What Makes A Product Great?

From a question I loved on Quora. There are so many ways for a product to be great that trying to find commonality is a fun dimensionality reduction problem.

I’ll break out a few factors I see as critical to product greatness. Some are in the crafting of the product, others in the outcomes.

1. Solving A Real Problem For Real People

What I’m talking about here is the “Jobs To Be Done” model. Great products are defined by people who know what job the customer “hired” them for and are constantly getting better at that job.

Creatives hire Instagram to build a following and market their work. In order to do that job better, Instagram has to keep delivering tools for creatives to reach more users and produce ever more interesting content.

2. Strategic Alignment

So often in organizations, you’ll find gross misalignment about how the company competes. This lack of alignment causes each team to push their own agendas, leading to myriad local maxima.

One framework I like is from The Discipline of Market Leaders. To summarize, your company needs to be good in all of these areas, but excellent in one:

  • Operational Excellence — the company is extremely efficient at resource (mostly money) utilization.
    examples: Costco, on-demand delivery companies
  • Product Leadership — the company has the very best product and an almost supernatural ability to deliver products users will want before they even know it.
    examples: Apple under Steve Jobs, most startups early on*
  • Customer Intimacy — the company has an extremely close relationship with their customers, exceptional support, and offers a variety of products to cater to individual customers needs.
    examples: Nordstrom, Zappos

So a great product requires Product Leadership, right? Wrong.

A great product requires alignment around how you’re going to be excellent and maniacal focus on that area. Costco memberships are a great product, so is the iPhone, as is the buying experience and support from Zappos.

Conversely, you could imagine Finance pinching pennies, while Product is trying to innovate, and Sales or Support are promising the world. This leads to a crappy product that satisfies no one and fails.

3. Craftspersonship

Great products are built by people who care about doing great work. An ex-Apple designer once described it this way:

Everybody there is thinking about UX and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team.
…to have a really well-designed product in the way Steve would say, this ‘holistic’ thing, is everything. It’s not just the interface piece. It’s designing the right business model into it. Designing the right marketing and the copy, and the way to distribute it. All of those pieces are critical.

Design is just one aspect of crafting a great product, but you can see what a multiplicative effect this has for the company and the quality of the product produced.

4. Clarity

Some people idolize the concept of making your products simple. To me, this definition is a little too simple itself.

iOS is incredibly complex with many bells and whistles and checkboxes, but they’re hidden away for power users. The Starbucks drink menu is the same. You see items on a board, but the actual number of drinks available from Starbucks may be 10 to 100 times more than what you see up there.

iOS and the Starbucks menu are clear: here’s where we want you to start. Then, as you level up as a user, you may unlock ever-increasing levels of complexity.

tl;dr

Products are great when they continually get better at the job users hire them for, there’s alignment within the organization about how they intend to be great, everyone is empowered to do their best work, and the product is clear and straightforward to use.

There are a million sub-bullets to these, but I think they cover my experience on the subject (until I hit Submit and remember three more).


* Many-to-all startups start out being Product Leaders, because they’re envisioning a future and delivering the product to bring that future into being. Uber Black was Product Leadership, but I’d argue ride sharing and delivery companies today are defined by how efficiently they deploy capital.

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