You’ve spent a lot on the new product you released a couple months ago.
You tried to do everything right: lots of user input and feedback, really solid interaction design, a strong IA, appealing visual design perfectly suited to the task at hand, and great developers managed to construct a fast and reliable platform for it all. Even the things you have less control over have been going well: all the pundits have been blogging about your launch as the next site “to watch,” and for the first time in your life, you don’t feel like they deserve a facepunch.
But still, there’s something missing.
Interest is plateauing, users aren’t using it like you’d hoped, and the potential investors and suitors are noticing. Some base hasn’t been covered, even as you tried to cover all the bases.
See, the problem is the product itself. Whether it’s about features, expectations, business models, or something else entirely, your best-laid plan managed to hit the wrong mark.
The Wisdom of the Crowd
Sure, you’d talked to over a dozen smart and real potential users. They’d given you some good insights into what they need, too. A bunch of their words found their way into use cases, user stories, or whatever you were using, and then a bunch of those made it into the product.
But here’s the rub: they weren’t telling you about the things they need, they were telling you about the things they think they need. They were wrong, and you overvalued their input. Remember how Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” You made the faster horse, or the razor cartridge with six blades, or the Twitter clone with groups.
Most users just aren’t any good at product design. They’re good at banking, or biking, or blogging, or whatever they do all the time. They might even be good at giving feedback to the product once it’s out. They aren’t, however, just going to hand you a cohesive product that will solve the interesting and unsolved problems that are the focus of great products.
In the end, even though the focus of the product is indeed the user, user input is only one small piece of the necessary inputs to a great product design. To win, you need to pay attention to some others:
You probably paid some attention to this. You probably made sure that there are at least a few potential business models hovering around your idea, whether it includes advertising, partnerships, affiliate revenue, a freemium model, something else, or a combination. You’ve probably looked to some of the behemoths on the interwebs for guidance, and taken a lesson or two from what’s worked for them.
But there’s a problem with this, too: most of the “successful” sites we look to online for business inspiration aren’t profitable. They aren’t actually successful businesses, but still funded ventures looking for success. Twitter and Facebook aren’t remotely in the black, though they may one day get there, so why are you trying to emulate their moves?
The successful businesses don’t strap a business model onto the product. Instead, the model and the product are inseparably blended — a Kindle and buying books, the Flickr pro account, Amazon Prime, the iPhone app store, Basecamp, Netflix, and even Hulu. Having a blended product and business model greatly decreases your chances for catastrophic failure compared to the “well, we’ll probably throw ads on it” approach. That’s not to mention other issues like the cold start problem.
Of course you paid attention to this, hiring some great developers to build a platform that works great now, and won’t be hell to change and extend as you learn new things post-launch. But it’s important to consider the technology requirements in concert with the business model.
If you’re making a photo sharing service, are you going to be able to provide enough storage per user cheaply enough? Is there data available for your product-rating service, and can you get it easily enough or crowdsource it effectively?
Thinking about the technology from a product perspective isn’t always about the code, but about making sure the code takes into account the needs of users and of your business model for at least the next few months. If you’re successful after a few months, you can make the changes you need and start really thinking long-term.
Is it okay that you don’t allow for photo grouping on that photo sharing site you made? Probably not. That’s something that people have come to expect on any photo site, even if they never mention it when asked.
Planning and prioritizing features can be realllly tricky, especially at the beginning of a product’s lifetime. You want to make sure you have all the features new users would expect, based on how they perceive the product. You also need those things that make the product exciting and unique. You also need the business model taken into account. But you don’t want to build anything that isn’t a prerequisite for a successful product.
Back to your photo sharing site. You probably need things like reasonable batch uploads, and maybe the premium account that provides extra storage. You also need your secret sauce — great facial recognition in photos that maps to your social network. But you don’t necessarily need support for uploading video. At least not yet.
A Cohesive Concept
The thing is, this whole “launching a web product thing” is risky business. Without the right balance of all of the above, some good design, solid development, great intuition, and a healthy dose of luck, it’s probably not going to work out as well as you’d hoped in the end. That’s just part of the game, and that’s also what makes it fun.
In the end, your product needs to solve a real problem encountered on a regular basis by a healthy number of real people. They don’t even have to know that they have a problem, but if your product solves it, you’re well on your way.
So say it right now, like a mad lib: “This project helps [adjective] people [verb] [adverb] better than anything else out there.”
That’s your product. It’s a single cohesive idea, and anything — use cases, features, a business model — that don’t further that is usually just a waste of time and money. Your cohesive product concept is your single most valuable asset when you’re trying to find the light at the end of the tunnel.
The best thing about product design is its inherent contradiction. Teams behind the best products think of everything, but at the same time, they’re focused on exactly one thing. If you can wrangle that, you’re almost there.