Product development is about more than just building something new. It’s about coming up with an effective solution to a real problem that customers are facing. By effectively addressing their needs, you can attract more positive reviews, encourage word-of-mouth referrals, and drive repeat business in the future.
With this in mind, let’s explore five of the best product development tips from 281 business books that I’ve read over the last 22 years as an entrepreneur. Each of these insights can help you build superior products and services for your customers.
TIP #1 – The Right Way To Gather Useful Feedback
Before building a prototype or ‘minimum viable product,’ it’s critical to start talking with potential customers. These early conversations are a powerful way to validate whether or not the product concept is a winner. Better still, they are a chance to gather feedback that can help you refine and improve the original idea.
Unfortunately, these conversations often backfire because most people want to be polite and supportive rather than blunt and honest. Therefore, customers are likely to provide passive encouragement that can easily be misinterpreted as genuine interest. As a result, product teams can incorrectly assume they’re moving in the right direction.
Instead of talking about your product, a much better approach is to talk to people about their lives within the context of your idea, as explained in The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick. In doing so, you can gather information about how their interests, problems, or challenges are related to the solution you intend to provide.
For example, if you plan to build a video course to help people learn to play guitar, instead of mentioning your project, you might ask the following questions:
- What has it been like learning to play guitar?
- What kinds of lessons or courses have you tried?
- Did that method work for you? Why or why not?
- What challenges or obstacles did you encounter?
It’s best to prepare questions that are relevant to different types of potential customers. For example, you might have different themes to discuss for first-time guitarists, inexperienced beginners, and intermediate players. That way, when you run into a first-time guitarist, you can jump into relevant questions, like:
- What inspires you to want to play the guitar?
- What has kept you from learning the guitar earlier?
- What kind of lessons have you considered in the past?
The goal of your questions should be to learn as much as possible about your customers’ world as it relates to the product you intend to build. By avoiding any mention of your solution, you can gather more beneficial and unbiased information.
As the conversation develops, focus on concrete actions they have taken in the past or things they are doing today. Ignore speculation or hypotheticals around what they plan to do in the future. It’s far more valuable to focus on real actions because people are often optimistic or unreliable when predicting what they will do in the future.
By focusing on concrete actions, you can target your product development efforts on things that are likely to provide the most value for those customers. To learn more about talking with potential customers, read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.
TIP #2 – ‘Solve The Surface First’ By Building An MVP
You’ve likely heard about the need to build a ‘minimum viable product.’ Unfortunately, this concept is often misunderstood. Many people seem to believe the goal of an MVP is just to get to market as quickly as possible to start gathering customer feedback.
The real purpose of an MVP is to validate (or invalidate) core assumptions of the product concept. This involves identifying make or break aspects of the product plan, turning them into testable hypotheses, and then building an MVP to validate those hypotheses as quickly and as inexpensively as possible.
One of the best places to start is by ‘solving the surface,’ as described in Sprint by Jake Knapp. The reasoning is simple, often the most unpredictable aspect of a new product or service is found in key customer interactions. So, your goal should be to ‘solve the surface’ of the customer experience before worrying about other details.
A great example of this is how startup Savioke aimed to test an autonomous delivery robot. Think R2D2 from Star Wars, but with secure storage for delivering goods from point A to point B. Their mission was to provide hotels and hospitals with a better solution for handling a large volume of unpredictable onsite deliveries.
Now, it may be tempting to assume that the most vital area of ‘uncertainty’ is the code needed for navigating a complex environment autonomously. However, the team correctly identified that the interactions between the robot and the people it served would be more critical. If people didn’t like interacting with the robot or found it confusing or difficult to use, then the project would fail.
Savioke set out to create a simple MVP to validate a typical customer interaction. It consisted of a manually controlled ‘robot’ with an iPad attached to the front to provide a simple touch-based interface. All early tests were geared towards simulating a typical interaction with potential customers to see how they reacted.
With this example in mind, think of how you might ‘solve the surface’ of your product or service idea. What are some key customer interactions that might prove critical to its long-term success? Is there a simple way to validate that interaction ahead of time?
Note, one great option is to build a simple marketing website to explain a new product as if it already exists. Then, with a small advertising budget, test how many people visit the site, understand the offer, and care enough to click the buy button. This can all be done before you invest a small fortune in building a prototype or final product.
TIP #3 – Why It’s Critical To Change Customer Behavior
The unfortunate reality is that many products and services fail to have a big impact on the world. Even those that sell well can end up buried in a desk drawer or stored in a closet. So, while they may generate short-term revenue, they’re unlikely to drive positive reviews, word-of-mouth referrals, or repeat business in the future.
With this in mind, the best product designers set out to change customer behavior. For example, instead of just selling a home fitness program, they try to build the one that customers will actually use. They seek to maximize the odds that people will solve their problem, be truly satisfied, leave positive reviews, and help spread the word.
A powerful way to impact customer behavior is by using ‘The Intervention Design Process’ (IDP) as covered in Start At The End by Matt Wallaert. A very simplified version of this process can be broken down into three steps:
- Start with a clear sense of the behavior that you would like to change.
- Create a behavioral statement to map existing pressures of the behavior.
- Design, pilot, and test interventions to change or alter the behavior.
Let’s say you wanted to build a more effective home exercise program. The first thing is to clarify the behavioral change associated with the product. For example, the goal might be ‘helping the customer establish a daily habit to workout for 25 minutes.’
The next step is to map the pressures associated with behavioral change. This should include promoting pressures and inhibiting pressures. Promoting pressures are the factors that make a behavior more likely to occur, while inhibiting pressures make a behavior less likely to occur.
You can increase promoting pressures by raising awareness, adding incentives, or otherwise making a behavior more attractive. For inhibiting pressures, you can try eliminating steps, increasing convenience, reducing uncertainty, or generally making the goal or task easier. Often you’ll need to combine several factors together.
Once you have a rough sense of the pressures at work, you can design, pilot, and test interventions to change or alter the behavior. In the case of a home workout, you might focus on increasing the visibility of the equipment, eliminating unnecessary steps, and perhaps finding a way for friends to keep each other accountable.
The most critical part is to test and validate your ideas. It’s often tempting to just settle on the first approach that seems promising. However, this rarely proves effective, so it’s critical to put in the time to test your ideas to confirm you have a winning formula.
To learn more about designing products that create change, read Start At The End by Matt Wallert.
TIP #4 – Ensure That You Provide “The Whole Product’
There is often a significant difference between the promise of a new product and the reality of using it as a customer. In many cases, key supporting products and services are missing, so the experience is initially incomplete. As a result, customers may be forced to go to great lengths just to have the product deliver on its original promise.
With this in mind, it’s helpful to understand the ‘whole product’ concept, as explained in Crossing The Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore. Initially covered by Theodore Levitt, it’s a simple framework highlighting the common gaps between a product’s potential and a typical customer’s experience.
Here are the four levels of product completeness:
- Generic product – This is what is shipped in the box.
- Expected product – This is what the customer thought they were buying. It is the minimum configuration of products and services required to meet their needs.
- Augmented product – This is the product fully fleshed out to provide the maximum chance of achieving the buying objective.
- Potential product – This represents the product’s room for growth as more and more ancillary products come on the market, and as customer-specific enhancements to the system are made.
Consider the purchase of one of the first eReader devices. The product box might have included the eReader itself and perhaps a charging cable. Unfortunately, this alone doesn’t deliver on the expectations of the customer. They were sold on the idea of being able to read books, PDFs, or other text-based content.
Early eReaders failed to deliver a ‘whole product’ experience. Many books were simply not available in eBook form. Buying and downloading books required WiFi or the use of a personal computer, which the customer might not have had at the time. Finally, there was no easy way to move existing documents or files to the device.
Modern eReader solutions like Amazon’s Kindle provide a ‘whole product’ experience. Customers have instant access to a marketplace where they can buy almost any book in eBook form. Most homes now have WiFi access. And finally, customers have the option to email PDFs or other text documents directly to their Kindle device.
Better still, Amazon offers a version of the Kindle that includes unlimited cellular data access. That means you can purchase, download, and sync eBooks wirelessly without the need for home Wifi, a personal computer, or any other supporting hardware. Outside of the need to purchase eBooks, the product is complete. They even offer a Netflix-like subscription for unlimited access to a large selection of books.
With this example in mind, it’s helpful to look at your product from the perspective of its customers. Do you provide everything needed to enjoy the benefits of your product? If not, could you partner with another business to fill in the gaps?
By getting clear on what is needed to provide a ‘whole product’ experience, you can ensure that customers are capitalizing on the full potential of your product. This, in turn, makes it far more likely that they will love the product and recommend it to others.
TIP #5 – Avoid Fads And Create Timeless Products
Many new products make an initial splash and then quickly fade in popularity. They achieve some success but are unable to maintain real momentum. This pattern is so common today that it’s tempting to assume it’s tied to the shortening attention spans of people today or perhaps some other cultural changes.
Regardless of the cause, some product teams assume the solution is to double down on chasing fads. They’ve resigned themselves to tracking and reacting to the latest trends. As a result, their work leads to shorter and shorter periods of success.
A better approach is to develop an understanding of how to create timeless products, as explained in Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday. In doing so, you can embrace the long view and come up with solutions that address timeless needs. In other words, you can seek to understand the stable needs within the chaos of day-to-day life.
Timeless solutions include physical products like Fender’s Stratocaster Guitar, movies like The Shawshank Redemption, books like Think And Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, consumable products like Oreo cookies, and even software applications like Adobe Photoshop. What each has in common is that they grow in popularity over time.
To create a timeless product, you must first get clear on who you’re aiming to serve. Who is the target audience? What do they value? What is most important to them?
Then, once you have a clear sense of your audience, focus on the things that do not change. Get clear on the opportunities, challenges, or problems that continue to be relevant over time. What is it that customers valued 20 years ago, still value today, and are likely to continue valuing 20 years out into the future?
By bucking the trend of short-term thinking and instead focusing on timeless challenges, you can create products that have a much more significant impact. To learn more, I recommend that you read Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday.
Beyond The 5 Best Product Development Tips
If you’re interested in learning more about building great products, I invite you to check out my reading list covering six of the best product development books. Beyond that, you may also be interested in reading some of the best startup books, the best business strategy books, or the best marketing books.
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