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Transparency in Product Development


While Stanford Web Services can be seen as a service provider, often involved with custom projects and closely working with clients, one of our core offerings is also our Jumpstart product. With any product offering company, as adoption and usage of the products grow, more and more customers give feedback and express interest in the future direction of the product. Lately, our group has been contemplating increasing transparency in our product development roadmap, and to what extent.

To be or not to be transparent?

On one level, transparency and inclusivity in the design/development process can turn into a “design by committee” process, potentially paralyzing development in an effort to satisfy numerous specific/one-off types of needs. This is one of several reasons as to why many companies choose not to make their product roadmap public, and to use a “take-it-or-leave-it” approach in whether or not customers adopt their product (Apple and Facebook in particular come to mind). An advantage of making the product/development roadmap more opaque is that customers remain likely to purchasing/adopting the product late in its lifetime, instead of postponing their purchase for the next generation product to wait for better features. Furthermore, especially in competitive and NDA-heavy industries, opaqueness in the product roadmap is necessary to gain competitive and first-mover advantage. 
On another level, transparency can be very valuable; it creates a sense for clients that their feedback and input have been heard, and for companies it increases predictability and stability within its customers' purchase habits. For the company, it is a way to gauge customer reception of the product without actually committing to building anything yet. “Leaks” and concepts/prototypes are a common method of creating hype and gauging potential adoption, especially in industries where there is a significant investment in resources to bring a product to market (see: the auto and tech hardware industry).
For a product that requires a significant investment (in both time and money) on behalf of the customer, such as a consumer camera and lens ecosystem, having a product roadmap increases the likelihood of customer adoption earlier in the system since they can expect that their investment in the ecosystem will be sustained and improved upon in the future. In the case of the camera/lens ecosystem example, customers can have confidence that new releases of lenses will be compatible with the customer’s existing camera, and also that new releases of cameras will be compatible with the customer’s existing lenses. This customer confidence encourages earlier adoption into the system, bringing in revenue earlier to the company for re-investment in developing and improving the product ecosystem.

"Transparency empowers teams"

Transparency often benefits the internal teams developing the product by providing a vision for team members to follow, and by reducing hearsay, confusion, waste, and complexity. Team members feel empowered when they are “in-the-know,” and also appreciate being part of the conversation and having a sense of ownership, ultimately leading to higher morale. This must be balanced with transparency to the company’s customers, with a level that is just enough sufficient to ensure that customers feel that their concerns are heard and that they are also fairly prioritized. The level of product development transparency a company chooses to reveal to customers ultimately depends on the business goals and the type of product that the company produces. 

Increase transparency gradually

Lastly, one important consideration to note is that it is difficult to renege on a level of transparency once it has been established. Roadmaps are constantly evolving, and customers can lose faith in the company if something is promised and then later deprioritized. Therefore if transparency is the plan for the company, it is best to incrementally increase levels of transparency to clients in order to gauge the level that is appropriate for both the company and for its clients. 
Have you considered increasing transparency to your clients with your product development and operations? Did your clients find it useful?