Behind the Scenes: How an EM/PM Feature goes from an Idea to Reality

Aries is dedicated to constantly enhancing our suite of publishing workflow solutions and innovating new technology. This includes taking in all suggestions for product improvement, sifting through and prioritizing them, and following through from development to release. To better understand this process, we sat down with Aries Director of Product Management Tony Alves for the inside scoop.

How does Aries receive ideas for features/functionality and who supplies them?

The majority of ideas are crowd-sourced, and from a few different crowds at that! Aries is always looking to make our software solution more attractive to a wider audience and for the system to be beneficial to more people. One way to do that is for us to communicate frequently with the Aries Sales team, to get their feedback on what new prospective clients are looking for and what their needs are. We also receive feedback by actively participating in the publishing community, attending and presenting at conferences, taking part as industry board members and such, which gives us key insights to perspectives or shifts in the industry, which in turn helps us sometimes anticipate changes or requests before people even ask for them.

Many suggestions come from our current users, and these come through a few different channels. One is through our Client Services team, who provides training and support to users every day. Product Management will take in all incoming suggestions, then we will work with the CS team to refine the ideas and work with the technical team from there. On occasion, we visit our customers on-site for in-person meetings to listen to their workflow challenges and priorities. Aries also hosts multiple user group meetings annually (in the USA, EU and Japan) where we hold a Feature Workshop session that is instrumental in the shaping of the development roadmap. During this workshop, we divide users into groups lead by Aries CS and PM members to discuss preferences, personal workflows, roadblocks and brainstorm ideas for product improvement.

How are these suggestions processed internally? Who handles them? How are they prioritized?

We have compiled all ideas and suggestions on an internal master list we call the “Wish List,” which is the responsibility of Product Management. Once an idea comes in, we look to see if it has been suggested before, how many times, and by whom. It’s a massive list, so we do take some measures to filter through and prioritize them.

One way we rank ideas is based on popularity. Are other people asking for this specific feature? If it is something that has been in demand for some time and is a repeat request, it may be considered a high priority. Of course, we also need to consider Aries’ competitive advantage, so like any other business we ask ourselves, “Will implementing this specific feature broaden our appeal in the market place?” If the answer is yes, it moves up on the list! Another thing we take into consideration to narrow down the list is where the industry is going and respond to those trends. For example, in version 17.0 we are addressing FAIR data (making data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) and how to make it easier for Authors to submit data to data repositories.

We also prioritize suggestions during Feature Workshops at Aries user group meetings. All ideas brought out of the workshop are presented to the assembly, where we assess reactions from the crowd and have attendees participate in multiple interactive polls to vote on their favorite feature ideas. Occasionally we will receive very specific feature requests from customers who are willing to pay to prioritize the feature. They are not paying for the feature itself, but paying for it to be released sooner. All feature requests will be addressed eventually, but if a customer is willing to put money out for it, then it must be pretty important for their workflow; and therefore it moves to the top of the list. However, even if a customer has paid for a customized new feature, we will design the functionality to be as universal as possible so everyone who uses our systems can take advantage of it.

Once the decision has been made to implement a new feature, what goes into the development process? What different teams get involved? How are they scheduled for future releases?

Actually, this is an evolving process. Historically, we have had two major software releases per year for Editorial Manager® and ProduXion Manager®. We have an internal management meeting where Product Management will suggest which features should be included in the next release, and then we have a discussion. From there, we budget out a number of days for Engineering and QA to code and test the new functionality.

However, we are currently working on updating this process. We are aiming to shrink down development time so we can release features more quickly. Rather than filling six-months’ worth of Engineering time and then releasing the features through a new software version, we are slowly working towards a continual code release plan, almost like rolling releases. Eventually, we will be releasing features on a more regular basis in an effort to become more agile.

What is the typical lead-time for a new feature from inception to release?

Well, a feature may remain on the “Wish List” for several years before we move it forward for development. So, it is difficult to pinpoint the lead time from inception to reality. For the development process, it also varies due to the specific feature, as some are more complex than others. In general, we are talking a 12-to-18 month process from scheduling out the feature, writing up the specs, developing the software, testing it and then BETA testing it. If the new functionality is simpler, a smaller feature, we are sometimes able to include these in our normal release cycle.

As I stated earlier, we are looking to refine this process to reduce the time to release by 50 percent. We are basically shooting for a 6 month develop and release goal long-term, though this remains a work in progress.

How are new features announced?

We have documentation specialists who write up the Release Notes and Release Digest. They are experts at making the technical documentation easy to understand. The Aries Client Services team sends out a mass email to all our customers announcing the general release of the latest software version, with a link to the documentation. We also share the latest features during Aries user group meetings, vendor presentations at industry conferences such as ISMTE, and the Aries Industry Advisory Board bi-annual meetings. The Client Services team also hosts a training webinar following the general release that covers new functionality and configuration settings.