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How to stop wasting time and build products that your customers love

I am Joachim Jonkers, and my goal is to make sure that business can have high quality conversations with their customers. I lead the product team at Chatlayer, an AI bot building platform, where I joined as one of the first employees, back when we were still a small startup. Two years ago we were acquired by Sinch, and now I am proud to call myself a part of this global company.

One of the key problems that products face is figuring out what to build next. How do we make sure that the thing we’re building actually has a meaningful contribution to the goals we’re trying to reach as a business. If you look across the software spectrum most new features added to products barely move the needle: they’re only used by a small minority of customers, they add clutter to the interface, they’re not contributing to acquisition, revenue or retention. What a tragedy! So many hours from so many talented developers and designers wasted on a feature with very little value. As product people, it’s our job to make sure what is being built actually makes a difference. So where do you start?

Everything starts with a good understanding on how our product can contribute to the problem we are trying to solve and how we look at the world. So, we must find ideas that can contribute to achieving that goal. These ideas can come from anywhere: customers, team members, the CEO, your mom’s neighbor — literally anyone. The only way to tell a good idea, that will help you achieve your goal, from a bad one is to validate them by doing research. Does that mean you have to hire a team of product analysts or invest in A/B testing tooling? That might be a part of it, but if the idea is still in an early stage, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to start small.

The easiest way to determine if an idea has any promise is by talking to customers about it. Don’t push the solution on them, but try to understand what they need, and if the problem’s they’re facing are common in many customers. Listening is super important: customers often have specific solutions in mind, but it’s important to find the problem behind these solutions to make sure you’re building a feature that works for all customers.

Once you feel like you have enough customer evidence to support a certain idea: move it to the next phase of research. Ask a designer to make mock-ups, and present these to the customers. Are they hyped about it? Then you know you’re on the right track.

The important thing to keep in mind is that there are too many unknowns to predict the outcome of an idea. Not even the most talented CEO or product guru can predict the outcome of a feature. Most ideas will probably fail — that is OK, as long as they fail fast. This process forces us to focus on outcomes, not on output. Built a new feature? That’s great, but what impact did it have? Focusing on outcomes forces you to get outside of the bubble of your product, and it makes measuring success much fairer and more straightforward.

This method of finding the right features only works when everyone is very well aligned on what the strategy of the product is. One of the most important jobs of product people is to engage our teams and make sure everyone is aware of how their work is contributing to the overall goals. Try it with your team: does everyone know this? If not, it should be your #1 priority to fix this.

Success in reaching the mission should be, just like the features, measured in outcomes. The best way to measure that is by finding a North Star Metric, a single, understandable metric that shows how much value your product is pushing into the market. For example, for YouTube, this is number of minutes watched. For WhatsApp, it is the number of messages sent. At Sinch we measure how much value we are bringing to the market by the number of conversations that passed through our platform.

The themes outlined in this article seem simple and straightforward, but for many businesses it’s diametrically opposed to how they work today. So, if you’re going to give this method a try: the best way to convince people is with real results. Research the 10 latest features that were built, try to find out how much they improved key metrics, and share these results with the team. The way to build better products is clear, it’s up to us product people to start doing it!

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