piece of the action.

It wasn’t hard to find a local company who could install one for me, so I fired off an email with all my details and waited for their response…

€5000 all in.

Way higher than I expected and almost ten times more than I’d set aside for the project. I had two choices. Start saving or do it myself. So, using the same skills I’ve learnt from agile web development – building in stages, creating the minimum possible product and rigorously testing – I headed for the garden.

agile-development-example-avforum-I already had a good idea of what I wanted, where the projector was going to sit, how I was going to hang the screen and exactly where the speakers needed to be. Armed with my quote from the pros, I also had a good idea of how much all the bits and pieces were going to cost – and just how far over my budget that was.

Now I don’t claim to be an expert on home cinema, but I do understand that at the heart of every good system is the projector and that it’s the most expensive component to buy. So my first stop was to ask some people who knew more than me, (here’s a link to the original post I created on AVForums in late 2014).

But their suggestions – for high-spec professional projectors – were also way over my budget. Not to be put off, I set up a price alert on Amazon, in the hope of a flash sale. Sure enough, after 6 weeks I received an email and within minutes my new half-price projector was on its way to Las Palmas.

Why testing is crucial to agile development

While I was waiting I picked up the cheapest screen I could find online, but was still missing some speakers, a media player and all the cables to connect up my new system. No problem, I had enough around the house to create my MVP (minimum viable product), a barebones outdoor home cinema system.

Once everything had arrived I popped the new projector on a plastic box, wired it up to my laptop and computer speakers, then setup the new screen. Showtime. We settled onto the garden sofa and watched as the screen slowly toppled over with the first puff of wind.

Be prepared to fail often and fail small – it’s probably saving you money

No breakages, but my first assumptions about home cinema had been way off target. The location I’d decided on was a wind trap and completely wrong. What a relief I hadn’t wired everything up.

The next few weekends were spent testing different locations around the garden and in the end we settled on a wind free zone just outside the front door. Things were beginning to take shape but I still needed a media device to play our movies on.

The agile approach makes it cheaper to fail and more likely you’ll succeed

So after 6 months of trial and error we had everything in place. Granted, there were wires everywhere and the projector was still perched on a box. But now I knew we had a product that did everything we wanted.

The final thing we needed was an electrician to come round – and for less than €100 – wire in the cables and fix in the projector mount. I went back to my original quote and found I’d saved myself more than 80% of their original costings. More importantly, we were 100% happy with our new outdoor home cinema.

So, how did building my outdoor home cinema illustrate agile development

V2, with the projector on a plastic box!

My perfect outdoor home cinema was the result of an agile approach and several minimum viable products (MVPs). Unable to simply throw cash at my project I had to find an alternative solution. As I’m no expert in the subject my basic setup went through 6 or 7 incarnations before finally hitting the sweetspot.

Agile development is all about building the smallest amount possible to generate meaningful user feedback before moving on. If you have an idea for a website or app, only build what is absolutely necessary to determine if potential users see value in it. This is the definition of a minimum viable product or MVP.

Once you have your MVP you might find no-one actually wants your product or that people aren’t willing to pay for it. In my case I discovered that where I’d originally wanted to position my outdoor cinema was out of the question.

Using their feedback means you can build exactly what your customers want, rather than what you think they want

I built my outdoor home cinema in stages, generating feedback from my family at every stage. I learned many of my first assumptions were completely wrong. But as I built it using an agile approach that was never a problem. In fact it helped me arrive at a final result we were all completely satisfied with.

Because I was only buying what was absolutely necessary I could quickly adapt my design and minimise the financial impact of my errors. Yes, I wasted £15 on a cable for the iPad. But if I’d just built my initial design, or hired a company to do it for me, I’d have wasted thousands.

Instead I adapted my plans based on the discoveries I made along the way. In agile this is called user feedback and the shorter feedback loops you can create, the quicker and cheaper your final product will be.

Instagram didn’t start off as a photo sharing app and Facebook never intended to become a news feed. But they both evolved to deliver what their users demanded. Thousands of successful websites and apps have done likewise – ditching elements of their original design in favour of user-driven functionality.

If you want more information on agile development you could start by following the links below this article. Alternatively, if you’d prefer to talk to a real person, about using an agile approach to develop your next project, give us a call and ask for Rachel, Matt or Richard.

What is a minimal viable product
The MVP is dead, long live the RAT
What is Agile and Scrum? (a more in depth article)