In our 2 decades developing products for major technology companies, we’ve learned many lessons about product development. Often these learnings never make it out of Silicon Valley but we want to share them with anyone and everyone who is on the path to bringing something to market. Here are a few very important things to keep in mind when developing a product or service.
1. Build around your core value proposition
Too often, we see founders get distracted by trying to make their product into more than it needs to be. They fall in love with secondary value-adds or the latest hype in the industry and they end up devoting resources in a way that dilutes the core value of what they are trying to build and achieve. This is a common occurrence because there’s a strong temptation to follow the latest technology trends and the feeling of being left out is hard to avoid. But, being disciplined and focusing on core value is paramount in almost all of the cases. However; there are instances where a secondary feature might be necessary to deliver value OR can really unlock the value for users but it takes a direct link to the core value to make sense.
In order to tell the difference and find out if that link exists, we like to use this simple exercise that anyone can do alone or with their team. Here is how it works: we will write the value proposition on a white board, then we will write out the potential additional features around it. If we can draw a line from the additional features to the value proposition and specify EXACTLY HOW the feature enables or significantly enriches the value proposition then it’s part of the core experience and gets tested; if not then it’s peripheral and gets de-prioritized or outright cut. For example, if you’re developing a social app with the value proposition of connecting people when separated geographically, then adding a NFT collectible feature (which is typically a solitary experience) is a distraction and should be shelved for future discussion. There is a time and a place for adding features but it should always be in service of the core value proposition.
2. Be OBSESSED with your user
Product success is all about the relationship that gets formed between a user and the product. You will likely know every detail about your product, which leaves the user as the unknown. You need to know who your user is, what they need, what they care about, and WHERE and HOW they will use the product. There’s a vast difference between using a product at home alone and using it while shopping at the store or sitting at the beach in the middle of the day around a crowd of people.. For a software product, you need to know if they’re going to be using a phone, a tablet, or a laptop or all of the above and if they need to be focused intently while using it, or if it’s going to operate amid distractions. Can the user devote both hands while engaging with it or does it need to support single-handed or hands-free operation?There are many other things to know about the user, but this CONTEXT IS INVALUABLE for designing and developing a compelling product experience and needs to be mapped out before you begin serious design work.
3. Know your competition - especially strengths and weaknesses
Competition is frequently misunderstood. Many people want to be in a position where they have no competition at all. But usually, having no competition will make things many times more difficult than you might think. That’s because making the world aware of (and believing in) something completely new can be much more difficult than piggie-backing on the momentum of known successes. It is much much easier to position your product in relation to that successful pioneering product (think “Tesla but cheaper” or “Twitch for gardeners”) than it is to make the world aware of something completely new and different and having to invest into educating them about it and why they need it.
In order to do this, you’ll want to make a list of your competitors BASED ON YOUR VALUE PROPOSITION not your product category (stay tuned for another post about this, but it’s important). Then, for each competitor, make a list of their strengths and weaknesses. Strengths are things that they do well and the reasons why people use them. Their weaknesses are things that people tolerate or develop a work-around. Those weaknesses are your opportunities in that space. For example, Photoshop is very powerful but unintuitive and difficult to learn, especially for basic and very common edits. So an opportunity exists for a quick and easy way to make common photo edits. This is what Instagram and similar apps leveraged when creating filters and we know how that turned out.
4. Validate, Validate, VALIDATE
Too many companies skip validation, but do you know who never does? Amazon, Google, Salesforce, and all of the most successful tech companies NEVER skip it and for good reason. Validation does many things, but there are two things that are the most important. First: it makes sure that your value proposition is strong and that you aren’t barking up the wrong tree. Second: it identifies essential adjustments to your design and development plan that can save you tremendous amounts of money IF you do discover them before you start development and even more if you can identify them before you start design. In addition, you can gain insight to guide marketing, distribution, future features and products, additional user segments, and so much more.
And guess what, you can validate in a way that isn’t very expensive and doesn’t take a ton of time. In order to do it, you’ll need an elevator pitch or (even better) a very short 2-3 slide pitch deck. The pitch should focus on the value proposition and a little bit about what form that the product will take and how it will deliver the value. Then, you can go to a coffee shop, a bookstore, a music store, or wherever else that your target user likes to gather and you just ask people “Hi, I’m working on a product and I’m trying to see if it’s something that people would be interested in. Can I run the idea by you and see what you think?” Then give them the pitch and gather their feedback, record it if they are ok with that. Be curious, be objective and approach it in a way that you are trying to improve your plan. Keep in mind that people will have a tendency to be nice when face-to-face with people so a “yes” is a maybe, a “maybe” is a no, and a “no” is a hell no. The best sign is if you see people get curious and engaged and start asking questions like “when would it be out”, “how much would it cost”, and details like how big it would be, how heavy, if it uses batteries, etc. That means that they are starting to make mental pans for ownership and that’s exactly what you want! Learn from it!
5. Have the right team
Even if you have the perfect strategy and you’ve made all of the right decisions, you still have to execute effectively. In order to do that you need an effective team. The most important element of the team is their collective capabilities. In order to make sure that you have this covered, think through your development milestones and establish your goals. That could be a functional prototype, it could be a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), or it might be a full-fledged and launched product. Next, create a list of needed capabilities to get to your finish line. That list will vary depending on the type of product and where your finish line is but it will help you build a solid plan. For example: An MVP is going to need more engineering resources than a prototype, and a live services web app is going to need different engineering needs than an electric dirt bike. Whatever they are, get them down on (virtual) paper and get them checked off as you assemble the team to make sure that you don’t have any gaps that can sneak up on you midway through development. Also keep in mind: redundancy is your friend!
Beyond capabilities, there are other important factors to keep in mind. First amongst them: your team HAS to be able to communicate with each other in order to be effective. Stay tuned for future posts where we do a deep dive into how to assemble an effective team.