Friday, August 08, 2008

Great Products in an Uncertain World

To achieve success in today's ever-changing and unpredictable markets, competitive businesses need to rethink and reframe their strategies across the board.

Large companies today often get too caught up in chasing revenue and lose touch with what their customers actually want.
Smaller startup's today are passionate with ideas, adrenaline and dollars-signs-in-their-eyes - but they often go to market with no ability to adapt and listen to their users. They cannot "sense and respond" to evolve their products.

1. Unrelenting Chaotic Marketplace

Today's business climate in virtually every segment is in flux. Uncertainty and confusion has arrived. Technology and social trends have turned many business models either upside down (Music) or into some state of radical transformation (Travel). I believe that this is not just a phase, but that you can pretty much assume that things will continually be continually changing. And you can not "easily" predict it. While some can (Steve Jobs), the vast majority of us will struggle to understand where things will be just one year from now. We are living in a new world of complexity, transformation and disruption.

The good news is that change brings opportunity. Smaller, newer and smarter players can challenge industry norms and seize the day. The key now is to change your ways and embrace the new world order.

2. Companies Must Adapt

Companies must develop a new set of organizational competencies: qualitative customer research to better understand customer behaviors and motivations; an open design process to reframe possibilities and rapidly translate new ideas into great customer experiences; and agile technological implementation to quickly prototype ideas, getting them from the whiteboard out into the world where people can respond to them.

Pragmatic Marketing is well known for its popular "Market-Driven" approach to building products. When applied this can be somewhat verbose and can take a "manufacturing view" of building products which is more suited for larger product or software companies (HP, Kodak, Sun). This process is holistic and weaves together all key driving requirement inputs (Sales, Marketing, User, Competitive, Consumer Research) into feature sets and release plans. But this verbose process is increasingly getting difficult in today's fast moving and dynamic consumer market where it’s hard to guess ahead of the curve what the right product should be.

My recommendation is that we take queues from some of the new companies that are doing it right. Flickr continues to be a great example of a better way to do this. Yahoo originally had their own "Yahoo Photo" service and this could not keep up with sheer velocity of the and new aggressive Flickr (they wisely bought them). You can go to Flickr's about page and get a sense of how they do this. They start with a vision, strategy and a process to get there. Then over time the feature sets evolve to support this. This is truly an agile product process.

3. Evolving Your Approach

My point is not that companies need to scrap what they are doing today, but more, rethink think a bit and particularly the part where you incorporate customer insights into the design process.

Outside-In - Tim O’Reilly has a term called “Outside-In”.
This is where the experience is a key driving force into the product process. The converse of that is where a brand wants to take itself into the market (Inside-Out approach). The key is to take a more balanced approach of both. Bottom line, experience can and should be a major driver in strategy.

Human Complexity - Think of the messy complexity of real human life.
We need to treat people more holistically, treat them as people not as some market opportunity or as an over simplified market segment. The user is not only a potential customer and revenue opportunity but have all the depth of a real person with many levels of motivations and goals. Where we would traditionally do user centered design and surface a user’s Goals and Tasks. It’s important to go even further here and understand their daily life realities and explore factors such as emotions, context and real meaning.

Key to achieving this is studying your customers as real people through qualitative and quantitative research. I have found that very few startups are doing this today.

Product Simplification - Sometimes, Products are structured, the way the organization works.
Think major government, bank or a telco. Have you ever interacted with Verizon and they deal with you a separate person across their different divisions and groups (Wireless, Broadband)?

Another pitfall is cramming complexity into one product, instead of keeping simplicity as a main theme. Companies keep bloating there offerings thinking more equals better. Someone once said “Simplicity is complexity resolved”. Google is a great example of a company that has become very large in scope, but still maintains a simple (almost no graphics) user start experience.

Because consumers are very busy and fickle they prefer to deal with brands that have more usefulness (utility) and have limited brand experience. This is one of the lessons from the Web2.0 phenomena.

Embrace the complexity in the market. Deliver radically simple (sorry Eloan).

Design as Activity - Design is often thought of as ascetics or the rock-star savior. It’s the creation of "that thing" that the kids with cool shoes do. And we do it every now and then when its needed. Design should be a core competency, and a facilitation role that delivers experiences. Business, Technical, Creative and User’s are all involved in the design process. Great design is felt, and has a wowing effect, but also can be seamless and beautifully subtle. Great products also repeatedly Wow us with each release (think iPod, which delights us continually overtime).

Design is a core competency.

Final Words

Successful companies should be adapting the ways they think about their products and customers. Embrace complexity by staging releases over time to reveal a greater vision. New technologies and highly iterative roadmaps make it easier to start to create more consumer centric experiences.

Do you have a product process that allows you to continually deliver "wowing" customer experiences?


Anonymous said...

great points. traditional product management is not the same as the new web product management.


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