What are the qualities that make up a great product? It pays to analyse them and consider how they all work together to make a product successful.
I remember once being asked in an interview: “Could you name a product you think is great?”
I put on my “thinking deep thoughts” face and stare at the wall behind my interviewers. As the silence becomes unbearable I’m forced to admit out loud what my brain has been screaming for the last 15 seconds (or has it been minutes?): “I’m sorry, but for some reason, I’ve completely blanked out and can’t think of anything… ”
My interviewer’s attempt to conceal their surprise and disappointment and move on to the next topic, but their unspoken thoughts fill the room for the rest of the interview: I had just botched the most basic question you can get when interviewing for any product position.
The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t think of any worthwhile products, but rather that I felt I could not narrow down why I thought those products were good – and I knew that would be the follow-up question.
The Five Levels of the Product Pyramid
So in true product manager fashion, I decided that the best course of action would be to learn from my failure and to dedicate some time to breaking down the characteristics of a good product. That way I won’t be caught flat-footed in my next interview, and neither will you.
Does it Have a Solid Value Proposition?
This truly is the basis of any successful product: if it doesn’t solve a problem for an end user then everything else falls apart. No one would ever buy a tool to do something they don’t do. There are many different user needs: known and unknown, complex and simple, natural and artificially created, part of a chain of needs or standalone; but every product needs to speak to one of these needs and solve it.
If no one wanted to learn a language, we wouldn’t have Duolingo. If no one needed to get from A to B we wouldn’t have Uber (or cars for that matter). If there is no need for a product, it will not be used. Likewise, a product that fulfills a need, but doesn’t succeed at making the process any better or easier (think Amazon Dash button) will not last long.
User needs are not static, we wouldn’t have any new products otherwise. Likewise, new products might not cater for a new need, but simply channel an existing need in a different way: Facebook didn’t create the need for approval, belonging and friendship, but it found new ways of fulfilling it.
Other products attempt to create new needs and offer themselves as a solution at the same time: While it is possible to pull this off, the value proposition will become dependent on that artificial need generation. Wedding rings are a good example of an artificial need that has managed to become so entrenched that most people take it for granted, but in reality, its only purpose is to fulfill the social expectation that jewelers have carefully crafted throughout the decades.
But we’re digressing here, the takeaway is that a product needs to fulfill a need (and do it well) or it shall fail.
Is its Value Proposition Easy to Explain?
The fact that a product addresses a user need doesn’t mean that users are aware (yet) of that need. Think of Henry Ford’s famous quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses”. The real need that users had was to move from A to B, but because they were so used to the solution within the framework of what they were exposed to (horses) they weren’t able to think outside it.
Luckily for Ford, explaining how a car solves the same problem as a horse was relatively straightforward, but other products have more trouble explaining themselves. Maybe the problem solved is something people are so accustomed to that they’ve never identified it as a problem in the first place. Maybe the product solves other, apparently unrelated problems, at the same time and that makes it harder to conceptualise.
The acid test for any product’s value proposition complexity is what I call the “explain it to your nana” test: Imagine you had to explain what Spotify’s value proposition is to your grandma: “Listen to music you love, on any device.” Simple and clear. Hello Fresh’s value proposition would be slightly more complex to explain: “Get ingredients and instructions for recipes from their catalog delivered to your home for you to cook them there.” Now imagine having to explain Airbnb, Twitch or TikTok… good luck!
Products with value propositions that can be explained in just a couple of sentences can reach wider markets more easily. Products that require you to do an MBA to understand their benefits might solve very real problems, but will find their target user demographics limited and will have to invest a lot into educating the market.
Is it Easy to use?
We have addressed the value proposition and the fact that it should be easy to explain. Now comes the third level which is the ease of use. Easy to use doesn’t necessarily mean simple, it means “just as complex as it needs to be, at any given time”. Some products manage to layer their complexity extremely well: If you’re a regular user you will only see the basics and will not be overwhelmed, but if you’re a power user you will be able to tap into those extra complex features.
There will always be an inherent complexity: if a product deals with a complex topic (video or photo editing, productivity, travel), or has to deal with a lot of regulation (healthcare, insurance, banking) or has to offer many different solutions (any computer operative system). The key here is to make each action as simple as it can be without artificially limiting the options and only adding complexity (if needed) in a smart and friendly way. The easier to use a product is, the easier it will be for millions of people to learn how to use it.
Apple products, for instance, are more expensive than competitors, but one of their USPs is having extremely well-thought-out usability. Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, the tablet or even the MP3 player, but it invented the way we interact with those three devices. Complex products like Illustrator and Photoshop have become gradually more complex with the years, they are now being overtaken by newer software like Sketch, which has started from scratch and offers (mostly) the same features, but in a much simpler way.
Only tech-savvy early adopters will have the knowhow and willingness to dedicate time to learn how to use a new product. The vast majority of users want to pick up something and instinctively know how to use it.
Is it Scalable?
A product needs to solve a real user problem that is easily understood and built in a simple and intuitive way, but there are still a few more boxes to tick. For a product to be viable (economically) it must always generate more value per user than its cost per user.
Even the most automated of companies require some human intervention, at the very least the initial human investment to develop a fully automated platform. Physical products will always be limited by the cost of the materials and manufacture, but good products (and companies) will find the most efficient way of getting those products out and make the economies of scale work for them.
A perfect scalability scenario would be a product that has the same cost regardless of the number of users that it serves, making the cost per additional user 0: think of digital products that do not need to create content like Instagram, Slack, Facebook, Houseparty, Snapchat, Skype, Zoom… their added cost per user is negligible. Further down the line, we have “mostly” digital products like Netflix or companies like Ubisoft and Blizzard: they need to spend money in content (either creating it or buying the rights for it), but that content has perfect scalability. On the other extreme, we have products that rely (mostly) on physical products: Zalando, Outfittery, Marley Spoon, or the now-infamous WeWork: the cost of their “content” (goods) per user will never scale as well, even taking into account economies of scale. This doesn’t mean products like these can’t be successful, it just means that they have to watch scalability better than others.
Does it Generate any Virtuous Circles?
The final stone to the building of a great product, the icing on the cake, is when a product manages to generate “virtuous circles”.
A virtuous cycle is anything that will make the product more valuable, or its disappearance more painful, the more a user engages with it. Think of how Spotify gains value for you the more it knows about your taste. Likewise, think of how painful it would be to lose all your contacts, or all the appointments in your calendar, or all the recipes you’ve saved on a cooking app. The former is an example of products accruing benefits (becoming better the more you use them). The latter are examples of mounting losses (the impact of the product becoming unavailable becoming more painful).
If a product manages to do this, it will have cracked the biggest challenge of all: customer retention.
Good products must have a solid value proposition and solve a real problem, be understandable by users, perform their task as easily and efficiently as possible, and become better and harder to part with the more they are used. These characteristics also build upon one another and, to a degree, shining in one of them might make up for not being as great in another. But no product can be successful being absolutely terrible at any of these five things, no matter how good they are at the others.
With these things in mind, I would suggest you now go and think of a few products and think about how they perform in each of these qualities; and I would strongly advise you write them down in the event you are asked in an interview.