To manage the expectations of eager fans, Up released a public product roadmap to better communicate their plans, writes Jessica Sier.

Customers can get pretty keen on their favourite startups.

Branded t-shirts, pins and stickers splashed around at meetups mean enthusiastic tribes often quickly emerge around an exciting new company.

But with that eager tribe comes a flurry of raised expectations and demands, as customers see themselves on the inside track of a business.

Up Bank found themselves torn between nurturing and maintaining their growing tribe, and simultaneously absorbing and implementing all their feedback and criticisms.

“We are mostly trying to build bank stuff that doesn’t exist yet,” says Anson Parker, Up’s head of product.

“But there’s functionality people expect with bank apps, even though we haven’t had the ambition of trying to be everyone’s primary bank from day one.”

Up found the tribe were loudly clamouring for established bank features such as BPAY capabilities or joint bank accounts; things they saw as standard in other bank apps.

“Which is difficult to push back against when you’re wanting to focus on innovating,” says Parker, who has launched unique savings features and clever ways of calculating forward spending.

“We found it hard to communicate why we weren’t focusing all our energy on matching what was already in the market, which is pretty mature and saturated.”

Show, don’t tell

So Up released a live, interactive product roadmap.

The map acknowledges the company’s ‘missing’ features, shows where they are in the future plans and also explains the thinking behind the business strategy.

“It’s a useful tool for showing where we’re at and answers a lot of customer queries in one go,” says Parker.

Called the ‘Tree of Up’, the technology tree has several product categories or themes illustrating what the developers are working on at any given time.

Things like Accounts, Payments, Activity and Cards splinter out from the main Up homebase, and within each category is a pipeline of product features or updates the company hopes to release in the coming year.

“The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Parker. “People just want to be involved and have an understanding of your thinking.”

Parker points out the product roadmap helps the company communicate in several ways.

“Firstly, everything customers have asked for is on the product map,” he says.

“They don’t always know they’ve asked for it - because we’ve translated things like “quicker ways to pay” into Instant Google Pay - but we’ve offered solutions to everything customers ask of us and they can see it’s in the works.”

Secondly, it shows that technology development is often interconnected, and some features can’t appear without others laying the groundwork.

Since Up released the map a few months ago, they haven’t really amended it much, as they’ve kept the time frame wide and there is a natural order to the features.

“Except, I did push out the BPAY rollout from Q2 to Q3,” says Parker. “And some people picked up on it right away! We definitely have a hardcore group of customers who are keeping an eye on what we do.”

Parker describes the opportunity to communicate via release notes as a tool to further provide understanding to customers.

“That’s something I’d like to explore further,” he says. “The map doesn’t really speak to change that well yet, even though there is a panel for release notes. Maybe we can explore browser notifications or something.”

Lastly, the transparency stems the flow of customer suggestions through the customer support functions.

The Up product team actively ask for feedback through their Talk To Us feature inside their banking app.

“We were shocked at how much people used that,” says Parker.

“When you put a low friction chat tool into you app, people tend to really use it, especially when they’re passionate and like where you’re heading.”

Tips for transparency

  1. People understand more than you give them credit for. Reject jargon, and risk over-communicating at first. This eagerness often helps establish a friendly, transparent brand which customers respond to.
  2. Give yourself huge lead times to complete some tasks! The Up Tech Tree is broken up into quarters and there’s no definite timing on their appearance in market. That seems to be enough for most customers, just to see where we are heading.
  3. Acknowledge your competition if necessary. Up is happy to be a side-hustle financial app that people use in companion with major banks who can offer mortgages and credit. Communicate this and customers will understand your positioning.

How quickly they deploy

Of course, most startups across the world have complex and involved roadmaps, but given time blowouts and the never-ending juggling of people and tasks means rarely are projects completed on time.

But from the outset, Up Bank has been a cloud-based bank, meaning they can create new environments and test very quickly.

They partnered with Google when the global behemoth launched the Google Cloud Platform and helped them through the regulatory process, the auditing, data centre and security assessments.

It was an arduous, fiddly task, but finally Up were able to run the whole business from the cloud, meaning they can spin up the entire banking platform in 45 seconds.

They create thousands of cloud-based platforms in parallel and test every single feature and new changes, then do a full regression test, which would normally take a bank months or a smart digital banks a week or days.

Up’s cloud-positioning means it can do a regression test in 26 minutes, which is twice every hour, which means 50 times a day they’re deploying updates to production.

“We’re definitely not deploying features that often,” says Parker quickly. “But because we can do this, it makes this roadmap not look so big.”

That said, the accountability of a roadmap keeps the Up developers on their toes and has raised a few eyebrows in the industry.

“Some thought we were crazy for setting up such high expectations,” says Parker. “But ultimately, in banking at least, people have found this level of transparency refreshing.”

Tips for prioritising innovation

  1. Always have a ‘gamble’ feature in the works. That way your developers get to tackle something new, and you never know if that’s the thing people will love and take off in market. Otherwise you get stuck building things that exist.
  2. If you’re not in an oversaturated industry where customers expect certain features (like we are), don’t be overly prescriptive. Smaller roadmaps allow for deployment, feedback and iteration.
  3. Try not to implement legacy technology. Up went to BPAY before they even put it on the map, to ask them what their future tech looked like. Work hard to integrate into the new versions or come up with your own better solution.