How to build products on a stable foundation 🏠
With some discipline and deliberate practice you can be building purposeful products in no time.
There’s really no simple or straightforward way to build products. Everyone has their own processes and flavors of how they build, but there are very important pieces that should be added to your plans to truly ensure you’re solving the right problem with the right solution for the right end user. The processes can take different forms based on scenarios in which you are building within (budget, speed, necessity, etc.) and the framework you are operating in as well as the risk level you're willing to take. Are you a new and differentiated product offering? Are you doing it better than someone else? Is it the same sort of solution that others have but in a frictionless experience? These are some of the things you need to consider when building or else you will not have a stable foundation. Let’s dive into a few (but not exhaustive) focus points.
First, we can start with a question: When you build a house, would you expect to do this on a rock solid foundation or a shaky one that you’ve half assed when pouring the concrete because you were so excited to put the framing on? Building products ties back to this analogy in a meaningful way. If you start with a bad foundation it can affect everything else on top of it and….it can collapse! 😱
Here are a few key early questions to ask yourself here -
What problem am I solving?
Who are the key personas?
Have I set the right goals and KPIs to measure success?
Why would a customer use this? Why would a customer choose my product? Is it an efficiency play? Is it truly impacting someone's life in a meaningful way?
Do I know enough about the area I am building in? Is there data to support my idea(s) at a macro level (industry and beyond) and more micro level (competitors)?
Can I project longevity with the product or do I need a multi-dimensional product roadmap?
Have I developed a 1-pager and shopped it around to key stakeholders and people I trust to gain candid feedback?
These are just a few of the questions to answer amongst a swath of other things that will be important to sort out such as: do I have the horses to execute? This factors in with other logistics and strategy based questions. It’s always important to start with answering the question of WHY am I doing this and is it worth the investment of resources and time? Putting things in perspective of the value of time is crucial as it puts a cost on the human hours going into the build and forces you to make sure it's valuable for team members to be focused on it. As you work through these key foundational questions, it will provide clarity and increase your confidence in making decisions to move forward. Once you decide you’ve found the right problem to solve, have the right solution (or at least a damn good hypothesis), then you know it's worth the time you are about to invest in it. Next, it's time to pressure test the idea.
Psychographic analysis and narrowing down your targeted customers provide the ability to stay focused and keep the product from being too much of a scatter shot when building. Defining the personas are extremely important so you aren’t trying to be everything to everyone, which never really works.
This leads to the next step of proving your hypothesis: putting the solution in some shape or form in front of prospective users. This is considered UXR or user experience research/testing. It's an area most businesses FAR underspend on, but can significantly help cut costs on helping validate that their ideas/solution(s) will likely be favorably received. It ALSO helps you understand certain aspects that can be improved before you start shipping to users 🚢. Tests should be set up in ways that help answer key questions or main elements of the hypothesis you have. Tying back to the foundation analogy, you are continuing to pour the concrete and ensuring the foundation in which the framing is set on will be stable and sound. It's easy to get ahead of yourself and want to skip this step, but let us give you advice from people who have in the past....Don't.
After testing and iterating on the product experience to ensure you’ve validated the ideas and hypothesis and you feel good about the projected outcomes, it’s time to start concepting things out within the product team. This may all happen at different cadences, and product folks may choose to use different approaches, but we feel pretty confident that if you answer at least a few key questions up front and get feedback, you will be far more likely to succeed in your product journey.
Evolving design concepts based on user testing, data, and proving (or disproving!) a hypothesis is always a fun part of the process to get creative with ways of how the UI and customer facing experience will work. If you've followed the right steps, at this point, you have all the right ingredients to bake the cake, now it's just about executing before someone else bakes the same cake. Bringing in key contributors and stakeholders should happen here after the foundation is built to ensure you have buy-in, but also bringing everyone along for the journey to create a unified front towards solving the problem.
During the concepting and design process, the team will almost certainly come up with tons of great ideas. It's important the product leader ground the team in remaining focused and not adding every bell and whistle which can delay shipping the product and delay its potential impact. A backlog will naturally come from the conversations, white boarding sessions, and prototyping. This is another crucial point where the product leader should capture the ideas and appropriately pop the ideas in the backlog to ensure there is order in the process. Prioritization will be necessary to determine features based on customer impact and cost to build. Mapping a minimum viable product (MVP) is a great way to stay focused and not get caught up in layering more than what is truly necessary to get your product in the hands of users.
From here, many additional important steps will follow that also fall on the product owner to flex their skills in the very much “art and science” nature of mapping out a roadmap and executing on it in the short, mid, long term. This will require a very close relationship with your engineering, analytics, design, security, marketing teams and plugging them into the process. It’s not easy, but it's fun if you love the challenge of being a GM of your own domain. We've found that forging personal relationships with ALL of the key contributors, from the most junior to the most senior will pay dividends when the waters get turbulent and you need to rally the troops. And you can count on that happening 🙃.
Stability in the early stages of product planning - focus and discipline in what you want to do and why - will deepen your conviction in the following steps as you get into the build. So often products are built based on personal preferences or unvalidated ideas, but you have to stay objective in your approach. You aren’t solving for you, you are solving for your prospective customers, the personas you’ve mapped out and the challenges they face in the world. Take the time early in the process to pressure test every aspect you can think of and validate to the best of your ability. It’s OK for the idea to not prove out. In fact, it would be a lot worse if you spent 4-6 months building something that no one ended up using, and then your ass is on the line to make it work.
So, build on a stable foundation, and have fun doing it. Now, go have an impact on the digital world! 👊
A version of this article appeared on BuiltIn.