Great Products Require Great Stories — Here’s How to Tell Them

First Round Capital Product Program, Session 5 — Discussion on Great Products with Mike Berkley

If there are any two existential questions a product manager wrestles with, they would be: (1) What makes a great product? and (2) How do you translate that greatness into a narrative that compels your customer?

Last Saturday was the fifth session of First Round’s Product Program led by Viacom’s SVP Product Management Mike Berkley and Great Jones Founder and CEO Jay Goldklang, with a focus on What Makes a Great Product & The Importance of Storytelling in Product Management.

What Makes a Great Product

As our class ran through an exercise focused on identifying great products, we talked about products ranging from a vacuum cleaner to the Adobe Creative Cloud. As each classmate presented and defended their product choice, we started to see a pattern of a few key, consistent attributes:

  • The product fulfills a real, deeply-felt human need.
  • The product respects users’ time, effort and instills trust.
  • The product meets the user where they are.
  • The product is consistent in its “rules” of use.

When thinking through how these solutions came about, a key motivating question, put forth by fellow Product Program member Isaiah Greene, really resonated: “What superpower do you want to give your user?

While it sounds lofty, there are tangible examples of superpowers in the products we use everyday. Before Amazon’s Kindle, reading was genuinely a labor of love — from the weight of books, to the dewey decimal system, to the user’s distance from a library. The Kindle made this important component of people’s lives far easier and more accessible. Similarly, the iPhone enables people to navigate themselves in any unknown place no matter where they are in the world (mostly). These are significant advantages that fundamentally change what people are able to accomplish in their lives.

While these “superpowers” feel somewhat unremarkable now, they were only made possible because of great products that not only solved core human needs but were presented in a way that made them easy to use and compelled users to understand and feel how their problems had been solved.

Pivoting to B2B products, the need to provide a superpower and showcase it correctly is still there — there’s just a more complex dynamic between users and buyers. Working at AppNexus, we constantly think about the needs of our buyers and the aspirations we are trying to fulfill for our users. Correctly balancing those two priorities determines how great any product in our pipeline is and how much that product actually makes the digital advertising experience — and ultimately the internet — better.

To evaluate your product in these terms, there are two key axes Mike Berkley put forward that should be considered:

  1. Utility: The “Job To Be Done”
    Examples: 
    -
    Getting from point A to B (Lyft)
    - Communicating with co-workers (Slack)
  2. Efficiency: The “Full Customer Experience” (includes UX, Customer Support, Billing, etc.)
    Examples:
    - Optimizing the buying & selling of digital ads (AppNexus)
    - Personalizing and optimizing home heating & cooling (Nest)

Leveraging this framework as a product manager, there a few core questions to answer:

  • If you mapped your product’s evolution, how does utility improve versus efficiency?
  • Where does your product lie relative to competitors (direct and indirect) in your market?
  • Which axis currently dominates your product and does that align with your current market problems?
  • As a user of your product, what positive emotions does the product elicit? Does the current product investment amplify those emotions?

Through this exercise, I developed an intuition for exactly which types of pain points we are solving for, how the market views our solutions, and whether our investments align with how the market’s pain points are actually distributed.

Focused on Inventory Management and Quality at AppNexus, my team builds solutions that definitely skew heavily toward utility or efficiency. Ensuring platform inventory quality, for example, is undoubtedly a utility, and in most instances, a minimum purchase criteria for advertisers. Improving Inventory Management, Discovery and Curation, however, are solutions focused on improving efficiency in the Digital Advertising space and fulfills the aspirations of our trader users to outperform any Return On Investment goal and build a compelling narrative for their clients.

While there are many opinions in this area, including notable ones like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s 5 Dimensions of a Great Product, the concept of a great product is also very subjective. Beyond building a great product, it’s the responsibility and privilege of the Product Manager to translate that vision into something that compels the user to purchase.

As we’ve all seen many times over, great products can still fail to connect with an audience or customers if they are not framed and presented in a way that is truly compelling. This is where storytelling comes in as a vital tool.

Storytelling

A strong product narrative moves people to action — not only customers but also employees and potential partners. As a product manager, it’s in your best interest to ensure your entire team knows what story you want to create for your users, as it motivates the team to put everything behind achieving that goal.

If we move to the basics of a strong story, Jay Goldklang referenced communication coach Will Carlin’s 5 C’s framework to ensure a compelling narrative:

  • Context: Establish the setting and identify the main user you are focused on.
  • Conflict: Clearly establish the problem your product attempts to solve.
  • Conflict Escalation: Add color/detail to articulate the negative emotions tied to the user’s current options to solve the problem.
  • Climax: Establish a pivot in the narrative triggered by the introduction of your product.
  • Conclusion: Describe the specific improvement in the user’s ability to now solve this problem with your product and the differentiated benefits of your solution.

Jay mentioned that the strongest product managers craft a story around a single user, instead of a group of users. They then take the story and share different angles of it to all the important internal stakeholders — at all hands meetings, working sessions, cross-functional status updates, or any touchpoint that relates to building the solution. There will always be other competing voices eager to tell stories about your product. The best way to handle this is to craft a story that is as close and personal to your user as possible. The more emotionally resonant it is, the greater its ability to drown out competing perspectives.

Both building a great product and telling a compelling story about it are goals foundationally rooted in one key responsibility of any product manager: deeply understanding your user. From a user’s needs and aspirations that drive what your solution is, to their personal narratives that are the building blocks for your product story, the return on your investment in understanding your users manifests itself exponentially in your product’s success.

To learn more about the First Round Product Program, please read about our previous sessions and stay tuned for more posts!

Thanks to Ida Fey & Camille Ricketts for help with this article.