Trust the Process: Best Practices for Association Product Development

Trust the Process: Best Practices for Association Product Development

Lately we have been writing a lot about enhancing member engagement and strengthening the value of an organization through innovation. These topics have led us to another related area for growth: how associations can refine and trust their product development process to better serve members. To gain a deeper understanding of current trends, best practices and personal insights, we sought out an expert in the industry – Mariah Burton Nelson, MPH, CAE.

Best Practices for Association Product Development - Mariah Burton Nelson, MPH, CAEWhen Mariah was growing up, she had two main interests: sports and books. After playing basketball at Stanford, as well as in the first professional women’s league in the U.S., she decided to combine her two passions by writing about her athletic experiences.

This was no common endeavor in the early ‘80s, as nearly no one was writing about female athletes. But her interests led her to a career as a journalist, author and speaker and eventually she went on to become the executive director of the American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation – now renamed Shape America.

During her six years at Shape America, she fully submerged herself in the previously foreign association world by attending numerous ASAE conferences, joining the Diversity Education Leadership Program (DELP) and earning her CAE. From books to sports to associations, she trusted the process and it led her to a new passion: association management.

Now the vice president of innovation and planning at ASAE, Mariah focuses on leading ASAE’s innovation work. She consults with other associations about innovation and new product development; conducts an annual analysis of ASAE’s program portfolio; and oversees Idea Gen, a new innovation and leadership-training group for early-career ASAE staffers.

After seven years in this role, she has become well-versed in the importance of “the process,” especially when it comes to product development.

She recently took the time to share some of her experiences and insights with McKinley and discussed the importance of immersing oneself in the process of product development to inspire growth within an association, as well as innovative ideas for members and stakeholders.

Shelley (S): From what you have observed, what are some key steps to help associations get started with the product development process?

Mariah (M): First – don’t expect it to be easy! Prepare to put in the time for the whole process. Developing new things that people will want – at a price they can afford and at a cost that you can afford to create, market and deliver to them – is challenging. It takes time and teamwork.

At ASAE, we are big proponents of design thinking as the most reliable way to create new products (and solve other big problems). We prioritize time for it at our conferences and in customized workshops. Design thinking is a systematic process for solving problems and exploring opportunities and can be summarized with three steps:

  • Empathize: Interview potential end users (usually members) and gather facts and figures to understand the current situation from both qualitative and quantitative perspectives.
  • Invent: Based on that data, brainstorm many ideas in small groups that are comprised of both staff and members.
  • Iterate: After selecting a few of the most promising ideas, create simple prototypes (drawings, objects, role plays, storyboards) and show them to potential users for input. Ask open questions, listen to the reactions, and modify your plans based on the feedback.

For more about design thinking and new product development, I recommend reading Designing for Growth Field Book; Winning at New Products, and ASAE’s Focus on What Matters.

S: What major trends are you seeing around product development and refinement within associations?

M: In addition to including interactive aspects and innovative technology, I think association professionals are starting to appreciate the importance of conducting small experiments with prototypes. It’s becoming more apparent that it’s too risky to create whole conferences or even publish whole books without testing ideas on potential users, then refining those based on their feedback.

When I see this newfound focus on not only what members need or want, but how they interact with prototypes, I feel encouraged that some of the principles of design thinking are starting to sink in with associations.

S: What challenges do associations typically face when it comes to product development that can prevent them from taking key steps or working toward new trends?

M: To be blunt, we’re busy, we’re impatient, we’re risk-averse, we do not have dedicated funds or staff for research and development, and we don’t know how to sunset outdated, under-performing products to make room for new products.

I say “we” because these things are just as hard for ASAE as they are for other associations. But we all know we need to.

S: What do you feel is absolutely essential for an association to do when it comes to product development and refinement?

M: Show prototypes to potential users. We all get wedded to our own ideas. Even though I’m in the idea business, I still catch myself thinking my ideas are quite brilliant and have to remind myself to slow down and ask others for input. Then, amazingly enough, they offer better ideas.

That first idea is rarely as wonderful as it seems. Develop a simple prototype and ask potential users to look at it. It’s amazing how much you can learn from watching someone interact with your prototype and asking them open-minded questions. Sometimes your concept needs fine tuning; other times it needs to be revamped or discarded. This process takes time and requires us to be humble enough to admit mistakes, but ultimately it saves you a lot of time, money, and headaches because you’ll build more valuable, successful products.

S: What are some of the more innovative things you’ve seen—anything from the product development approach to specific products and services?

M: There are so many exciting innovations happening in the association landscape. The first few that come to mind have interactive features and utilize modern technology.

  • The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is pilot-testing a program to help trainees become effective therapists by using mixed reality simulation.
  • The American Industrial Hygiene Association is developing a program to introduce teens and college students to careers in industrial hygiene by using video games with avatars young people can relate to.
  • The Endocrine Society is developing an interactive fly-through animation of the endocrine system to teach users about diseases while they take a hormone’s journey through the human body.

Not to mention one of our own products made for associations, ASAE’s Innovation LaunchPad. This is an original program for solving significant organizational challenges and allows users to identify a challenge, conduct research, bring a team to a three-day design-thinking workshop and walk away with prototypes to test on potential end users. From ideation to pilot-testing, the LaunchPad took 18 months to develop – and now it’s expanding.


What all these examples have in common is a deliberate process involving research and testing. When it comes to product development, it pays to do things right – and take the time to do so. Much like Mariah found her way to the perfect career, associations can create the perfect product simply by trusting the process.

Are you looking to refine your products and services? As a proponent of opportunity assessment and identification, McKinley specializes in jump starting this process with research and analysis.

Identify new opportunities with member research or a portfolio analysis by contacting McKinley today.