The same principle is visible in the world of software development, particularly in the context of SaaS products. While there aren’t any pit stops or roaring engines, a SaaS product’s success is no less dependent on the collective effort of an entire organization.
Cross-functional collaboration in app development is about bringing together members from various departments, each contributing their unique perspective and expertise for the collective good.
Although it seems reasonable in theory, building a successful cross-functional team is a serious challenge for leaders. Over one-third of employees worldwide say their colleagues don’t collaborate enough. And data silos are the top reason for collaboration failure.
In this article, we’ll go over what cross-functional collaboration means in the SaaS environment. You’ll also learn how to implement the latest trends and best practices to ensure data remains at the center of your collaborative decision-making process.
- What we mean by collaborative product development
- Latest trends and best practices in collaborative product development
- How to build a data-driven product development process as a cross-functional team
- 3 Collaborative development challenges in the SaaS environment and how to overcome them
What we mean by collaborative product development
Collaborative product development involves people with different roles and backgrounds coming together to create (ideation), develop, and optimize a product.
In the center of this process stands a cross-functional team — a group of experts across disciplines required to build a balanced product, including UX design, marketing, customer success, development, etc.
Product development lifecycle
Before we dive into the peculiarities of collaborative product development, let’s go over the 7-step framework of software development:
- Ideation: this is where a product team comes up with the concept of a product or major update. It’s about identifying the problems worth solving or the needs that must be fulfilled with the help of market research, competitor analysis, or historical data analysis (in the case of a product update)
- Conceptualization: once an idea takes root, it’s time to shape it into a tangible concept. This involves defining a product’s scope, target market, and core features
- Design and planning: here, a product begins to take shape visually and structurally. Designers map out user interfaces, workflows, and architectural plans
- Development: this is where the coding happens. Developers bring the design and plans to life, transforming concepts into a minimum viable product (MVP)
- Testing and quality assurance (QA): testing is how you know a product works as intended, ensuring bugs are ironed out, and quality benchmarks are met
- Launch: the product is ready to be introduced to potential customers
- Post-launch optimization: the launch is just the beginning. Continuous improvement is essential, with feedback guiding updates and enhancements
Armed with an understanding of your product’s development lifecycle, you’re ready to collaborate across each stage of the process.
Is collaborative product development right for you?
Any SaaS product will benefit from collaborative product development. Among the countless positive outcomes of cross-functional product teams, the most significant include:
- Customer-centricity. Collaborative product development teams have access to insights from different touchpoints along the customer journey, ensuring that a product addresses real user needs
- Reduced silos. Cross-functional collaboration breaks down silos between departments and promotes transparency. Breaking the silo mentality encourages knowledge sharing and reduces delays associated with data hoarding and departmental bottlenecks
- Faster iterations. With a shared sense of purpose and easy access to necessary resources, collaborative teams can resolve bottlenecks and progress through SaaS projects faster
- Data-driven product decisions. Collaborative teams have access to a wealth of data from various sources, including user behavior, SaaS market trends, and performance metrics. This data empowers teams to make informed decisions at every stage of development
According to Lukasz Dec (a lead product designer), cross-functional collaboration is key to designing great products for the following reasons.
➡️ Time and cost-effective. Cross-functional collaboration helps you identify and address potential problems early. This saves time and money in the long run.
➡️ Builds trust and empowers teams. When people from different departments work together, they learn to trust one another. This creates a more positive and productive work environment.
➡️ Magnifies your voice as a designer. When you collaborate with individuals across functions, you have the opportunity to share your design expertise and influence the whole company.
To reap the benefits of collaborative product development, you need to be ready to adopt its best practices and address any challenges your cross-functional team may face. The following will arm you with the necessary tools to build a consistent collaborative product development process.
Latest trends and best practices in collaborative product development
Let’s explore some of the key aspects shaping today’s SaaS collaborative product development process.
Assembling a cross-functional team
Cross-functional teams are at the heart of collaborative product development. These teams bring together experts from various departments, each contributing their unique skills and perspectives to the SaaS product development process.
Eighty-three percent of “digitally maturing” companies report using cross-functional teams. Yet you shouldn’t necessarily rush into a complete organizational shift — such a drastic change may seriously threaten your company’s productivity. Start by forming a cross-functional team for a specific project or initiative (e.g., user interface (UI) redesign) to test the waters and identify team challenges.
Here are some best practices to help you build a successful cross-functional team:
- Develop a team charter. This is a document outlining project goals as well as the roles and responsibilities of teams
- Assign a team leader. Cross-functional teams require a coordinator. Their job is to set a project’s direction, facilitate communication, and keep the team focused on its objectives
- Establish a conflict resolution mechanism. Conflict is inevitable in collaborative product development. Be sure to put together communication guidelines, including a plan for what happens when teams disagree, and appoint a reliable person to de-escalate conflict
Creating a digital collaboration workspace
The digital collaboration technology stack has evolved immensely since the rise of remote work, reaching a point where it’s no longer exclusive to remote teams.
You probably rely on a few collaboration platforms, but your existing system may not be fully equipped to support the needs of cross-functional teams. For instance, tools like Jira are a common choice for developers but aren’t very intuitive for non-software teams.
The easiest way to overcome communication challenges in cross-functional teams is by implementing a shared digital collaboration workspace such as:
- Switchboard — a simple collaboration platform that combines whiteboard and video conferencing with existing software solutions (e.g. Figma, Notion, Google Drive, etc.)
- Nifty — a hybrid collaboration workspace that brings different teams together
- Monday.com — project management software offering customizable templates for collaborative product development
Include your customers in the process
Customers are as valuable to your collaborative development process as cross-functional teams. In fact, bringing your target audience into the design and development process is a new trend in software development called co-creation.
The following are some basic steps you can take to involve your customers in the collaborative development process:
- Identify a group of customers representing various target user personas to bring different perspectives into your product plan
- Set up a collaborative workspace where customers can interact with your team
- Conduct interviews, surveys, and focus groups with selected customers to understand their needs. Use these insights as a foundation for co-creation
- Allow them to interact with wireframes, test product prototypes, and provide user feedback
- Establish a continuous feedback mechanism with your co-creation group. Keep them informed regarding the progress of their product ideas, including how their input influences the development process
- Recognize and reward customers who actively participate in the co-creation process. This includes early access to new features, exclusive access to beta versions, and other incentives
Co-creation results in SaaS platforms that meet customer expectations and foster a sense of ownership and loyalty among your user base.
Fostering data-driven collaboration
We’ve finally arrived at the biggest trend in collaborative product development — integrating data insights into collaborative decision-making.
You already know that one of the biggest advantages of cross-functional teams is reduced data silos. But how exactly does it help in collaborative SaaS software development?
When data silos are eliminated, team members can access a centralized pool of data, giving them a 360-degree view of product performance, including user behavior and market dynamics. In other words, developers can incorporate critical customer data into product roadmaps by sharing a data hub with customer support, marketing teams, and other sectors.
To foster data-driven collaboration, you need technology that makes it easy for different teams to access insights. It’s crucial that your software features collaboration capabilities so cross-functional teams can work together.
Smartlook allows you to create shared and private product analytics dashboards to control who sees what so you can avoid overloading staff from different sectors with unnecessary data.
Shared and private dashboards in Smartlook
How to build a data-driven product development process as a cross-functional team
Easier said than done, huh?
You can’t just give everyone in your organization access to the available data and let them sort it out. So what should you do to foster data-driven decision-making across your cross-functional team? Here are five steps to get you started.
Define project objectives
When we say “collaborative software development,” we don’t mean an entire organization should come together to develop each aspect of a product. We recommend that you focus on project-based collaboration.
What task do you want your team to focus on? This could be developing a new feature, a UI update, funnel optimization, or anything that improves the user experience (UX).
Once you’ve defined a goal, you need to specify the milestones you’ll be working toward. If your objective is to release a new product tour, a simple action plan may look something like this:
- Customer support: suggest pain points new customers experience during the onboarding process
- Product manager: define the scope and features of the guided product tour
- Executives: determine whether or not the project is aligned with company goals
- UI/UX designers: develop wireframes, prototypes, and visual design elements, and conduct usability testing to refine the design
- Developers: build and deploy the guided product tour feature. Closely collaborate with designers to implement the user interface
- QA testers: develop test cases, perform testing, and provide feedback for improvement
- Business analysts: implement data collection, analyze user behavior, and provide insights for optimization
Define and monitor cross-functional KPIs
Next, identify the specific data points and metrics that will help you measure the success of your project. These metrics should align with your project objectives. For a guided tour project, key data points may include user engagement, feature adoption, and time-to-value metrics:
- “Launch the guided product tour, including design, development, testing, and adoption, within four months from today”
- “Engage at least 50% of new users in a product tour”
- “Increase the user activation rate by 25% within three months of launching the guided product tour”
- “Reduce the average time-to-value for new users by 20%”
- “Reduce support tickets by 10%”
Set up a system for data collection
When you have an idea of your goals and KPIs, you’ll better understand the tools you’ll need to measure them. The next step is setting up a robust system for data collection.
Determine the primary data sources required to track and measure your chosen KPIs. These sources may include user interactions, customer feedback, and other relevant data points. For instance, setting up a guided tour will require the following analytics tech stack:
- A product management platform like ProductPlan to monitor project progress and track the contribution of everyone involved
- A product analytics tool like Smartlook where team members can see real-time statistics regarding user interactions, watch session replays, and collect critical metrics in private or shared dashboards
- A customer support analytics suite like Intercom that collects data regarding customer requests before and after a product tour release
A Smartlook funnel representing the user flow through a product tour
It’s also a good idea to create a centralized data integration hub or platform where data from various sources can be aggregated in real time. This hub will serve as a single source of truth for cross-functional teams, eliminating data silos.
Schedule regular data reviews
Regular data reviews are essential for keeping cross-functional teams aligned with project objectives and ensuring that data-driven insights are actively incorporated into decision-making.
Here’s how to establish effective data review sessions:
- Set a recurring schedule for data review meetings. These meetings can be weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, depending on the project’s timeline and complexity
- During these meetings, present key data metrics and insights relevant to your project objectives and KPIs. Use data visualization tools and dashboards to make data more accessible and understandable for all team members
- Identify trends, patterns, and areas where adjustments can be made based on the data. Use this information to prioritize project tasks and strategies
- Assign action items and responsibilities to team members based on insights derived from the data
Iterate based on data insights
Data-driven collaboration is an ongoing process that involves continuous improvement based on project insights.
Encourage a culture of experimentation and empower cross-functional teams to propose and test adjustments based on data. Remain open to tweaking strategies and making further iterations based on the outcomes of implemented changes.
Data-driven decision-making is iterative. As such, learning from success and failure is essential.
3 Collaborative development challenges in the SaaS environment and how to overcome them
No matter how professional your team members are, they will have to learn how to effectively collaborate. You can shorten this adaptation period and avoid conflict situations by anticipating the following challenges.
Misalignment can occur anywhere in cross-functional teams — in communication, goal setting, daily procedures, etc.
Team members from different departments have varying communication styles, terminologies, and habits, so you’ll need to find a way to bridge the gap between them.
Solution: Start by aligning cross-functional teams around objectives. Beginning with your organizational goals (a.k.a. primary goals), move down the milestones of each department. Make sure people in different roles understand the goals of their colleagues, including their own.
Next, establish clear communication protocols. These include preferred channels, meeting schedules, and expectations for responsiveness.
Data silos occur when information is isolated within specific departments or teams. This usually happens when an organization lacks a standard data management approach.
Solution: Develop a consistent data governance strategy. Define data ownership, access permissions, and data quality standards. Schedule regular data reviews to keep everyone involved updated regarding the state of the project (from different perspectives) and align collaborators around a shared strategy.
Lack of accountability
When many people are involved in a project, tasks and responsibilities can fall through the cracks, leading to project delays and decreased overall efficiency.
Solution: Use project management software that allows you to assign tasks, set deadlines, and track progress. These tools allow you to automatically route tasks, set reminders, and create KPIs to hold team members accountable.
Improve your SaaS solution with better cross-functional collaboration
Just like a top pit stop crew, your SaaS app development journey depends on how well your teams collaborate.
The trends and best practices we’ve covered (digital teamwork tools and co-creation) bring data to the table and give people outside the development team more say.
Incorporate Smartlook into your collaborative arsenal to break down data silos and put customer experience-related data at the center of your collaborative decision-making strategy. Smartlook’s real-time statistics and session replays provide cross-functional teams with product analytics insights, allowing everyone to focus on what matters most — the end-user experience.