Building Apps For
Mahesh Ramachandra, Product Leader – Startup Specialist – Edtech & Entertainment. Previously Chief Product Officer at Azoomee where he created digital entertainment products for kids and families.
Mahesh discusses how he helped build what was named the ‘Best Parenting App’ (Made for Mum Awards 2018, and the challenges that came along with building a product that has an audience under the age of 10.
What are the complications when conducting user research with young children?
When conducting research with young kids, you can’t just grab them off the streets and ask them questions, or shove an iPad in front of their faces. Unlike doing research with adults, where you can easily grab somebody on Old Street roundabout and ask them questions, with kids you need to do it in a very controlled way. You need to work with a researcher or research company, who can organise families with their kids. You need to do everything with the parents, and with the parents’ permission as well. This makes it quite difficult to do spontaneous research.
How does this affect the ability to get an MVP to market?
With an MVP, I really think you’ve got to know your audience and the type of product that you’re creating. Certain types of MVP need to be much more viable than other types. For example, when you’re creating a game or an entertainment product for kids, you actually need quite a high level of polish, and you need to be able to work quite closely with a research group to constantly try your MVP with them so that your product grows with that group of kids. It’s very difficult to unleash the kid’s product MVP to the world if parents or kids aren’t going to immediately love it.
Are there governing bodies that regulate the data due to the age of the audience?
When you’re working with children’s products you need to be really, really careful about how you gather data and how you use it. Within the UK, all the information that’s gathered or used by digital product is governed by the ICO. But beyond the UK, if you’re releasing a product internationally, you may want to make sure that your product is copper compliant, a US-based set of regulations which is widely followed around the world. This ensures that your product, and the way that you capture and use data within it, is quite carefully controlled and it’s quite strict. You can get a third-party agency to vet you and to certify you accordingly.
What impact do different audiences have on your research?
When you’re doing your research, you’ve got to be really careful that you aren’t doing it in a London bubble, where kids are only of one particular ethnicity or one particular income group. It’s really important to be able to reach out to a wide range of users and families around the country, who have different levels of income and access to different types of devices. It makes a huge difference if you’re speaking to a family who all have the latest iPads, and they have very fast broadband, and on the other hand, you’re speaking to, or working with, a family who have low-end devices and a very poor internet connection at home. It makes a huge difference to how they actually consume digital media. So it’s really important for you to be able to have that widespread when you’re doing your research.
What frustrates you the most in your industry?
With any sort of digital product, with any sort of app, I think the thing that frustrates me most is that there’s always an expectation that things are going to be free. At the end of the day, the effort and the cost made to create a product, even if it’s something as intangible as a digital one, does need to be compensated in some way, whether that’s through payments, or through advertising. I think one of the uphill battles that all producers face, is trying to find efficient but also ethical ways of monetising their products against a great barrier which says that it should be free.
What complications you have faced when scaling a start-up?
Before scaling a start-up, I think the biggest question is when to do it. When do you feel, or when is there evidence, that your product has achieved product-market fit? That you’re making the right product, for the right market, within the right conditions? Only at that point can you actually start thinking about scaling up the product, in terms of distribution or in terms of feature sets, and I think that the most difficult thing for any start-up is figuring out when they’ve achieved product-market fit. The reality is that, most of the time, you don’t necessarily know that answer fully. You have to use a combination of gut feeling and data to help you make the decision to say “Now is the time we are going to go international”, or, “We’re going to open this up to a much wider audience”.
What advice would you give a start-up trying to raise funds?
Fundraising is part of the parcel of being a start-up. You don’t have the deep pockets to necessarily make very long or large investments. So creating your product almost falls in tandem with raising your financing. However, if I had one tip I would say: You have to ultimately always ensure that your product fits the needs of the user, or fills a requirement of the user, and not that of your financiers. It’s very easy for financing to unduly sway product direction.
How do you prioritise where in the team to invest?
At the point where a start-up starts to scale, the key investment is going to be in people more than anything else. This is the point where you may have the funds, and the proof in your product and in your business, where you can attract real talent into your organisation. Whether that’s to bring in specialists, or whether it’s to fill out the ranks of developers, of designers, of product managers, who are really going to bring quality into the delivery of product as you scale up to larger and larger audiences.
How do you best go about conducting user research?
Just like any other digital product, it’s important to always be gathering data around how people use your product. In the case of a kid’s product, we have to be really careful about some of the more intrusive methods of data-gathering, like capturing facial expressions, heatmaps, or any sort of data usage which might point to a person’s real identity. But once you’ve taken the necessary safeguards, with the data that we collect we are able to, therefore, identify trends around how children and adults are using the product. Often, that’s the actual reality of how people are consuming content and engaging with your product. Sometimes it’s very different from what people tell you, and versus what you actually see the usage being.
How important is research on the success of a product?
Ultimately, the success of your product is going to depend on understanding what’s working and what’s not. To do that, you really need to combine different methods of research and data gathering. That’s going to mean long-term research to understand how your users are using your product over a long period of time, one-on-one research sessions to understand how they are using the interface or your UI, and you also need to look closely at your analytics to understand trends within data across all of your users. It’s really only by using these in combination that you really get a true picture of what’s working and what’s not within your product.