Problem Solving may not be something that many product teams admit to doing but this article talks about why it should be your primary focus.

Shipping. It’s something humans have been doing for centuries. It started as a way to transport valuable goods such as silk, tea and spices to and from distant lands. Traditional shipping is still something that happens today but for those of us that work in tech, it, of course, has come to have a somewhat different meaning. The vessels are a little different, the goods are less physical but the concept remains — we to deliver value. Or do we?

Viva la evolution!

First. Let’s look at how the technology world has evolved over the last couple of decades. This article from Intercom talks about how for decades software was sold using what they call feature-based marketing. In layman terms, selling products started with what the company is trying to sell, and then tell people why they should buy it. This worked and for decades products were sold like this example from an old technology sales catalogue:

An old feature-rich advertisement for Microsoft Office. Source: Randy von Liski https://flic.kr/p/7CRoUu

Products soon represented digital Swiss Army Knives, in that they over-promised and under-delivered. became the de-facto differentiator. If you look at many industries you can see how many industries go through these feature-saturated moments. Some are still very much in this stage.

Swiss Army Knife Photo by Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash

The folks over at UIE mapped these stages of a market in their growth maturity model, which if you’re not familiar with it is a great representation of how industries evolve through these four stages:

  1. Technology — First the technology is being figured out. Products are ugly and usually expensive. Think Virtual Reality today.
  2. Features — There is a demand for technology and features are the differentiator for different products. Think about the mobile phone industry in the early 00s before the iPhone.
  3. Experience — The market is saturated and product experience becomes the differentiator in the market. Think about the mobile phone industry post iPhone launch.
  4. Commodity — In this stage, the products are part of the fabric of society. They are ubiquitous and there is no distinction from one offering to the next. They are a commodity. Think plane wifi.

🌟Extra Credit — Focus on features actually had detrimental impacts on some companies. Maybe, most infamously — Kodak. A great article from The Economist

Let’s look at that transition from Feature-focused to Experience-Focused.

Don’t start with the What, start with the Why?

As barriers to entry for many markets got reduced with the evolution of those little things called the internet, globalisation and general technological innovation. It became easier than ever to build a product, which means many market landscapes got increasingly competitive and traditional feature-based marketing was not enough of a differentiator. Companies had to offer more and to quote that famous 90s marketing campaign by Apple — “Think Different”. One such company which is a great demonstration of this is Airbnb.

Airbnb On Stage. Source: https://press.airbnb.com/fast-facts/

Before 2008 your only real choice to stay somewhere other than your house was in a large chain hotel. If you look at the annual report for a large traditional hotel chain back in the industry’s feature rich era — key investor highlights boast features i.e. the launch of new brands, new amenities and new loyalty programs. Airbnb started to focus on the experience by seeing their product through their customer’s eyes. They developed a two-way trust system, focused on the experience and made a product that focused on real people. It was a success. Fast forward to 2018 and they are now bigger than all of the worlds major hotel chains combined. How did those hotel chains adapt? Well interestingly if you look at the annual report for a large traditional hotel chain from 2017, one of the biggest highlights (literal large bold lettering) in the report shows a shift in their strategy. They detail how they have moved away from features toward experience. Coincidence? No. It came down to focus. One company (Airbnb) looked beyond the obvious and discovered an unfulfilled need for human connection and experience aka the why. In turn, expectations changed and those that would once be considered leaders in the market started looking at these new contenders in order to avoid an early demise and even try to replicate some of their success.

🌟Extra Credit — This isn’t magic. In fact, this has been written about a lot. If you’re interested then I’d highly recommend you read Simon Sinek’s work in which he talks about the golden circle (Thanks to my colleague Katy Jimenez for introducing me)

Don’t Solely Rely On Product Roadmaps

Source: The 7 Deadly Sins Of User Research via User Focus

Roadmaps. Anyone that works in a product organisation has been there. Sitting in meetings reviewing product roadmaps and talking about all of the initiatives that you are going to be working on. The problem with the way traditional enterprises utilise roadmaps is how they’re formed and how they’re used. Let’s continue using the maritime theme that we began with:

I’m a sailor and I’m setting sail to bountiful distant lands (Product Vision). The destination is decided by a numer of factors but more often than not it can come down to:

I’m a well experienced sailor (Gut Instinct *sighs*), I’ve examined and overheard a few fellow sailors talking about treasure (Industry & Competitor Analysis) or admiral’s orders (Executive Decision)

Our destination is decided upon. For our route or map, we might do a number of the below:

Decide to set sail immediatly, afterall we know these waters(Domain Experts *double sigh*). We might even, validate our destination decision with our crew (Stakeholder BuyIn) or even present our destination to treasure buyers (Market Research).

Excellent. We’re ready to set sail but don’t worry we’ve got the map. As we start navigating, we didn’t anticipate the lack of wind, the strong currents or other [insert maritime hazards](Unforseen Product Delveopment Issues). That’s fine we’re agile and lean, we can throw things overboard and come back to them (MVP misuse). By the time you arrive in your ship you arrive with a deflated dinghy. The lands aren’t bountiful and the natives are perplexed as to why you would even go there in the first place. We followed the map, what went wrong?

The Vision/The Reality (Photo by Shaah Shahidh on Unsplash & Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash)

(Sorry, I got carried away with the maritime theme but I hope that was clear. In the product world, we compile a backlog of features to build. They are requests or ideas from our customers, sales team or senior stakeholders. They might even be features that our competitors already have. They “feel” indispensable. We put together a business case explaining what value they will bring. And sometimes we are really onto something. This may have been fine in that feature-based marketing era but in order to build something that meets an unfulfilled need you need to understand the underlying problem. Many organisations rarely take the time to articulate the problem properly, before deciding on the solution.

Photo by Himesh Kumar Behera on Unsplash

I’m not saying ditch product roadmaps but just like you wouldn’t use a map without a compass, we should use insights and identified from solid User research to aid in our decision making. You should be able to combine the serendipitous insights gained from real User Research (not market research!) with your roadmap. These become your compass and when combined with the vision can help ensure you are heading in the right direction. Hopefully…..before it’s too late.

Summary

If you follow the three points outlined in this article, it will help your product deliver real value to your customers’ lives. From a product strategy perspective, you can go from saying “look at all of our great features” to “we understand your problem and we can it”. A very powerful position to be in for any product team. So:

  • Don’t be a Swiss Army Knife — don’t over promise and under-deliver. Most probably, features are not the differentiator that they used to be.
  • Don’t start with the What, start with the Why? Look beyond the obvious and understand the problem you are trying to solve. In doing so you’re more than likely to discover the real unfulfilled need that should be your focus.
  • Don’t rely solely on product roadmaps. Use insights and real research to help guide your journey to the Product Vision. These will help you steer the ship in the right direction.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Albert Einstein

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