Testing and validating features is hard–particularly before you’ve prototyped them. But whether you’re working on a web app or native software, I’ve discovered there’s a shortcut. There are jillions of specialized utility apps out on the app stores, and you can misuse and abuse them as a way of testing new feature ideas.
This idea came about as I was spitballing features for Writebot, the collaborative document platform that I built with two friends and which we’re using here at Fast Company digital.
The core of Writebot is a real-time text area where you can draft an article. Since Writebot is all about producing high-quality work faster, I had a lightning-bolt idea: Put a timer above the text area. I figured this might help keep me on task when I’m under deadline.
None of our users have asked for this feature, and whether time-tracking actually improves your productivity or just increases your anxiety level remains unproven. Those facts don’t bode well for a new feature. Normally, this is the kind of idea that would end up in our development backlog for us to talk about later–after all, we’re trying to build an entire intelligent repository tool, so we have bigger fish to fry.
Then I was struck by a solution the other day when someone asked me for an app recommendation. The first thing that came to mind was Seconds Pro, which is an interval timer I use in the gym. You add intervals of time, and it tells you (through the headphones) as each interval ends and each exercise begins.
I tried this app on a lark, thinking it might help me save time in the gym and keep my heart rate elevated during my workout. After about a month, the app has turned my training into razor-sharp 24-minute cycles (not including a 1.5 mile run to warm up). It’s absolutely awesome at keeping me on task. (Below, one of my workout interval timers.)
It dawned on me that if interval training could turn my physical work into efficient, scheduled chunks, it could do the same for my brain work. Maybe what we needed in Writebot was not a timer, but an interval timer. And maybe I could misappropriate Seconds Pro to test my hypothesis.
I tested the theory by making a list of draft documents in Writebot and Google Docs, which are the two primary tools which our Co.Labs writers use to submit drafts. This list is comprised of reporters’ articles I need to edit (or my own, which I need to finish writing) and before the July 4th holiday, the list was overwhelming.
I decided to rotate working on each story in intervals, using specific time windows and specific “rest” times. I created a new set of intervals called “Brain Work” in Seconds Pro and set the intervals for:
- 20 minutes of editing
- 3 minute of notes on what to do next
- 7 minutes of ambulating (to clear my head)
After one “rep,” I move on to the next story, whether it’s finished or not. After a few intervals, I eventually come back to the same story. Before long, stories start to drop off the to-do list. It’s an amazing feeling: Work hard for short bursts, time flies by, and work begins to dissipate. If you do six reps of this circuit, you come out at exactly three hours, which is a good time to take a half hour off to mess around, read, eat, or decipher the jokes in a new episode of Arrested Development. (Below, my editing interval timer in Seconds Pro.)
What’s so phenomenal is that intervals change the way I see my work–and fundamentally change the way I see this potential feature. Does this feature actually belong in Writebot? Maybe not. I might be the only person on Earth who can work this way, for all I know.
But at least now I’ve validated the idea and the analogy I can use to explain it to people. If I were to think of my workouts as individual tasks in a heap, I’d be exhausted before I even started the week. The same goes for household chores; if you put them all on one list for a week, the list would be discouragingly long.
Working in intervals is more like going around in a circle–not working your way down an endless list. Eventually, you circle a few times and projects start to disappear; each pass brings each little project one step closer to completion until, at some interval, the list is completely gone.
What I thought would be a simple feature addition (a timer) actually needs to be quite sophisticated–check out the feature set in Seconds Pro–in order to be truly useful. For now, the interval timer feature stays out of the backlog, but it will stay in my workflow, where I can prove the concept more and try to evangelize to other people in my team. If the idea sticks, it might become a feature after all. If not, at least I haven’t wasted my cofounders’ time debating it.
[Knock out: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]