Great product qualities
"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" #57
This week’s toy: 📺 a tiny TV running Raspberry Pi that plays episodes from the first 11 seasons of the Simpsons at random. This would be a really fun swag item from a conference or in-person event, accompanied by an app that allowed you to load your own content if you didn’t like the pre-loaded version. Edition No. 57 of this newsletter is here - it’s August 29, 2021.
The Big Idea
How do great products get made? One key element is the alignment of the engineering team, customers of the product, and the internal stakeholders elsewhere in the company. This does not happen by accident - there is a structure and a cadence that helps products to excel.
When thinking about this issue, I identified five reasons that products succeed (or fail if this item is not in place. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I’d expect that you see echoes of products you love in this group of axioms.
Great Products have Strategic Vision
When you think of amazing products (let’s take Airpods as an example), they have certain qualities.
They state clearly where things are going (listen without wires)
They are backward compatible (you can make them work with older tech based on a common standard)
They are opinionated (listening without wires is better)
They open up new opportunities where none existed before (medical monitoring, increased UI/UX opportunities to control music and calls, whisper announcing of information)
Great products aren’t for everyone, and they provide a 10x (or 100x experience for many users).
Great Products have a North Star
Airpods clearly state where they want to get to and where they are. They are the descendent of the iPod, where a white line indicating the headphones was the social signal that you were using a brand new way to listen. Airpods align customers, stakeholders, and employees to the idea that having the best wireless audio experience likely means changing the form factor that many appreciated previously about headphones and audio listening devices. By continuing to push the threshold of “how we listen to things” and refining that goal to “always continue to provide better information through sound”, Apple makes the idea of Airpods much more expansive than headphones.
If the North Star of the product had been “create the best headphones ever,” that probably would have missed some of the more innovative Airpod features (listen in only one ear, share an Airpod with a friend, monitor medical information through ear sensors).
That North Star might not make sense at the beginning to everyone, and it needs provide enduring value over time to keep evolving. It’s a challenge to find the right message to grab people, help them believe it solves their “why”, and deliver on that promise so that they start building repeat models of belief in the product.
Great Products build Pipeline
This one’s kind of obvious. A good product does all of these things and might not make tons of money. A great product builds pipeline by selling itself and creates an ecosystem around it to expand initial spend beyond the first sale.
Airpods are a $200 product that produced more revenue in 2020 than all but a handful of companies in the world.
Your product might not be a $12b hit (ok, it’s probably not) but it does absolutely have to contribute to the bottom line for both current and future customers.
Great Products improve incrementally
Why ruin a great thing? When you get a great product you need to keep it great for the majority of people who love it. It might be much harder to improve a great product than a mediocre one, because the risk of losing utility is so high.
An example of an incremental improvement in Airpods is the audio cue that allows text messages to be read to you when they arrive. The first generation of Airpods didn’t do this, and then Apple wrote better software that unlocked new audio cues and abilities using Airpods as an input.
This is a key learning for improvement: after Apple had trained users on the UX of Airpods, they built new cues into the UI to progressively reveal new capabilities. There are whole new businesses that could now be built based on this small insight.
Great Products have customer focus
A survey of great products would be remiss without a focus on the customer. Without people experiencing the answer to their “why”, no one would buy. Without word of mouth, few people would buy. Without an amazing user experience, few people would know about Airpods.
To get an idea of how much people like Airpods, check out this thread of Airpod cases.
A great product adapts to the way people love to use it.
What’s the takeaway? Great products start with an amazing vision. They help customers, prospects, employees, and stakeholders to align to solve a problem in a unique and interesting way. They answer the “why” customers have in a way that opens the door to expansion and continued engagement. And they are profitable, enabling the company to build an ecosystem if successful to create a moat against competitors.
A Thread from This Week
Twitter is an amazing source of long-form writing, and it’s easy to miss the threads people are talking about.
This week’s thread: the ongoing effect of big box retail on downtown areas and small towns. As buying patterns have changed in the COVID19 pandemic, so has retail traffic.
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ Learning about machine learning - If Machine Learning mystifies you, or if you’d like to learn a little bit more, this video will help. Data Scientist Hilary Mason explains how machines learn at 5 levels from kid to expert.
2/ What exactly is PLG? - Product-led growth is the idea that customers experiencing a product (usually on a trial or free basis) drives sustainable expansion and more engaged customers. The folks at Unusual Ventures have put together an excellent primer on PLG. Whether you are considering the level of effort customers need to engage your product or trying optimize a trial flow, this is information you need to know.
3/ Shi%& developers say - To catch up with some of the idioms floating around your engineering team, check out this compilation of “bikeshedding”, “rubber ducking”, and more. It might not reduce the number of TLAs (three letter acronyms) in your lexicon, but you will have a better idea of what people are saying.
On the Reading/Watching List
I’m reading everything I can find right now on product-led growth and product thinking, so it would be natural that one of the items on my list is Julie Zhuo’s summary of Product Thinking. This is a hard problem to solve, building “the skill of understanding and being good at predicting what people want.” I’d add a corollary here. It’s also understanding when people say what they want and it’s different than what they need to succeed when they use a product.
My next read: Lewis Lin’s latest on improving product management skills.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon