A Practical Foundation for Product Strategy
Let’s be clear: there are many, many ways to design a product, and none of them are perfect for every situation. Your method will depend on the maturity of your organization, the resources on your team, the complexity of the project, and your own skill set. In a larger organization there is likely already a process and/or mentors to guide things but smaller companies often have people with with more experience making things as opposed to strategy work.
No one seems sure how many startups fail each year, but the general consensus is that it’s a lot. Having a well designed product that meets a genuine need is a great way to increase your chance of success. This article outlines a few basic steps that should help you create your own product strategy, customizable to your needs and situation.
Getting Started: Take Inventory
The situation can be radically different from one project to the next, so always start by seeing what you’ve got to work with. First question: Is there a business strategy? I believe that product strategies exist to support business strategies, so I cannot overemphasize how important it is to have something that tells you what you’re trying to accomplish. How are you generating revenue? Do you have any inherent advantages? Is there a market opportunity that’s driving your project? These will direct your efforts and possibly highlight early issues. Is there a brand strategy? Are there personality traits or brand promises that can help guide your thinking? Finally, has anyone conducted any preliminary research? Competitive analysis, gap analysis, market research, ethnographies, context labs… it can get a bit nuts to be honest but it all helps you in the next step. If none exists then you should definitely do some.
These are the core of your strategy and should be derived from the combination of the business strategy and your research. You need at least one, but having more will give you greater flexibility later and give you more to test and develop. Each one should outline a belief about a premise and a result. For example, “Our audience will be more likely to use (and share) a site that offers competition as part of the experience.” Stake your claim and then explain a bit about why you think it’s true. Taken together, your hypotheses should start to outline the the opportunity that the product will take advantage of. Your goal is to start testing these hypotheses as quickly and easily as possible. Start with the riskiest assumption and go from there.
With your hypotheses in place your product should be taking shape, so now is a good time to think about how to communicate it. I like to keep these short, like an elevator pitch. I usually repurpose the Positioning Statement offered by Geoffrey Moore in his book Crossing the Chasm which basically goes:
For (target customers) who (statement of primary opportunity), (ourproduct name) is a (product category) that (key benefit, reason to buy). Unlike (primary competitive alternative), our product (statement of primary differentiation).
It’s not a flashy and new technique, but if used properly it can clearly communicate the basic outline of what we’re making, and can also be a bit inspiring. Remember that the goal here is to give people a quick outline of what you’re making rather than getting into the details.
Desired Product Outcomes
Okay, now get into details. What will things look like when your product is a success? What will be better and what will be different? It can be tempting to just go for features at this point, but having outcomes will serve you better. They are inherently measureable because they describe a desired result.
Second, the outcomes will help you to weigh and prioritize the features you do eventually come up with. An example of an outcome could be “Create better ways of <the thing you provide> that focus on <way you do it differently>.” Spend the time to create great outcomes and when you achieve them, if your hypotheses are right, you’ll likely have a great product.
Bonus Points: Design Principles
Depending on how articulated your brand is, design principles can range from nice-to-have to super-duper-important. These principles should outline what kinds of design ideals your product will hold. Will it be fun? Serious? Trustworthy? Slick? Approachable? Utilitarian? Defining these characteristics will help you understand what your product should feel like, and what it should value and emphasize.
Sooo, ship it?
I want to emphasize again that this is simply a starting point. How much further you need to go and what tools or methodologies you choose to employ are entirely up to you and your situation. The goal here is to create a simple starting point for organizations looking to realize the very real benefits of the sometimes confusing and always changing world of product strategy.