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Why is a product never a product?

Watch Alex Cowan discuss why a product is never just a product.
What do we really mean by product? What is this thing that you’re managing? A big failure mode of product management is that product managers get caught up in the interplay between what we’re calling feasibility and viability. Looking at this product that you currently have and figuring out how to cram more stuff in it and manage the economics of that. And that often leads to failure. In this video, we’re going to talk about how to approach this dimension of desirability, so that you create something that’s compeling to the customer, and you put yourself in a position to constantly improve on that. That’s what good product managers do.
I think that the first thing I’d recommend any product manager, who says that they’re too busy, and they’re not really sure if their product is hitting the mark is, I would say, are you solving the right problems? Do you know what’s on your customer’s A list? Not in terms of the product that you have right now, but in terms of the experience your trying to provide around it. And then once you know that, how are you moving iteratively to the right solution. Let’s step through an example. In the early days of portable digital music, there were a lot of mp3 players on the market, that preceded the iPod. Which was Apple’s first offering in that space.
And they probably implicitly define the problem as playing music on the go.
And the devices were okay for that not terrific. I think, the thing that Apple did, it was really incredible. Is they realized there were some other problems that weren’t being solved and that’s what was hampering the mainstream market. Loading music onto these devices was a horrible experience. They had third party software, or their own. It was clunky, difficult, not really something that the bigger market could do, or certainly, that they wanted to do, that they found desirable. Apple created iTunes to do that job. First for the Mac, very shortly after that for Windows. And then they identified that, you know, buying music, if you’re primarily going to listen to it on your iPod, might as well be digital.
And so they created the iTunes store shortly after this. And this was a massive success. I think this is a great example of making sure you understand the right problems, the right job habits that you need to deal with on the part of the customer. It’s also really an interesting example because usually, creating focus around this is about doing less. And I would certainly recommend that everything else being equal, focus and do less. In this case they did more, and that was the right decision. And they had the focus and the confidence to do that, because they carefully observed the customer. And they really understood that they’re providing this experience of listening to digital music.
And that has a beginning, and it has an end, and it’s not just about this one single device. I’m sure that these people that were making the existing MP3 players, they were thinking, gee, if we can just make the battery life a little longer, or control the back lighting with finer control, or make it a little cheaper, that’s the key to unlocking success. But it really wasn’t. So that’s why I think looking at the right problem is so important. Lets talk about another example of [INAUDIBLE]. Lets say, we have the notion that cyclists would like a talking bicycle compass to navigate their routes. In the kind of legacy way of doing things, I’ll call it skill friendly.
because it’s good at optimizing, we start with a big plan that says, everything that’s going to happen. We budget, we cost optimize, we make sure we can distribute this thing in lots of stores. That is carefully packaged for massive distribution, we hold focus groups. And then hopefully, years and millions maybe dollars of later, we launch it and it’s really successful, people love it. But our odds of getting that right are extremely low. And the innovation friendly method, which is what we’re going to focus on here. We start by making some observations. We go out, we talk to cyclists, we watch them ride their bikes.
We see what jobs, habits are really important for them, what makes cycling enjoyable, what are the triggers, why do they do it? And if we find out that the problem of finding new routes, navigating them, understanding how long they’re going to take on the go is important. Then maybe we use some kind of creative product proxy to see if our particular solution to that is really better. So maybe we call them on a phone, tape that phone to their bike, track them on GPS, and verbally give the direction. And we have some kind of metrics we’re going to look for to see if they care about our proposition.
If they do, and only if they do, then we go and we create a simple, focal version of this talking bicycle compass. And, we make sure people are buying it and we interactively add things to it if we need to based on our specific observations about what they do. Why is a product never a product? Because it’s a solution. It’s something that provides an experience to the customer. And you need to make sure you understand the beginning and the end of that in the whole arc. And there may be some other stuff that you need to provide that. Certainly, you want to fold as much of that into your core product as you can.
Because that’ll probably make it better for the customer, and it’ll probably help with what we’re calling feasibility and viability, your economic performance, and your technology infrastructure. But we need to start here, solving the right problem and iterating to the right solution. If you’re using what’s generally called waterfall, this sort of big planning upfront method, then I think that result is very hard to achieve. Most teams in an environment where there are introducing anything, innovative, use Azure, where they iterate through several versions of this product. Hopefully with a minimum of cost and time, until they make sure that they’re really hitting a mark on that dimension of desirability. Because desirability is that independent variable.
And we’ve talked about how to look at desirability in terms of finding the right problem, identifying those. And then iterating to the right solution and that’s what good product managers do.

In this video, Alex talks about why a product is never a product but a solution. He uses digital music and GPS as examples of how the exploratory process of product management can work. Think of a product you use in your own life. How is this product a solution and what problem does it solve? What process would you follow to improve this product?

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