Questions for developing a product idea

Photo by Victoria PickeringI often talk to people who have an idea for digital product and want to discuss how they might go about developing it. Recently I was speaking to others who have similar discussions with people, and we shared our general approaches. So here are two questions I ask when discussing the development of a new digital product.

#1: Have we separated outcomes from solutions?

The outcome is what we want to achieve; the solution is how we want to achieve it. It’s far too easy to mix the two up, and it’s dangerous. We need to separate them.

For example, in my idle moments I think about developing a tool to help good risk management, as I see traditional solutions, with their scoring and listing, very unhelpful. In my head I’ve already developed auditing, tagging, sharing, and more… and this is hopelessly wrong. It’s relatively easy to implement these things, but it’s an expensive mistake if it’s not really what people need. There are thousands of potential features we might implement. We need to put the solutions to one side and concentrate on the goal itself.

And then, when we’ve isolated the goal and we’re taking a hard look at it, we can ask…

#2: What do our users really want?

We know what problem we want to solve, but what do our (potential) users think? How do they understand the problem? How do they see it? What solutions do they have at the moment? What elements of their current solution are they happy with, and what elements do they have pain with? Do they even have the problem that we think they have?

This is a really hard question to ask. It’s less expensive than building something, but harder to ask because we need to detach ourselves from any preconceptions we might have about both our solution ideas and the problem as we see it. This is classic Lean Startup territory—we barely realise how much assumption is built into our actions that we really need test so many of them.

Dreaming is fun. But a successful product needs to be founded on something more solid.

Photo by Victoria Pickering

5 thoughts on “Questions for developing a product idea

  1. Not user wants – user needs. Not always the same thing. Other than that, +1.

  2. Excellent as always and I’d add a third: “will our customers pay for it?”. To my mind the real difference between a product and a nice tool, hobby offering, OSS project, or whatever we call freeware is not just that it meets wants or needs but that it does so sufficiently well that someone will actually pay for it. And given that the customers are often *not* the users this introduces a whole slew of competing forces that are much harder to balance than building features users ‘value’ in some abstract way.

  3. Paul, that’s a very good point. Although that third question is incorporated in the Lean Startup approach I find there is a lot of discussion from the world of consumer products (where the user is the customer) that seems to forget this is much more challenging in the world of business products (where the user is not the one who writes the cheque).

  4. Business products also and the increasingly interesting/important “if you’re not paying for the product you *are* the product” class of consumer products such as the free version of GApps, search, etc. Lots of tensions in there of utility vs. privacy, etc.

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