With huge companies like Airbnb, Uber and Deliveroo forcing themselves into various industries to operate "middlemen-as-a-service" platforms, is there any hope that independent providers could reverse the tide and place more emphasis, exposure and control back into the vendors hands, rather than the platform that hosts them?
The story begins in September 2017, when we were contacted by Deborah Labi to discuss potentially building an MVP. We had heard that Deborah had already had a couple of false starts with the development, and were keen to see if we could turn things around. Deborah came to meet us at our office in Edinburgh, and we started with one simple question: what's your backstory?
Discovery sessions: diagnosing the problem
After 12 years in the vacation rental industry, Deborah had grown frustrated at having to turn away prospective clients when she didn’t have a property to offer them without being able to inform another agent or vacation rental manager of the potential lead.
She was also disheartened at the control the OTAs (Online Travel Agents, to you and I) had developed over the independent vacation rental managers, and they had begun to take over and dominate the market. Most of the big OTAs also charge large commissions, in part to pay for the marketing they do in order to dominate the market. Deborah felt the independence of the industry was at risk.
A further problem Deborah identified with the OTAs was that the guest has to do all the hard work, sometimes searching through thousands of properties that are not suitable to find one diamond in the rough. There's some research indicating that this has an effect on "Decision Paralysis" - the user is provided with so many options that they are simply unable (or unwilling) to decide.
The vision of Deborah's project, Have You Got, is to build a network for vacation rental managers to alert each other in cases where they do not have capacity or a suitable property, allowing everyone to gain commission from passing on booking requests instead of throwing leads away. And for guests, the key aim is to build a platform where the vendors come to you and not the other way around.
The way the platform works is simple. If a guest comes to you but you don't have a property that meets their requirements, you can ask the Have You Got network. In a few clicks, you can quickly specify the guests wants and needs, and then this is broadcast to the other property managers on the platform. If someone has got a suitable property, they simply fill in a cost and click "I Have Got!". If the guest likes the property and the quote, at the click of a button their details are released to the vacation rental manager who can handle the booking. When the booking is confirmed, the referring agent gets a commission, and everyone is happy.
Building the Minimum Viable Product
At this point, it's fair to say that Deborah came to Bad Dinosaur with huge aspirations. So, we explained the "Minimum Viable Product" - or MVP - methodology, where a pared-down version of the app is rolled out to early adopters quickly. Deborah had worked with another agency initially, who after five months of development had very little to show of the app, and requested an additional 18 months to finish the build. With this in mind, Deborah was quickly on board with our rapid MVP development service and our weekly co-design meetings.
The project began with understanding the problem. During a couple of product design workshop sessions with myself and Kyle, we mapped out the whole proposition - from persona analysis to the "big picture" end goal. It's important for the team to really "get" the problem that is going to be solved, and to understand Deborah's motivation, skills and experience. If we can understand all of this, we've got a better chance at getting the MVP right first time. And I'm a massive fan of proper, transparent communication - in my time running several businesses, I've observed that nearly all the major issues I've encountered have been down to communication problems.
"Our first co-design meeting was great, as it was the first time developers had actually taken in the brief thoroughly. When Russ and Kyle asked me questions at the end of the sessions, it was clear that they got what I was trying to build. What sets Bad Dinosaur apart from other companies is that they listen, ask questions, understand, stay focused and put things in plain English." - Deborah
After our workshop sessions we got started with an initial MVP build. Deborah being based in Australia posed its own challenge, as we had to work around time zone differences. The first phase of the project was the interface. Our UX designer/developer Lindsay created a real, clickable interface in HTML and CSS. We don't believe in pretty pictures - we prefer to go ahead and get right into the front-end development. Some people call this the "design in code" approach.
Building software the agile way
We caught up with Deborah after each sprint and showed her the output. This was Deborah's time to comment on the work so far and feed in her knowledge and experience. Clients always have an insight that we don't have, and so we have to make a lot of assumptions about how the end users will navigate through the product. We invite our clients to continuously challenge those assumptions so we can refine the interface and build the best possible product.
Once the interface development was complete, Kyle and Nicky began the back-end development. However, this doesn't mean design time is over - Lindsay assisted Kyle and Nicky throughout the project to refine the user experience and interface as the project evolved. As more functionality is added, the interface can change, and that's where we need someone with a wealth of UX experience to step in and assist.
Testing the web application
After the bulk of the development, the product went to what we call a "staging" release. This is the final product, with all functionality added. Deborah had about a week to try out the staging release and give feedback on any parts which weren’t quite what she expected. We always portion a good amount of time after the staging release for this feedback, so there's never a situation where something isn't right but there's no time left to fix it.
"It was also helpful that the guys kept the project on track and kept the focus where it needed to be, with some great advice along the way. Their suggestions for changes were well thought-out and made sense." - Deborah
During the staging release period, we helped out with a focus group comprised of holiday rental industry professionals, who provided Deborah with a wealth of useful feedback on the product. Working with a test group was a first for Bad Dinosaur, and provided invaluable first-hand commentary from people who were actually going to use the app we were developing. We were able to make some tweaks and changes based on this feedback, and I am certain this improved the end product substantially.
Launching the app to the world
And finally, after a few tweaks here and there, the MVP was done. Although it was time for a well-earned break for the team, it's at this point in the project where the hard work begins for Deborah. Since the initial MVP development and launch, Deborah has been working hard to on-board vacation rental managers to the software, as well as tweaking her marketing and messaging to better attract users to the software.
In the months that followed the MVP, the idea of guests having their own dashboard on the software was born, and we worked closely with Deborah to make this a reality. Deborah decided to have us work one day per week on the software, with frequent video calls to catch up on the state of development and to talk through the next set features and changes.
We've also had some more sizeable sprints of one to two weeks, with the biggest chunk of work being a complete refactor of the interface. As the focus of the product has changed to accommodate guests, Deborah contracted a local UX consultant who assisted with a re-brand of the product to make it more appealing to consumers, rather than just businesses. We worked with the UX consultant to implement their ideas and update the interface of the product to reflect their designs.
"Bad Dinosaur have built my baby and have breathed life into my idea, so I now have something to show the world." - Deborah
Personally, I'm proud of what the partnership between Deborah and Bad Dinosaur has achieved. After the false starts the project had with other developers, it took guts for Deborah to trust that we could deliver her vision. And I'm also a bit sad, because deep down I know that one day Have You Got will become so huge that Deborah will need her very own development team. But until that day, I look forward to working with Deborah to take the platform forward to even greater heights.
About Russ Peterson:
I'm a director of Bad Dinosaur, a software design and development agency in Edinburgh focused on building MVPs through lean/agile, a collaborative "co-design" process, and good communication.
In my 10+ years of technical experience in software development I've worked closely with some of the largest name brands in the world to develop innovative business and consumer facing digital products. Now I'm helping entrepreneurs, start-ups and medium-sized companies build innovative apps and web-based software.
At Bad Dinosaur, Our mission is to provide a complete service for anyone who wants to build a digital product, taking you from an idea in your head to your first paying customers and beyond.
Find out more at www.baddinosaur.co.uk/services/mvp