Conventional wisdom, and the conventional way of doing things, may be right for certain situations, but developing and bringing new products to market is definitely not one of them. In fact, many very good companies often make some critical mistakes and the wrong assumptions. This widely experienced consultant describes ten such mistakes and their consequences.
Bad products are everywhere — products that simplyaren’t useful, don’t work right, are too difficult to figure out, or take forever to sell. Little wonder, as there are so many things that have to go right in order to create a successful product. Still, there are some things that go wrong so frequently and are so damaging that they are clearly at the root of the vast majority of bad products.
In this article, we review the common pitfalls of product development and examine why organizations so easily fall into these traps.
1. Confusing customer requirements with product requirements
Product teams often look to the marketing team, or the sales function or the customer to help them define the product to be built. If it’s a custom product, or contract product development work, then it may be fine to have the marketing or sales team define the product. But this approach rarely delivers innovative products that meet the needs of a wide range of customers.
Typically, the marketing people communicate with the salespeople and the customers, and they are therefore expected to be the most knowledgeable about what product is required. In fact, this line of communication results in very few good products, for several reasons.
First, customers don’t necessarily know what they want — not because they aren’t smart enough to know, but because it is difficult for them to articulate a specific product solution without first seeing a prototype or the product itself.
Second, customers don’t know what is possible. They do not have the time or expertise to stay abreast of the many developments in technology that may influence product solutions.
Third, customers aren’t in a position to visualize the whole range of product needs and opportunities. They are busy with their own lives and jobs, and have little time to reflect on how their own needs may overlap with the needs of others.
It is the job of product management to deeply understand the target market and its needs, and to work to combine what is possible with what is desirable, to create products that solve real problems. This is why top product managers often come from the engineering ranks; they understand what is possible, and when they see an unmet need they are often able to envision new and innovative solutions.
Product marketing is equally important, but in a very different way. It is the marketer’s job to communicate what the product can do for the target market, and to support the sales channel with the tools they need to sell it effectively. Good product marketing is difficult and critical, but it has little to do with inventing the actual product.
2. Confusing innovation with value
Innovation without a clear purpose is simply technology looking for a problem to solve. There are countless products on the market today simply because it became possible to create them, not necessarily because these products solved a real problem, or solved a problem better than other solutions that were already available.
What motivates product engineers may not be the same as what motivates other members of the product team. Engineers care a great deal about the technical challenge itself, and the different technologies they may have the opportunity to learn about and use. However, if the engineering team is provided with a clear vision and product strategy, and has direct understanding of customer problems, they can often come up with valuefilled breakthrough products.
3. Confusing yourself with your customer
It is very natural for product teams to think they are more like their target customer than they really are. There are many negative consequences of this confused thinking, but the most common one is an unusable product. The product may make perfect sense to its creators, but its merits are totally lost on the customers for whom it is intended.
Organizations live and breathe their new products for months or years at a time, but the target customer may be totally unaware of the product’s existence, or perhaps just too busy to try it out.
To stay honest and on track, organizations must put their products in front of their target customers, and carefully consider how they respond. After all, the customers’ opinions of the product, not the creators’ opinion, is what’s important.
Many of today’s products are unusable because the product is poorly designed and was not tested for usability. Even when usability is tested, it is often too little and too late in the product’s lifecycle to be helpful.
Any company that hasn’t recently tested its product for usability is likely to gain valuable insights from doing so. The goal is to run usability testing with target customers, redesigning the product as necessary — until the test subjects emerge enthusiastic and eager to buy.
Even companies that routinely perform usability testing often postpone this activity until after engineering has begun to build the product. This creates pressure to downplay the results and lower the standards, so as not to delay the production schedule or compromise the budget.
The use of prototypes during usability testing can help to ensure that the product you eventually build will, in fact, be usable and desirable.
4. Confusing the customer with the user
It is remarkable how often product developers fail to make a distinction between customers and users. In truth, these groups typically bring very different needs to the table — for example, the person who buys the product to address a business requirement may not have the same concerns as the people who sit down to use the product every day.
Salespeople understand this distinction, and often break down the customers in a company according to their influence in making the purchase. But too often the product team is exposed only to the customers — that is, the buyers or economic decision makers. While these customers may do their best to represent the needs of the actual users, it is still critical that product creators have a first-hand understanding of the people who will be using the product. The technique of user profiling can help to address this issue early in the process.
5. Confusing features with benefits
It is very easy for product creators to become preoccupied with the specifics of the features in a product and to lose sight of the benefits those features provide. The product’s value proposition — which should be crystal clear, simple and compelling — needs to speak to the benefits, not the features. For this to happen, an organization must have a deep understanding of its target market. Similarly, the people in that market must perceive that the product solves a problem that is real to them.
There are several possible reasons for poor value propositions — the most common is that the product is not solving a problem that the customer is overly concerned about. It may be interesting technology still looking for the right application; or it may be a valuable and useful product, but not for the people in the target market. It may also be that the product is simply too expensive relative to the benefits.
The product may in fact be ideal for the target market and very economically priced, but the product messaging may be so complex that the value is not getting through. The one-minute benchmark is a good one to follow? that is, the target customer needs to be able to understand and appreciate the product in less than a minute; otherwise, there’s either a problem with the messaging or the value of the product.
6. Confusing building right product with building product right
Doing a good job of building a product is often correlated with process goals such as scheduling, budget and quality. These benchmarks correspond to building the product right — that is, doing a good job of building a product that works reliably and performs its functions as required. Unfortunately, all this effort is for naught if the product has no value to the customer — in other words, the product team has to build the right product.
In general, usability testing evaluates whether the right product was built, while quality assurance looks at whether the product was built right. Quality assurance is more easily quantifiable than usability, but both aspects of product development are essential.
7. Confusing a good product with a good business model
Countless good products have been unable to sustain a business. Building a good product is not enough on its own. The product needs to sustain the business. It takes both to be successful. It is remarkable how often product developers fail to make a distinction between customers and users. In truth, these groups typically bring very different needs to the table — for example, the person who buys the product to address a business requirement may not have the same concerns as the people who sit down to use the product every day.
A good product must support, and be aligned with, the company’s business model. Sometimes this can be difficult. Consider TiVo, whose mission was to dramatically improve the television viewing experience. The product consistently wins rave reviews, but the company continues to struggle to find a viable business model.
The best product and a solid business model will still fail if an organization is not set up to distribute and sell the product effectively. A company that cannot support its product will not get the response it is hoping for.
Management needs to examine the organization’s structure and its business, sales and distribution models to decide if the product that is being created can be effectively sold and supported. It is usually much easier to adjust the product to fit the company structure and business model than it is to change the company to meet the needs of the product.
This is especially important to consider after acquisitions or changes in the company business strategy. Remember that these whole-product issues are just as important as the product itself, and that many otherwise good products have languished in the wrong company.
8. Confusing emotional features with unimportant features
One of the most neglected aspects of product definition is the emotional element. Put bluntly, it is hard to get excited about a boring product. Yet when products are being defined, inspiring features and ideas are almost always the first to get cut in the near-constant negotiation to develop a product in the desired time frame.
It is relatively easy to come up with a product that has a solid list of functional and practical features, but it is more difficult to create one that generates the desired enthusiasm and loyalty among customers. Without that enthusiasm and excitement, it is much harder to build a community of loyal customers, which makes it much harder to sell and support the product.
Sometimes it is the features of products themselves that are inspiring, and sometimes it is a quality that is a little less obvious, like the emotional impact of the visual design.
Many product teams treat visual design as an afterthought. Near the end of the product development process, they find a graphics design firm to come up with icons, colours or packaging that will lend professionalism to their product. But design is a much bigger factor in the user experience than most product teams realize.
The best way to assess the emotional desirability of a product early in its life cycle is to observe the response of target customers during user testing. It may be necessary to experiment with several different ideas, but the right choice will be obvious instantly in the response of the test subjects.
9. Confusing improving functionality with improving product
Faced with a struggling product, teams race frantically to implement new features they hope will address the problems and satisfy customers.
New features are added, based on the recommendation of others: “The customer likes the product but really needs it to do XYZ” (the sales force); “We simply have to add X and Y and Z immediately because our competition is killing us” (marketing folks). Or worse, the product team takes a shotgun approach: “We’ve tried X and Y, so it must be A and B that we’re missing.”
The product may in fact be lacking some crucial functionality, but, more likely, it is suffering from one or more of the common problems noted in this article. Ironically, adding features often exacerbates the problem, because more features tend to make a product more complex, more difficult to use, and harder to market. On the contrary, a good product team is constantly improving the product by making it more usable and accessible to an ever-wider audience of target customers.
10. Confusing product launch with success
Finally, many product teams lose sight of the real measure of success. Success is not launching on time, or getting good reviews from the press, or winning competitive evaluations, or getting the product installed successfully, or even landing major new customers and cashing the big checks that come along with those sales.
While these are all good things, they don’t speak to the ultimate goal of having happy customers successfully using your product. Unfortunately, many product teams stop short of this goal. They give up too soon; they move on to the next product, or they get distracted.
It is very easy to worry about what a competitor is doing or how some new technology will impact the product, but these concerns can distract a product team from the real prize — a rapidly growing community of inspired, enthusiastic and loyal customers.
Beyond these common product development pitfalls, it is worth emphasizing that everything starts with having the right people on the product team. These are the people that will make the thousands of decisions that will determine the success of the product. Not every person on the team must be a proven superstar, but every person must be able to perform their job competently for the team as a whole to work together effectively.