Great products require courage

  • Jonas 

How often does a team set out with the goal of building a poor product? Pretty much never. But how often do you see a product which is just too complicated, too unreliable, too slow, too expensive or simply painful to use? Probably almost every day. The question is, why?

Creating products is a long series of many smaller choices. Choices on design, choices on development. Which features to include and which not to include. And any single wrong choice may either fatally flaw the end result or remain a blooper hidden away forever.

Unfortunately, even the smartest and brightest make poor choices. All but the most delusional will readily admit this, even if judgement for a specific choice may be much more nuanced. But because not every choice will be a good one, getting the important ones right is crucial.

So to start understanding which product choices really matter, first, the product’s core purpose needs to be understood. Knowing what exactly the product is supposed to do allows us to determine what supports that purpose and what does not. With that, you, the product owner, can start focusing on the most important choices.

In today’s world it is hereby fancy for decisions to be data-driven. Data doesn’t lie after all. The feature being used most must be the most important one, so focus on that most. Until you realise that for many products the login feature is the most frequently used – yet I am not aware of any successful products that won because of their log in feature (though surely some have lost because you could not even properly log in)!

Or you encounter that brain teaser of what’s the average (mean) number of legs/eyes a human being has? The answer is not two but slightly below, if looking at mankind in total. Some outliers only have one or no legs/eyes hence slightly reducing the average. But should you really build a product for the 1.9xxxx-legged population as some data would suggest?

So we eventually recognise that data is good but data only takes us so far. Sometimes we need to find other inputs as well. Potential users and customers for example are frequently (ab)used for this purpose. This can range from an informal chat amongst friends all the way to a formal study group in a UX lab costing thousands and ten thousands of dollars. Everybody loves to be a critic after all. But after all this effort, we learn that Henry Ford’s target customers were all really just asking him for faster horses…

So data is good but not perfect, yet speaking with customers can also be deceiving. Which is where experience enters the stage. Experience manages to short-circuit some learnings. You do not need 10 experiments with boiling water to understand you don’t want to touch it, one bad experience is enough. With experience you can understand that faster horses is “customer speak” for faster transportation. With experience you realise that it is hard to get people to change products for only a slightly better experience. You realise that launching something great “and people will just come” simply does not happen, you will need to go out and market yourself.

But just as we get all excited about experience, we see the disturbing trend that the more experienced people grow, the more conservative they tend to become. Conservatism and the goal of maintaining the status quo is a bad starting point when trying to shake things up through new products. “We have seen this fail before” becomes the common adage, or, “Never touch a running system”. Such premature surrender however ignores that often the complexity of situation and environment at the time make comparisons almost impossible. Why did it fail nine times before but this time it could succeed. One small external change may make all the difference between a runaway success and total failure – chaos theory and the butterfly effect are real.

So with all this data, other people’s opinions and experience – our cognitive skills take the center stage. Critical thinking is crucial to make sense of all of these inputs. Trying to predict what the result of our choices will be. Avoiding flaws in our logic. But how can we really know whether our thinking is clear and unbiased? We operate in a messy world with an awful lot of grey and little black and white. This is not a school exam with a teacher in place to give clear marks for right or wrong.

So the last thing I see our aspiring product owner(s) left with is courage. Courage when to follow the numbers and when not to. Courage what feedback to listen to, how to read between the lines and what to simply ignore. Courage when to trust ones experience and when to commit to believing “it is different this time”. Courage to believe in ones fundamental logical reasoning without immediate external validation. And the courage to remain focused, to not get distracted by the many peripheral choices before solving the few real crucial ones.

Such courage is hard enough to muster once. Building successful products however requires such courage over a sustained time period. This is mentally extremely taxing. And naturally, after you shipped your new product to glowing user reviews, feeling exhausted and maybe a little bit relieved, you relax a little bit. You seem to have been right in most areas that mattered, even though you probably see how you were wrong in a few others others.

Being wrong is not good, so you decide to improve and “upgrade” your approach. Next time things should be easier, you do not want to keep going through that hell of insecurity and uncertainty again. So why not take a more data-driven, user-centric and experience-based approach because that is all the rage, everybody who really knows what they are doing is applying that kind of an approach, right? Really, this is quite a no-brainer.

You allow yourself to being nudged into all the different directions the data, customers, experience etc. indicate you should explore. And within a few short releases, your team and you have managed to destroy that fragile blossom of your courage through a string of poor shallow choices.

All you had lost was the ongoing courage to follow your own path, the courage to ignore the noise, to chart your own way and to offer the product you know the world really wants.

Your loss of courage ended up costing you, your product and every potential user. Success requires courage and courage is tough.

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To be crystal clear – I in no ways promote ignoring external inputs. Blind courage can be something extremely dangerous. Courage is necessary, crucial – but courage alone is not sufficient. Human nature and our deep-rooted insecurity however often make us our own worst enemies and overcoming that internal battle is one of courage.

Thanks specifically to Takeshi Yoshida & Sherif Mansour but also everybody else for their comments on my recent rant on product roadmaps which inspired this post – these comments are food for thought and crucial inputs for helping sharpen my thinking.

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