Imagine you’re about to start building a product. You have an idea. You have a team. You’ve done your research, you’ve talked to your users. You’ve seen them struggle with a problem and you’ve observed their workarounds. You’ve identified the right problem you’re going to solve.
You’re about to build your roadmap and invest resources in developing a product. It will take you about six weeks to get to an MVP, maybe two months. How did you decide what to build? How did you validate that decision?
Validate is a strong word. There are various research methods and feedback loops that are used during a product development cycle to gather data and help guide decisions. Data that can be collected during a product cycle has varying degrees of certainty. This Nielsen Norman Group article plots different types of data as Qualitative vs Quantitative and Attitudinal vs Behavioral. The highest certainty of data is Quantitative (has statistical significance) plus Behavioral (what people actually do). This is the best method to measure the success of a product. In order to use this method, there needs to be a working product at scale.
Before we start building a product, we should know exactly what problem we’re solving for our users from Qualitative and Behavioral research we’ve done. We should know exactly what our success metrics are based on business analysis and opportunity sizing. We should have ideated, sketched and prototyped a bunch of possibilities and put them in front of our users to help guide decisions. But none of this will tell us with a high level of certainty what product will be successful.
There’s a growing notion that we need data to validate every decision being made, but data is an outcome of measurement and we can’t measure something that doesn’t exist yet. There is no amount of data before a product exists, that can tell us which product direction will actually be successful. There are many tools and methods we can use to guide decisions, such as lean product development, design thinking, failing fast, user research, and others; however, I would like to suggest that there may be other things more valuable than data when deciding what product to build.
There comes a point where the mind takes a leap — call it intuition or what you will — and comes out upon a higher plane of knowledge, but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap.
– Albert Einstein
When we’re building a new product, we often need to take a few leaps; a leap of faith to try something new and a leap in creativity to do something that hasn’t been done before. We need to come up with our best hypothesis of what product will solve a given problem. Most of the time, that hypothesis is not a direct outcome of validated findings, but a combination of data and our best intuitive guess of what it should be.
I don’t mean the kind of intuition where we go with the first thing that comes to mind. I mean a very thoughtful kind of intuition; an outcome of many data sources, past and present, successes and failures.
The power of intuitive thinking is that it doesn’t only take into account everything related to a given problem but subconsciously brings forth unrelated ideas and experiences until it culminates into one cohesive new vision. Intuition sums up all our prior knowledge and experience and gives rise to new ideas.
Silicon Valley has created a culture where intuition doesn’t count for much, and it’s understandable, mistakes are costly. We certainly have ways to minimize the costs like prototyping, user testing and failing fast, but we don’t put enough emphasis on one of the best tools we have to create, invent and go from zero to one.
Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.
– Steve Jobs
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
– Albert Einstein
Imagination is our ability to produce ideas and visualizations in the mind without an immediate input from our senses. Imagination is essential in our effort to apply our knowledge and experience in solving problems. Imagination is the narrative of how a story unfolds before the story begins.
Products are ways to manipulate our environment to change our story. Airbnb has shaped the stories of our travels, Uber has changed the stories of how we get around town, and fitness apps have enhanced the stories of how we get in shape.
To build a successful product we have to be able to imagine how the product will shape and alter the story of our users. We have to be able to visualize how the story unfolds over time and how it evolves as the users’ needs change. We have to imagine how users will triumph and struggle, be delighted and lose interest and how the product will help them overcome obstacles to achieve the desired outcome.
I went on a small quest to find great quotes about imagination from Silicon Valley founders and entrepreneurs, and found almost none. I fear that in our over-reliance on data, research, methods, process and ideologies, we’ve left imagination by the wayside.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most successful founders and product leaders. I have experienced first hand the incredible impact of their imagination. They weave amazing stories and tell captivating narratives of how their products will improve users’ experiences and reshape people’s lives.
To build the future, we need to imagine it in vivid detail.
Creating something new requires intuition, imagination and taking a leap into the unknown. Clarity of purpose, vision and the ability to envision a story are key to the product’s success. Courage is essential.
Knowing whether or not something is successful requires data and to gather that data we need something that can be measured. We need a working product at scale and to get to it we need to build something new. This something new is unmeasured and invalidated. In a world that constantly asks for more and more data, that is a risky proposition.
Doing something new is scary, and doing something truly different, has the most risk. A lot of people will ask for proof or will say that it won’t work. Most people are naturally risk-averse and more comfortable with the familiar. To create a new product we need courage to take the risk and an unwavering conviction in our vision to get to a measurable, viable product.
Very few products are ever successful from the first release. If we look at the growth curve of successful companies like Airbnb, Facebook and Spotify, it took them a few years and a few versions to get it right. After a viable product was live, these companies were relentless in gathering data, measuring, learning, iterating and inching their way to success. But the biggest leap in innovation happened between nothing and version one, and that’s the part that requires the most courage.
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