The cost of an assumption in product development

This post is about a bad product decision I made as Product Manager at a small start up in Sydney and the cost to the business (financial and infrastructure). I understand, more now, that our assumptions can be hidden in personal biases we’re not even aware of.

The company is a payments and ordering platform for buyers and sellers.

The experience taught me to be more aware of my assumptions, and how you can still be wrong even when you’re doing the right things. I will share learnings about the warning signs that you may be slipping away from creating what your customers need.

The decision: Building the ability for sellers to group orders from their buyers into one invoice. As a cafe owner, I want my seven daily milk orders for the week grouped into one invoice (rather than seven individual invoices and payments). As a the milk supplier, I benefit from the simplicity of issuing a single statement/invoice for the seven orders at the end of the week.

Sounds like a solid feature, right? Yet, not a single customer using the feature six months after launch.

The impact: We completely rebuilt our data structure to support a complex relationship between orders, invoices and payments. For every order placed in the system we now have three references to maintain. Not only are we more exposed to errors in simple functions, it’s an added step of education for a user of the system.

How did we get here: I am to blame. All signals were positive, but I still shipped the wrong product feature, in the end.

Sometimes the toughest assumptions to spot are those that are so ingrained in your company that most people have forgotten they are even assumptions. We had discussed this feature for six months. It was requested by customers, added to the backlog, scoped and implemented elegantly by the engineering team. Ultimately, I underestimated the significance of the change and misplaced it’s importance. I lost alignment with our customers.

What would I do differently: Firstly, if I had my time again, I would try to find more parallel examples. Who else is providing this solution? What is the competitive advantage of this feature? I would have found that nobody else provides this solution and maybe there’s a reason for that.

Secondly, I would invest more time into determining the level of impact if my judgement is wrong. How costly is the build? What is the risk of no customers adopting the new process? How much investment is required to re-train and educate customers?

Without putting a dollar figure on it.. We have no doubt created technical debt into our system and added complexity to design solutions, integrations and future feature implementation.

Unfortunately, customers can’t tell you what to build, because they only see the parts of the product they interact with, and not the entire system the product is built upon.