In a scene from Hollyoaks, a train explodes while paramedics tend to the wounded In a scene from Hollyoaks, a train explodes while paramedics tend to the wounded

Dunka-chunka-snunka-bunka-Hollyoaks! Or: constructing a user-centered product roadmap

  • 4 minute read

Hands up who loves Hollyoaks?!

Yes… I’m aware I may be in the minority here, outside of the scores of teenagers regularly getting their fix of the drama unfolding in the North Westerly town each day post-school.

However, as much as the majority of the adult population may dismiss the overly dramatic soap as the televisual equivalent of junk food, Hollyoaks is a great example of something we’re all too often trying to crack when it comes to product development – constructing a truly user-centric roadmap.

A user-centric product roadmap should feature explosions. Lots of explosions.

Product teams routinely find this concept difficult to truly attain, despite the best intentions of all those involved. All too often high level business objectives, marketing deadlines and a host of other commitments can get in the way of focusing on what really matters – our audiences.

Worse still, when our product team becomes a feature factory where the measure of success becomes delivery of that shiny new thing on time, we lose focus on that vital activity which truly allows us to determine if we’re providing improvements to the products that our audiences want, and use – measuring outcomes. How did that feature perform? Are people actually using it? Has it made a measurable difference to a metric we are trying to improve? Did it actually solve a problem?

In an environment where delivery is valued above outcome, it’s rare we know the answers to those questions, and, worse, the temptation to cut corners to hit deadlines creeps in – and the time set aside to revisit those features later routinely gets pushed to the back of the queue in favor of something else new and shiny. Quality dips, our audience disengage (not to mention struggle to navigate the feature forest our product has become), and our team has no means by which to measure the success of their efforts.

And this is where Hollyoaks can teach us a thing or two. Hollyoaks is absolutely driven by one key metric, and a great one at that – ratings. This isn’t solely isolated to Hollyoaks of course – the television industry has always measured success based on the size of the audience, and companies like BARB are crucial for measuring the appetite of the British public for programming. In the world of linear television (before the rise of on-demand) TV shows lived or died based on the success (or failure) of the pilot, and countless hours of focus groups, user research and tweaking took place before the pilot hit the air and the production company held their breath waiting for the audience figures to come in.

Flying debris death is easily measurable. Take note.

But this is something we’re all too often forgetting in tech, as delivery gets more streamlined and roadmaps get more politicized – and (as counter intuitive as it seems) the more successful the product, the easier this trap can be to fall into, as an increasing number of stakeholders rally for a piece of your product, that new exciting feature, to achieve their own ends.

In this sort of environment it’s easy to forget the point. And this is where a strong, simple, easily measurable audience-focused metric can come in. Hollyoaks is a fabulous example of this – ratings are reviewed, storylines dropped at the first sign of a dip in engagement, the roadmap continuously re-planned on the basis of the audience response. Not to mention the number of characters who have been killed off for exactly the same reasons. How many digital products can truly say that the features they are building are entirely driven by how people are responding to their product?

The guy being ninja-kicked under a train here is the metaphorical equivalent of the Snapchat ‘yellow-face’ filter.

Hollyoaks has nailed this, because ultimately they know that their ‘features’ aren’t important – how their audience responds to them is the real bottom line – and they’ll succeed, or fail, based on how much they listen. That shift in attitude is hugely important – the aggregation of features we’ve built is not our product – our user base and their needs, the reasons that they use our product, is our *real* product. That’s where the success really lies.

If Hollyoaks is a product, then its features are the characters and storylines that we’re watching unfold every evening. If Hollyoaks is a product, then its roadmap is one of the most ruthless in the business – and it has blood on its hands. It’s something a lot of us could do with watching a bit more of.