Product innovation for everyone

Most of the new entrepreneurs I mentor have a product vision but little idea of how to turn their vision into something tangible and profitable.  They have some level of business understanding but little experience to guide their decisions.  They have tools like the ubiquitous “Lean Startup Canvas” but struggle to define their business plan, in particular knowing:

  • How to define a “customer segment” or “target market”
  • How to “validate” customers and prove real-world value
  • Which features, benefits, and other investments to prioritize

The hard problem of new product and company development is overwhelming to the new entrepreneur. In order to overcome such extraordinary difficulty, you must then be an extraordinary person! I believe this perspective may contribute to the public, romantic narrative of “genius product makers” like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk*.  But does “true innovation” require “real genius”, by definition?  In my opinion: No.

Recent scientific studies suggest that a belief in innate, ‘genius’ qualities (mostly in men) may do as much harm as benefit.  Specifically, for an entrepreneur, overvaluing one’s own (expert) opinion creates confirmation bias risk — this could mean allowing a preexisting vision to interfere with third-party feedback and “true” product or technical validation.

A chart of confirmation bias

So, if it doesn’t take a visionary genius, what does smart product development actually require?  Here’s my take:

  • A significant understanding of the customer (users) and the job that they are “hiring the product to do”.
  • Honest intent and excellence of execution
  • Proof that the product provides enough customer value (measured in money, primarily) to be “worth making

One method for creating products with less personal bias is “Outcome-Driven Innovation” (ODI).  ODI was created by Strategyn’s Tony Ulwick to discover “what customers really want”.  Phases in the model include:

  1. Intensive research and identification of customer “jobs to be done”.  The core premise here is that a customer (the product user) “hires” a product to complete a number of “jobs”.
  2. Data gathering on the importance to and current satisfaction of the customer in completing each job
  3. Aligning research data with a viable market strategy

At its heart, the premise of Outcome-Driven Innovation:

  • There are standard, useful models available for creative product development
  • Product outcomes can be defined clearly
  • Customer segments may be selected rationally

The conclusion then, is that “product innovation” is not something only practiced by media-savvy genius founders, but is in fact a teachable and achievable process for most people who are willing and able to put in the hard work.

The painting in the header of this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
*Also included: Mary Shelley, Edison, Tesla, Turing and whomever the next celeb is.

Making products worth making

In a badly designed book, the letters mill and stand like starving horses in a field… In a well-made book… the letters are alive. They dance in their seats. Sometimes they rise and dance in the margins and aisles. (Robert Bringhurst, The Elements of Style)

I’ve been enjoying a slow crawl through Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style. The book has both the poet’s charming ability to turn a phrase and an engaging continuous theme of what Brian Zmijewski terms progressive design.  In Elements, Bringhurst states the goal of typographic design is to represent written content accessibly and accurately1.  The principal tactic to achieve this goal is by designing from the “content out”:

Read the text before designing it… Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.

In other words, Bringhurst argues that to make something well, you must first understand its core meaning, purpose and character (aka. “the text”). Only after this first step is taken should considerations like fonts, margins, and layout, come into consideration.

This is sage advice for any typographer; I think it applies to business too. Thousands of people make millions of new products every year. Staff are hired, plans drafted, monies spent and then most of these products fail.

So how does a company avoid making products that are not worth making at all? Budget excuses aside, a common element of unsuccessful products (and startups) is that they fail to deliver significant value to customers.  This is a good place to start! To illustrate the point of value, let me replace a few of Bringhurst’s wise words with my own:

Understand the customer before designing a solution… Discover the outer logic of the product in the inner logic of the customer.

“Reading the text” when creating a product, then, is the process by which we can better understand the inner logic of the customer,2 that is, to anticipate their wants and needs. Here are a few questions I’ve found useful:

  • What are some important motivations for the person(s) involved?
  • What job is the product being hired to do by each person involved?
  • What actions allow us to validate that the product/idea is significant3 in addressing those motivations with a minimum of effort?

In my experience if an entrepreneur addresses each of these questions, the processes of drafting a new product, a pitch, a startup company strategy, or a marketing campaign becomes much less challenging.

Ultimately we make products for other people. When we work directly, honestly and sympathetically to help others achieve their motivations, we’re more likely to create a product that, like a well-designed book, feels meaningful and alive.  These are the products that are worth making.  As Jason Fried of 37 Signals has put it:

“Here’s what our product can do” and “Here’s what you can do with our product” sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.

1. Bringhurst’s Elements tells us that the purpose of typography is “to honour and elucidate the character of the text”.

2. By “customer” I mean anyone who decides on an investment of time, effort or money.

3. A good way to measure the significance (value) of a product to a customer is by determining how much they will pay (to make it, to buy it, to rent it, to keep it, etc.)

The photo is of Jitterbug dancers in NYC by Alan Fisher in 1938. The dance was controversial in multiple contexts. Events featuring the Jitterbug filled seats and dance floors (and sometimes the aisles too). The coloration is anachronistic and entirely my fault.