The Beginning, Not the End

So you have the perfect idea for the next digital tool you want to create for your organization. Maybe it’s a social network for your members. Or maybe it’s a mobile app.

You have a goal, an audience, and a thorough understanding of what the tool does. Heck, you’re no designer, but you love this thing so much you even took a crack at a mockup. You’ve got buy-in from your Executive Director, which means money and prioritization.

What more could you need? You know what you want to build and how it’s going to work, and you’ve got the resources to make it happen.

Well, there’s one very important thing to keep in mind: launching a new digital product isn’t the end of a project; it’s the beginning. You’re not buying a sofa. You’re adopting a puppy.

If you’re goal is to get a great couch, all the work has to happen up front. You need to know how much they cost and where you get the most comfortable one.

In organizational terms, the equivalent is any project that has a fixed end; writing up the annual report, running an end-of-year fundraising drive, promoting an event. You come up with the idea, plan it out, figure out what it’ll cost, and do it. You know you’re successful when you’ve got a comfortable place to sit.

Once you’ve got the puppy, on the other hand, you’re just getting started. And by puppy, I mean any technology product that you’re building for users – either internal or external.

You saved up for the puppy and all his shots. But what do you do when it turns out he has a behavioral problem? Or that he has allergies? Or that he’s a finicky eater who only likes the most expensive meals?

When we’re first thinking about buying a new pet, our temptation can be to downplay the time and attention it’s going to require to address all of these questions. The same is true with technology.

What do you do when you realize the registration process for your new site is confusing for visitors? Or that your new tool doesn’t integrate well with your CRM? Or that users absolutely love one of the features you’ve included, but could take or leave the rest? Do you have a product-minded person on staff who can lead the process of adjusting the product to match that, or are you tied to a firm? Do you have the money allocated to dive back in and put that one killer feature more firmly at the center of your product?

Maybe you nail it on the first try, and build exactly what people want. That happens. But more likely you build based on what you know, and then you learn from watching what people actually do.

A product mindset based on learning and iteration is more expensive. And it’s scarier to leadership: you essentially have to admit that you don’t know exactly where the project is going to end or exactly how much it’s going to cost. But if you’re looking to create something that people actually use, it’s essential.

By Daniel Atwood
Daniel works with organizations in the social sector to craft meaningful experiences for customers and constituents, and to find innovative product, campaign and messaging ideas in unexpected places. He lives, work, bikes and contemplates in Brooklyn, New York, and can be found at

Editor’s Note: Investing time in learning and adjusting technology to get it just the way you want it is both normal and important. What tips can you offer for successfully launching new technology?