Happy Birthday Cake

Before joining Skookum Digital Works in 2011, I spent my days working as a product marketer in startup land. We were on the verge of a new product launch, and I was asked to create the messaging for our marketing material. After spending hours trying to craft a creative headline, my old boss asked me, “Erika, what do you write on a birthday cake?” Doh. Happy Birthday. Descriptive, concise, practical – I wouldn’t trust a sheet cake that said otherwise. Yet, in my attempt at novelty, I had somehow gotten caught up in cliché and over complication. My prized 5-hour headline, the artistic depiction of our mobile app, read: The Proof is in the Picture.


We ultimately landed on: The easiest way to get reviews from your happy customers. Straightforward. To-the-point. Happy birthday.

Buzzwords, jargon, and other non-sensical doublespeak abound in our industry. It’s affecting the way we think about and ship successful software products. “Blue skies” or “MVP’s”, sounds like a picnic in the park for the above average athlete, when in fact they’re anything but. Unfortunately, few products weather the storm and most players go home with a participation trophy. Don’t let this be you.

One of the more complicated aspects of software development lies not in what we code but in what we say. Below we debunk three of the most overused, misunderstood, non-technical terms in tech.

1. Blue Sky

What is a blue sky anyway? It’s a bunch of nothingness. Don’t start with nothing. Start with a problem and a list of constraints -- a partially sunny sky with a 50% chance of showers. It lets you know to bring an umbrella.

A common misconception is that to be inventive one must be highly imaginative. Yes and no. You need a vision, but you also need to be unapologetically rooted in reality. Reality has constraints. At Skookum, we practice pragmatic invention. All projects begin and end with a business problem because product development, at its core, is problem solving. Call it iterative, beta testing, working in small batches, it’s all the same – a process of fine tuning our understanding of the problem and working towards product-market fit.

Don’t expect a perfect fit the first go round with so many unknowns. Instead, focus first on validating the foundation before upgrading the rest of the house. Why that’s a lovely garden tub on your slanted tile floor, said no homebuyer ever. Too bad it won’t hold any water.

2. MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

A product can’t be viable if it isn’t measured, and measuring everything is the same as measuring nothing. All too often this critical piece of the process gets tossed to the side or left out entirely. MVP is a strategy. It’s a way to quickly and quantifiably test market acceptance over and over and over. It’s a deliberate and continuous method for evolving the software until you’ve reached product-market fit or have deemed the product non-viable. 200 signups, 1,000 pages views and an average time on site of 2.5 minutes means nothing to a subscription-based service. A 5% decrease in churn rate at the three-month mark tells a different story.

In order to test viability you need KPIs, or key performance indicators that align to company goals and desired product behavior. Every feature, every decision and every debate about what to do next should tie back to these metrics. MVP isn’t about doing the minimum. It’s about doing just enough to glean the maximum amount of learning. What you set out to learn is the most important part of software development.

3. User Centric

Ah, the users. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. There’s a tendency to glorify this mysterious group of people and their astute interpretation of the product - What do the users want?! How can we make their lives easier? But, let us not forget that these are the very same people who repeatedly make our lives all the more difficult by harping on every shortcoming - Why is this button over here? I could be 10x more productive if you just built feature X! Ads?! I’m canceling my account. It’s a necessary roller coaster that keeps us sharp and makes us better. They need us. We need them. The dynamic is quite fascinating.

As it turns out, the best way to be user centric is to push most user feedback to the side. It’s hard to resist the knee-jerk reaction – You’re right! Feature X will save us all! – And it’s even harder to sustain this mentality over time. Great products don’t aim to please everyone. They focus on doing a few things very well. To do this, you must seek to understand user problems in place of feature requests (problems masked by solutions). The more diligent you are in understanding the underlying pain-points and their context, the more calculated you can be in addressing them. Remember, your users have a limited view of your organization and your roadmap. They want what’s best for them, not your company.

So Instead of Those Lame Terms...

And there you have it. Those are the three most-unassuming and abused software terms that can lead to, well, lots of assumptions. From now on let’s just call them what them what they are. 1) Blue Sky Problem Solving, 2) MVP Measured Learning and 3) User Centric Focus.

Happy birthday.