If there is a single message that qualifies as canon in the product management world, it is this:
Successful products solve a real problem that real people have.
After taking multiple product management courses, and devouring the books, podcasts and newsletters when I was trying to break into the field, this was the one takeaway that I had drilled into me over and over again. And for good reason!
Ignore this advice and you’re likely to create something that, no matter how slick and cool it may look, nobody actually wants to use. And it’s true that despite this message’s apparent simplicity and ubiquity, far too many big companies still ignore it, and instead chase after the newest sexy technology or what will make the biggest PR splash.
And yet, even after internalizing this important adage…I couldn’t help but feel that there was something crucial still missing.
My dilemma reminded me of the Underpants Gnomes from South Park. Their business plan was: Phase 1. Collect underpants. Phase 2. ??? Phase 3. Profit! Except this version is Phase 1. Identify customer need. Phase 2. ??? Phase 3. Successful product!
I felt the conventional wisdom I’d learned about product management still had a huge gap in it: what the heck is step two? How do you actually come up with the brilliant idea that will solve your customer’s problem?
Through my four years working in product management at a clean energy market research firm, and then a digital media company, I’ve gotten to launch both successful and unsuccessful products, and observe up close lots of brilliant and creative colleagues, from engineers and designers to analysts and writers. After deep observation and plenty of trial and error, I’ve discovered a few key ingredients that are essential to coming up with successful product ideas.
To be clear, if there is a secret formula for cranking out brilliant product ideas, I haven’t found it. You cannot prescribe creativity. The moment of creative spark or idea generation happens differently each time, and can often come from the most unexpected sources. Instead, what I’ve found is possible is to prime your team for coming up with those ideas, and differentiate the winners from the duds, by developing strong foundational knowledge around three things: customer intuition, product vision and measurable goals.
You need to understand your customers. This is non-negotiable, and unfortunately, there are no shortcuts — developing customer intuition takes time, dedication and sweat.
In order to demonstrate what it means to understand your customers, here are a few examples of what it is not:
- Knowing their demographic stats: age, gender, location, etc.
- Knowing what they think about your product
- Knowing what competitive products they use
- Knowing their job title/description
All of these details are necessary to understanding your customers, but they aren’t sufficient. In order to truly understand your customers, you need to know them as people — their habits, their passions, motivations, and frustrations.
What do they wake up thinking about in the mornings? What makes them tick? How do they define success in their jobs and lives? What is the best part of their day? And the worst? What is their environment like? How do they navigate their relationships? What keeps them from getting stuff done?
There is no substitute for in-person, firsthand conversations when it comes to developing customer intuition. Go to their homes or their workplaces and ask them those questions. Observe their environments and interactions. Record every interview if possible, and take copious notes about what is not captured on the recording, even stuff you might initially assume is not important.
Spend time looking over all of this raw data to try to identify patterns and tease out meaning. Some of the things you and your team might say when processing the interviews are: “When he said that, I think he really meant this.” “This thing that Mark said reminds me of something Olivia said.” “He totally rolled his eyes when he said this, which makes me think it’s not sincere.”
My colleagues and I have spent hours dissecting these clues and discussing our customers in psychoanalytic terms — what really motivates them, what they’re trying to project to the world and what they’re trying to hide. If you get into this territory, you’re doing something right.
After spending enough time talking to your customers, analyzing the patterns in your findings, and documenting the deeper insights that emerge, you will have developed a well-honed ‘spidey sense’ of customer intuition: a deep understanding of your customers’ needs, goals and lives. The value of this intuition cannot be overstated — it will help you immediately discern whether a given product idea works for your customer, whether it would make them jump for joy or shrug.
You need to understand what you want your product to be. A product vision is a one to two sentence statement about the role you see your product playing in people’s lives. A product vision statement should be:
- Strategic: It should align with your company’s overall strategy and positioning.
- Aspirational: Allow yourself to dream big here — the vision doesn’t have to be achievable within the next quarter or even year. It’s a north star to be striving towards.
- Broad: A vision should be able to be applied to a whole suite of product ideas rather than a single feature — it’s a holistic view of the impact your product will have on your customers’ lives.
In order to get there, it helps to reflect on the answers to the following questions.
- The Audience: Who is it for?
- The Value Proposition: What value does it provide for your customers?
- Core Competencies: What are you uniquely positioned to offer that your customers can’t get elsewhere?
Forcing yourself to distill these thoughts into a single statement is a great exercise to clarify your thinking and get your team aligned on what you’re actually trying to achieve.
See a well-known example of a product vision statement from Google:
Use the product vision to guide your product strategy and priorities. Look for ideas in the gaps between where your product is now and your long-term vision. Discard ideas that don’t fit with your long-term vision, and promote ones that bring you closer to it.
You need to understand what you’re aiming to achieve. Here’s where you link your product vision with something that’s actionable, measurable and incremental. It’s time to get down and dirty with data. Pinpoint the signal that will indicate to you that you are on course to achieving your product vision.
A goal should be:
- Actionable: It is a metric that you can directly impact with product ideas.
- Measurable: You can track this metric quantitatively. You can answer the question “did we achieve this goal?” with yes or no.
- Incremental: A good goal is not what’s waiting at the top of the mountain. It’s a pit stop you pass on the way up. It should be ambitious, but achievable within a reasonable time frame.
A goal gives focus to your product ideation. Instead of asking “what can we build?”, which can feel overly broad and squishy, it narrows the question to “what will move this metric?”, which more directly inspires product ideas. It’s also a useful yardstick by which to compare competing product ideas. Elevate the ideas that have the best potential for achieving your goal.