Crafting Product In The Messy Middle

Scott Belsky
Positive Slope
Published in
3 min readSep 3, 2018


Products aren’t designed and developed in a vacuum. On the contrary, they are crafted and managed amidst ambiguity, frequent bouts of self-doubt and uncertainty, and working in sheer anonymity. For new products, you can falter and switch it up as much as you want… because nobody really cares.

For the last decade or so I’ve been fascinated by the trials and tribulations that product teams face in the messy middle. I’ve come to believe that the volatility and challenges a team faces are the ultimate source of their product’s complexity.

While a product’s simplicity is its advantage right out of the gate, solutions made — and customer requests addressed — under duress in the messy middle introduce complexity. When you rush to build features for “power users” or your most important customers, coupled with your own anxiety, the product becomes less accessible to new customers. I call it “the product life cycle” 😩

Managing the (un)comfortable tensions to better serve customers AND engage new customers (while not slapping on solutions in the heat of the moment) is a critical muscle for “The Messy Middle” of building products that most teams only learn the hard way.

Just days from hitting shelves, now is probably a good time to announce that The Messy Middle has an entire section devoted to optimizing your product during the middle stages of your venture. We’ll discuss topics like…

  • You need to identify what you’re willing to be bad at. Doing so is truly liberating and will help you focus on doing something differentiating exceptionally well. Many examples of products that consolidated resources and focus, and nailed one thing at expense of many others.
  • Make one subtraction for every addition. Yeah, sounds crazy, but “one feature in, one feature out” prompts the question: If you would choose to create a new feature instead of one that already exists, why not kill the live feature first? Hmm… It’s an exercise, but it’s a method to maintain simplicity as a core product value over time.
  • Speaking of killing things, we’ll also discuss “killing your darlings” — those little elements, features (or paragraphs for writers) that you love but don’t need. *Productive* creativity is a war between clarity and possibility, and there are tricks for product managers to sustain product simplicity over time.
  • Beware of creativity (and any ingenuity you inject into your product) that compromises familiarity. Only train your customers to navigate something new when it is absolutely core to what differentiates your product.
  • Oh, and then we do a deep dive on crafting the “first mile” of product experience and why you can never stop, because every cohort of new customers is different. What works for early adopters won’t work for the masses (too many examples of products with stalled growth that never figured this out).

We’ll also cover tips from great product minds behind now-global brands, talk about the importance of developing your narrative before your product, merchandising progress to your team, and the list goes on… Yep, it’s basically a book within a book, so I actually gave this section of the book its own shading/font because I know some people will skip it, and some will skip to it. Get your copy.

ps: Miss the overview of what THE MESSY MIDDLE is all about, check out this post.

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Scott Belsky
Positive Slope

founder @Behance, cpo @Adobe, early stage investor and product obsessive; author of Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle.