Why You Need a Product Strategy (and How to Get One)

This article by Kathryn Faulkner originally appeared on www.viget.com/articles.

We recently partnered with a startup to design and develop its first minimum viable product (MVP). We had a lot of information in-hand at the start: a clear concept, distinct user groups, fairly well-defined user journeys, and a laundry list of possible features. The client assumed we had all the information we needed to jump right into design and development, but we weren’t so sure. There were plenty of features we could build. But what should we build?

Marty Cagan describes MVP as the smallest “valuable, usable, and feasible” version of a product. As designers and developers, we have clear methods for arriving at “usable” and “feasible.” But what about “valuable”? Ascertaining value is an inherently strategic exercise. It requires knowledge of the business model, the competitive landscape, and user needs and expectations. This was knowledge we didn’t yet have.

To get there, we took a step back and completed several research activities meant to guide us toward a specific product strategy. During this phase of work we asked questions like, “Why are we building this product in the first place? What problem does it solve? For whom? How will it be different from the competition? What are the business goals?”

Whether you’re building a new product or enhancing an existing one, a clear strategy is useful for reaching consensus on difficult product decisions, keeping a team focused on a common goal, and ensuring that the product delivers real value. Without one, it’s easy to fall back on building the easiest features first, replicating other products on the market, and elevating stakeholders’ wishes above real user needs. So how do you identify a clear direction for your product? Here are some ideas for getting started.

1. Get to know the business

A sound product strategy should first and foremost satisfy business objectives. The usual method for learning about the business is to conduct stakeholder interviews. Thorough stakeholder interviews should result in a clear understanding of the business case for the product and uncover any conflicting objectives across stakeholders. They should also reveal the underlying reasons for any presumed constraints or predefined solutions. After conducting interviews, present a summary of your findings back to stakeholders in order to validate them and facilitate discussion around any areas of disagreement.

When working with an early-stage company or a single stakeholder, it can be helpful to conduct a product opportunity assessment. This consists of a series of fundamental questions about the business, including its value proposition, target market, and go-to-market strategy. The goal is to create a high-level, lightweight summary that’s easy for the team to reference throughout the project. We’ve found the following questions from Marty Cagan’s template to be useful:

  1. Exactly what problem will this solve?
  2. For whom will we solve that problem?
  3. What alternatives are out there?
  4. Why are we best suited to pursue this?
  5. How will we get this product to market?
  6. How will we measure success/make money from this product?
  7. What factors are critical to success?

2. Get to know the competition

The product strategy should be informed by how others are already approaching and attempting to solve the problem at hand. Cast a wide net at first by identifying direct and indirect competitors, and then select a handful of the most important ones for a deeper dive. Use their products, if at all possible. If not, hunt down product videos or schedule sales demos. Keep notes along the way on basic company info, value propositions, pricing, and features. In-depth competitive audits, although time-intensive and tedious to complete, can be a valuable resource in later stages of the project, especially during feature definition and design.

We’ve found that using Airtable for competitive research saves time because we can organize multiple data types (text, tags, links, documents, screenshots) in one place.

Once you’ve gathered all the relevant data, summarize the competitive landscape. Your analysis could take the form of a list of insights, a matrix, or a more visual model or map. Regardless of the form it takes, competitive analysis should lead to a clearer picture of the product’s unique positioning in the market and its most important differentiators.

3. Get to know users

User research is important for discovering users’ real needs, building empathy, and shaping a successful product strategy. First, name and describe each user group in detail: their contexts, attitudes, and preferences. Then talk about how these characteristics might lead to distinct needs, behaviors, and jobs-to-be-done in the app. (If you are so inclined as to create personas, you could do that, too.)

Next, prioritize a single user group, likely the one whose experience matters most to the early success of the product. Prioritizing a single user group is important because it’s impossible to design an experience that serves all users equally well, especially with limited time and resources. A clear priority order acknowledges this inherent design constraint and facilitates difficult product decisions down the road.

Talk to these users. If they don’t exist yet (because the product doesn’t exist yet), interview prospective users or users of competing products. Attempt to validate assumptions about this group and identify any previously unearthed pain points or goals. Even small-scale user research is a powerful tool for changing your perspective on and approach to a problem.

4. Write it down

Synthesize what you’ve learned about the business, the competition, and users and create a concise, written statement that encompasses your primary objectives in building the product. Make it easily accessible and memorable (think 1–2 sentences). If you’re unsure what to write, you can always fall back on the popular elevator pitch format:

  • Whom your product is for
  • The problem it solves
  • Your differentiator
  • What your product does

The product strategy should not prescribe specific solutions; rather it should provide a framework for evaluating and prioritizing possible solutions in subsequent phases of work. It should communicate a unified direction to team members, so that when you start to tackle that laundry list of possible features it’s easier to bubble up the highest-value, most urgent ones.

It’s worth your time

Depending on the project, each one of these steps could call for a smaller or larger effort than what’s described above. What’s important is that you set aside some time early in the project for deliberate thought and exploration. In her book Just Enough Research, Erika Hall writes, “Upfront research can provide a basis for decision-making that makes the rest of the work go much faster. Nothing slows down design and development projects as much as arguing over personal opinions or wasting effort solving the wrong problem.”

That said, product work benefits from many kinds of research at later stages as well. As you get further along, you may need to evolve the product strategy to accommodate changes to the business model, the competitive landscape, and user needs. Taking the time to identify a clear, well-informed strategy will help you and your team build a more valuable product.

What about you? Do you have any best practices or favorite resources when it comes to product strategy? We’d love to hear about them. Add a comment below or send us a tweet.

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