Why Your Product Must Stand for Something

BY CHRISTIAN BONILLA ON JANUARY 13, 2017

Christian Rudder, co-founder of dating site OkCupid, has learned a lot about online dating behaviour. As a data scientist, he’s also been in the unique position of being able to observe how people behave in the dating world when no one is watching them. The insights in his book Dataclysm are fascinating, the one that jolted me because of its relevance to product management the most is the advantage of being polarising.

To help tune the matching algorithms to fit their preferences, OkCupid users rate other members’ looks on a 1-5 scale ( where 5 = most attractive). Rudder saw that the users who received the most engagement weren’t the unanimous 4s and 5s, but rather the ones who had an equal number of 1 and 5 votes. In the face of disagreement, people tend to feel even more passionately about their preferences. On the other hand, being unanimously voted a 3 by users was the worst way to generate interest. A rating of 3 is “meh,” and meh is a death sentence.

I’ve found myself returning to Rudder’s premise of “death by a thousand mehs” periodically as a product manager and especially as a founder. Great products feel like they were designed by someone who knows exactly what your job is or what you’re trying to do. Expensify feels like it was designed by people who really understand how much filing dozens of receipts used to suck. Squarespace feels like it anticipated every question a novice would have when building a website. SAP does not.

No one Wants you Here, Frankenstein

Products must be designed with a target user in mind. Making the product perfect for the target user necessarily means it can’t be perfect for every user, but companies often forget this. The desires to appeal to everyone or keep up with the Joneses by copying your competitors’ features can be hard to resist. Those temptations are amplified in start-ups where strategy is more fluid, or when a marquee client wants a new feature before they’ll sign a deal.

Diluting your user persona, overriding your roadmap to win deals, and aping competitors’ features is what turns your product into Frankenstein monster. A product that tries to be something for everyone ends up delighting no one – least of all the people trying to market and sell them. They’re meh, no matter how much you dress them up. Meh doesn’t get a buyer excited. It’s a 5 out of 10, and frankly anything below a 9 rounds down to zero.

How to Ensure Your Product Stands for Something (not Everything)

There are a couple of key things product managers can do to keep their product focused and out of Frankenstein territory.

Advocate market research – The most important thing a product manager can do is understand the target customers’ pain points and needs. More to the point, you need to understand the people whose problems you’re solving so intimately that there’s no need to hedge by catering to everyone. When the company’s understanding of the customer is fuzzy, every adjacency starts to look attractive. By engaging with potential users directly, listening to their feedback, and observing how they do their jobs, you’ll uncover the real problems worth solving. That’s what gives you the confidence in your product roadmap to say “no” to a segment you have no need to chase.

As we found from our product manager survey results, PMs often don’t have the time (or ability) to do market research. We founded UserMuse because this is a real problem, especially on the enterprise side. If you don’t invest in understanding your target customers (not just your current ones) inside and out, your odds of making a product they’ll love start heading toward zero.

Get to agreement on the product principles – I’m borrowing this concept from product guru Marty Cagan, among others. Product principles are useful for getting everyone to agree on priorities that extend beyond a single release. Cagan defines them as “a public declaration of your beliefs and intentions”. I think of them as the strategic foundation of your product. For example, the product principles for a team developing a new e-reader might look like this:

  • Reading is an activity best done slowly and with zero distractions
  • It should be as easy to read a web page as it is to read a book
  • Image clarity is as important to the reading experience as the words themselves
  • Functionality that supports the reading experience cannot be dependent on WiFi or 4G connectivity

Sticking to your product principles (and knowing when to revise them) is part of the art of management, but you can see how these transcend any single feature. They are the core insights you learn about your market turned into a framework for evaluating all future product enhancements.

The alternative is letting your product drift into mediocrity.

Christian Bonilla

About CHRISTIAN BONILLA

Christian Bonilla is a product manager and founder of UserMuse, a new service to help product managers validate their ideas in the market. He is also the author of the Smart Like How blog. He writes regularly on product and management topics for publications such as Quartz, Fast Company, and Elite Daily.

  • Al Ries and Jack Trout’s Law of Focus states:

    “No matter how complicated the product, no matter how complicated the needs of the market, it’s always better to focus on one word or benefit than two or three or four.”

    Al Ries and Laura Ries state in the Law of Expansion:

    “The power of a brand is inversely proportional to its scope.”

    and in the Law of Contraction:

    “A brand becomes stronger when you narrow the focus.”

    As Christian wrote, you can can revise your product principles (strategy), but they should drive all tactical product decisions and priorities. And timeless marketing principles argue for relentless focus.

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