Building a successful digital product is hard. Your product needs to bring tangible value to your users, but that’s not enough; it also has to be of extremely high quality, which means you need to build it right. We think a Product Manager’s mantra should sound something like: “Build the right product and build it right”
As the software development ecosystem grows in maturity, the quality of digital products has greatly improved. This is often correlated with the introduction of agile development approaches in many development teams. However, a lot of teams are still applying agile principles as an excuse to not only come up with new features on the fly, but also to constantly change their product’s core objectives.
Applying agile software development within a team doesn’t mean you should develop every feature that you come up with, just because you can, and you’re “allowed” to change your mind whenever you like. As a product manager, your role is to think into existence a series of coherent software blocks for a team of developers and designers to bring to life, not to build an endless list of seemingly disconnected features. In other words, you need vision to drive your product’s development. This is what will empower you to build software that will further enamour existing users and acquire new ones.
What exactly is product vision?
Every company has a business strategy, and every company needs to find an operational path to transform strategy into a product. Product vision can be defined as the ingenuity that enables a product manager to turn a business strategy into a working product. Product vision is not a requirement only for agile teams, or even to software projects. However, in the case of this article, product vision will be the driving element behind the three most important tools of the agile PM: the backlog, the storymap and the release plan.
Your product vision should be an answer to the following:
- What problem is our product a solution to?
- Who needs our solution?
- How can we to fix the problem our users encounter?
- How are we going to go to market?
- What is our business model?
- How can we measure our product’s success?
A clear product vision is essential to building a successful product and will namely enable you to:
- Unite your stakeholders (marketing, finance, and technical teams).
- Motivate your team and stakeholders.
- Anticipate how, from a technological perspective, you are planning on building & delivering your product.
As mentioned in the introduction, product vision is even more important for agile teams than for teams working with more classical development approaches. In agile development, the features you build and the order in which you build them will never be set in stone – this makes product vision all the more important. At the beginning of every development cycle, your whole team should be able to understand how their upcoming work fits with your product’s key definition and objectives. If they aren’t able to, you might need to rethink what you’re currently working on – again, we’ll get to this later.
Approaches to building your Product Vision
From a methodological standpoint, we strongly advise trying the Lean Canvas method. This method, developed by Ash Maurya, is centered around filling in a canvas that will help you define and imagine your product.
Although the canvas itself may seem a bit confusing at first, keep in mind that the part on the left relates to your product, and the part to the right relates to the market in which you are developing it:
- Customer Segments: Who is the target user for your product? Who might your early adopters be?
- Problem: What are the top 3 problems your product should solve for early adopters and users?
- Unique Value Proposition: This is the key part of the Lean Canvas, where you should aim to define how your product brings value to its users. This is the key point that will make a prospective user into a regular one.
- Solution: What 3 major features will meet the needs of your future early adopters?
- Channels: What are the different marketing channels you can use to reach your future users? These can be free or paid, don’t be afraid to think outside the box!
- Key Metrics: Which key metrics are you going to use to validate or invalidate your ideas and hypotheses?
- Cost Structure: What are your fixed and variable costs?
- Revenue Streams: What is your business model? How will you generate revenue?
- Unfair Advantage: What makes you and your team the right people to tackle this problem and offer a new solution to the market? This could be anything from a technical advantage, ease of access to a market, a powerful brand…
Building a Lean Canvas is a great way to think about your product in a holistic and constructive way. However, be aware that the lean canvas is, at its core, the expression of your product and business: expecting to complete it in an afternoon’s work and using it throughout a product’s lifecycle without questioning it is not going to get you far. It needs to be updated regularly as you build your product and gain knowledge about your market until all but the toughest initial hypotheses have been validated.
Once laid out, each section of the canvas needs to be worked on in detail – we’ll go further into detail in the second and third rules.
How long should this take me?
As you begin the process of defining your product vision, never forget two things: that spending time and resources defining the ‘perfect’ product vision won’t necessarily make for a successful product, and that your vision should evolve over time as your product does – nothing you come up with here (or anywhere else!) is final.
If we look at many successful startups today, it is clear they learned and worked on redefining their product vision as they built their product, a process often called pivoting in the startup world.
The team at Pinterest, the popular social network for discovering products, ideas and recipes initially began building a cross-site shopping cart in which users could add products and be notified of their availability. After a few months running their initial product, named Tote, the team realised that the most valuable feature they were offering their users was a shareable list of products from stores around the Web. So they pivoted. That brought Pinterest to the highly successful product we know and use today.
This is a prime example of how a solid product vision enabled the team at Pinterest to identify their users, market and the problems they were facing. Although the features they chose to build initially were not an answer to the most important problems their users were facing, they were close, and were able to change their vision and their product accordingly. Even if your vision will most likely evolve, taking the time to crystalise a first version of it should still help you find out, at the very least, a way to enter the right market without consuming too much time or resources.
So, materialising your product vision seems like something that is definitely worth doing – but just how much time and effort is it worth? Somewhere between being overly cautious and spending months validating your hypothesis with elaborate business experiments and creating your lean canvas on a napkin over lunch. To gauge where you should land on this scale, take a look at your competitors – how long did it take them to build their product? How long do you think it will take you? Usually, as a rule of thumb, we find dedicating around a month to this process is a safe bet for a product that we estimate will take a year to develop.
- Along with the Lean Canvas, there are several other interesting tools at your disposal:
- Product Vision Board: http://romanpinchler.com/tools/vision-board
- Business Model Generation: https://strategyzer.com/
Online Tools: https://leanstack.com/
- Validation Board: https://www.leanstartupmachine.com/validationboard/