Part 2 of a guide for product managers & leaders to help accelerate their time to market

The minimum viable product (MVP) concept gives founders and established businesses alike a simple idea to conceptualize how they manage risk and technical concerns.

But a staple of product books these days is to also differentiate between your MVP and minimum viable experience. That is, to say:

A product with the absolute minimum to perform a use case might not be enough to get your users' attention and keep it, especially in today’s crowded marketplace.

And if you're looking to add or upgrade an in-app document experience -- you've entered into a crowded space. Online you'll find plenty of SaaS, freemium, and just plain free options for users to view, annotate, convert, and edit their documents, and more.

So how do you ensure your application still grabs attention while achieving efficiencies in development?

In this article, second in a series for product managers, we peel back the layers of a successful document application so you can decide your best-fit minimum.

Here are the layers we’ll explore:

  1. Embedding a Basic Viewer
  2. Adding Annotations etc. Over Top
  3. Connecting Features into Your System
  4. Customizing The Solution to Match the Workflow

1: Embedding Basic Viewing

Previously, your users may have opened documents in a new tab or downloaded. Now you’ve decided to embed a pre-built viewer with the intention of reaping one or two following benefits:

  1. Control over documents (e.g., for security/proprietary reasons)
  2. Keep the user in app

If your intention is #1 -- just secure viewing -- then an embedded viewer might be all you need.

You could still add a little polish on top to “plus” your viewer experience; for example, you could upgrade to commercial viewing for improved performance. You could customize the UI to match your desired look and feel.

2: Adding Annotations etc. on Top

Still, these niceties probably won’t keep users happy and in-app if your intention is more complex. Users often expect to interact with, edit, and mark up documents due to the availability of tools to do so online.

As the first step to satisfying users, companies enable or attempt to build annotations, or perhaps, other features on top of their viewer.

Annotations let users draw over top of their documents and add comments. A pre-built viewer toolkit will include your conventional annotation set and perhaps advanced capabilities -- like adding annotations to all different file types including video and audio, measurement, and so on.

Here we should stop and ask:

Will users understand the new features and how they relate to the rest of the workflow?

A mistake we see product teams make is not simply adding too little and, as a result, users can’t connect the dots to complete the use case. Teams enable too much, or rely on a complex default set, imposing a steeper learning curve, greater training requirements, and higher support burdens. (Learn from OEC Graphics’ previous experience with a complex UI.)

When choosing what features to enable first in your viewer, therefore, we should:

  • Focus on just the features your users need to get the job at hand done
  • Hide all the distractions and all the other capabilities

Returning to our viewer with annotations example -- we would also consider:

  1. What annotations will your users actually use? A professional toolkit can come out of the box with support for up to 26 standard annotation types plus a UI toolbar stacked with other features! Your users will probably only need a selection. Your essential annotation tools could include: comment, highlight, signature, and freehand drawing.

  2. Will you need to invest time into custom annotations? No toolkit creator can anticipate everything your users will need. Thus, you might consider designing custom stamp or shape annotations, so your users can express their situation efficiently using familiar, industry-standard symbols. (For an example, look at what Drawboard did for its AEC global design collaboration platform.)

  3. Is just one person annotating on the document? Are they happy just talking to themselves? (or is there a need for collaboration?)

Answering the third point will prove essential in determining whether you should advance to the next level of development or if you can safely stay here.

A disconnected experience could be OK, for example, if your users view and annotate purely for personal use. For example: if they’re a student satisfied with adding highlights and other private notes on course materials in a textbook reader app.

Conversely, many business processes you may wish to capture in-app require communication between users; they will want to point out, discuss, and resolve issues in their documents, capture feedback from clients, get approvals, and so on.

If they have to download and email different copies of marked-up materials from your app in order to communicate -- it’s not efficient for them. It’s not easy for version control. In the end, it’s also little different from using their third-party desktop apps or even pen and paper -- either of which they’ll quickly default to.

3: Connecting Features Into Your System

A simple viewer with annotation, disconnected from the workflow and your system, will typically not elevate your game and increase the number of users.

However, by connecting your annotation experience into your system, we can synchronize conversations between users and as part of the workflow to drive it forward.

For example, with collaboration enabled, now Johnny from marketing is no longer talking to himself on documents; other users can see his annotations and reply, with their markups and comments appearing on each other’s screens in real time.

Likewise, that student taking notes? They can now share them with peers as part of group study projects, or receive quick feedback on assignments from her instructors.

To enhance this collaborative experience further, we could then:

  1. Sort comments into bubbles and threads, with replies to enable conversations on specific issues flagged with annotations.

  2. Add “mentions” (@) to bring in other collaborators into a discussion.

  3. Enable review and approval states for annotations -- this will let users track statuses, signal when they’ve resolved an issue, or otherwise move projects to the next stage.

  4. Set user permissions to control the workflow (e.g., specify who can see, reply to, and change specific annotations and annotation statuses).

After we’ve added all these features, the solution -- and experience -- is suddenly more connected. We’ve designed an MVP sufficiently robust to power a business process in the full sense of the word.

4: Customizing to Your Workflow

“Having someone fully active with the software and being able to use every feature without any training is a huge advantage. But you don’t want to change their process; the process stays the same. It is the digitization of it. If you can make that simple and delightful enough, they will adopt it.”

~Drawboard’s COO Scott Cooper



In steps one through three, we evaluated basic viewing, annotation, and then collaboration aspects of a document application solution, to help guide your decision for what to add to your MVP.

Along the way, we considered features to enable interaction and discussion, so users engage more deeply with each other and other aspects of your application as part of the workflow.

However, innovation in document features, like everything else, is a moving target. Plain document and digital content collaboration, for example, is becoming more and more common in applications today. The edge of disruption is now in tailoring solutions to fit your specific workflows and industry needs, such as improved compliance and security, with additional features to boost user productivity.

Here’s how someone might innovate today: legal software users, such as paralegals or legal students, mark up content as part of discovery. They might appreciate suggestions to speed up the process. As a result, a business deploys text extraction along with its document viewer and collaboration solution. Feeding extracted snippets into a machine learning algorithm, that company could automatically pre-populate the document with highlights, flagging passages ahead of time to speed up discovery, redaction, etc. Users could then review suggestions and indicate their relevance, providing for iterative improvement of the technology.

So, what comes next? Well, that’s entirely up to you.

At PDFTron, we’re working with thousands of innovative startups to some of the top Fortune 100 companies, across virtually every industry. We try to provide for their needs at each step, one through four presented here, and beyond, with a customizable, open-source UI complete with real-time collaboration modules, and hundreds of unique digital content and document processing features. You can add or remove these as your requirements demand.

Needless to say, we’re always surprised and delighted with what unique combinations customers come up with next. And we’re always on the lookout for new stories to tell.

We’ll continue in this series to part three, where we discuss adding features to the UI in order to improve the user experience and jump the chasm from early adopters to mainstream.

In the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact us, whether to share stories about your product experiences, to give feedback on this article, or just to request a feature from our developers.