How Viacom Uses Lean Startup & Agile to Engage Viewers

By Steven Melendez |  May 16, 2016

It’s hard to imagine a better spot to gather consumer feedback than Times Square. Viacom executive Kimberly Hicks takes advantage of the media company’s prime Manhattan location when it comes to showing minimum viable products to real people — often apps to give them access to Viacom TV shows and other content — and getting instant input.

It’s all part of Hicks’ embrace of lean startup methods to ensure that Viacom’s digital products are developed with a keen awareness of the needs of both internal and external users.

Hicks, Viacom’s vice president for user platform product management, says that in an arena where people’s media consumption behaviors and the devices they use are changing so quickly, the lean startup approach is extremely helpful. “We can’t just get a requirement, walk away and come back in six months, because the world’s changed,” she says.

Hicks reports to Viacom’s senior vice president for product. Her team works on projects with various Viacom brands like MTV, Comedy Central, and Nickelodeon, collaborating regularly with colleagues at those brands.  “[The] brand is designing the app and the look and feel and the user experience, but then as a central team we have to partner with those brands to ensure that we have a cohesive experience and that we’re not adding friction to those experiences,” she says. “It really makes you have to have a lot of communication, a lot of collaboration.”

She discussed with InnoLead how her team uses both lean startup and agile development to make the most of their resources — and keep projects moving ahead quickly.

A Recent Hit

One recent success was Viacom’s PlayPlex suite of mobile apps unveiled last fall, designed to give viewers in Viacom’s overseas markets access to streaming TV and other content from Viacom’s channels.

In some markets, it was the first time Viacom would be offering apps, and the company wanted to get it right. For Hicks’ team, that meant working with colleagues around the world, formulating hypotheses about what users wanted and testing them out on real people. (At right, some early sketches of the app design.)

“We would go out in Times Square and grab people and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?'” she says. “We’d bring people in to do user testing and get a lot of perspectives.”

The company conducts testing at offices across the globe, both before and after product launches, sometimes with the help of Viacom’s user experience experts. But Viacom also encourages more informal testing, too.

“We empower the teams to do some of their own as well—we’ll grab interns to do some testing, or friends and family, or sometimes [they’ll] go out and hit the streets and get some feedback,” Hicks says.

Naturally, procedures are in place to make sure not to reveal too much about products and features Viacom wants to keep under wraps.

“Sometimes we don’t tell them the whole picture, who it’s for, or something like that,” Hicks says. “We just make sure we’re conscious of the level of sensitivity.”

With PlayPlex, Hicks says the company learned that customers wanted a simple, quick way to access video content.

“They want to see their video—they want to get in there quickly, be able to find it quickly,” she says. “This [design we ended up with] allows them to quickly scan through their content and jump into video.” (A video overview of the app is below.)

Tracking Engagement and What Delivers Value

Once digital products like apps and websites are released, Viacom tracks whether they’re keeping customers engaged and coming back for more.

“Our biggest metrics that we want is engagement and retention,” says Hicks.

In one case, Viacom looked at commenting features on some of its websites, and realized they just weren’t delivering enough value to users to justify keeping them in place. Getting rid of comments one some sites freed up resources to devote to features that mattered more to users, she says. “On a news site, [comments are] valuable,” she says. “Just not in every case.”

Developing New Features

In determining what features to develop next, Hicks’s team communicates regularly with Viacom’s brands, discussing potential ideas, she says.

“It’ll work both ways—so either one of our brands will request it, or we’ll come up with a product idea and pitch it to one of our brands,” she says.

In many cases, her team will build a core feature like tools to let cable and satellite subscribers verify their subscription to see premium content — Hicks was named as an inventor on a Viacom patent application in that area last year — and then work with software teams at various Viacom brands to get it integrated into their apps. The brands usually want the features to meet their design standards and other unique requirements, she says.

“On our Nickelodeon side, we have kids’ content, so there’s a whole slew of regulation there,” she says, in particular around collecting identifying information from minors.

“For some of our products, we build [a software development kit] or component that we hand off to the brands to integrate, or we have [application programming interfaces] that they use,” she says. “So then it’s a partnership with that brand to ensure that everything gets delivered internally.”

Two-Week Sprints

Hicks’s unit, called a studio in company parlance, lies within Viacom’s multiplatform technology services group. The team tries to maintain a 1-to-6 developer to product manager ratio, she says, and works in the two-week sprints made popular by the agile movement.

The company has full-time internal agile coaches, generally supporting two or three teams each. A coach checks in with the team quarterly to assess team morale and performance, and suggest ways they can improve their practices, she says.

“We’re constantly making improvements,” she says.

For example, a coach pushed them to have clear definitions of when features are done before a sprint begins. “Everyone needs to agree we have the right information there, we have acceptance criteria, the requirements are clear,” says Hicks. Another tip that came from the coach: make sure developers, not product managers, take the lead in regular stand-up briefing meetings, to make sure they can exchange all the information they need to get their jobs done.

Other units within the company that are developing software, like apps or internal software systems, use similar practices with minor variations, Hicks says. For instance, a team upgrading a content-management system uses longer sprints, she says. One area where the company is less-likely to use agile techniques is in broadcast engineering, where the hardware focus makes the methodology a less perfect fit, Hicks says.

What Matters to Leadership

Ultimately, Viacom’s senior management is more concerned with productivity—crafting products on-time that keep audiences coming back for more—than the methodology teams implement to make that happen, she says.

“I think it’s a matter of, are we delivering, and are we getting key updates out? I think that is what our senior leadership is concerned with, and we’ve been able to do that,” she says. “I don’t know that they care so much about our methodology as [whether] we are engaging our users.”