Whether it is a state-of-the-art SaaS product, a new e-commerce product, or an innovative developer tool, your role as a product manager is to identify user problems and provide solutions.
Product managers must collaborate with multiple stakeholders to gather, understand, and formulate strategies to deliver value. However, this is not an easy task, and both startups and large corporations face challenges.
One of the most exciting aspects of product management is building a new product from scratch. It’s at this state that you can make your greatest discoveries and have the biggest impact on the user. However, it is also where you have the potential to make costly mistakes.
From experience, the primary reason why companies struggle is that they fail to mitigate their primary risk: unvalidated assumptions. People use assumptions to justify their actions, and companies do the same! They develop software based on their gut feelings and pursue a path that ultimately leads to failure.
Google+ is a prime example of this. Google assumed their users wanted a social network but failed to properly validate this assumption or, more importantly, understand why a Google user would prefer Google+ over Facebook, LinkedIn, or other platforms. Consequently, Google+ failed, and Google had to shut it down.
Great product managers validate assumptions as quickly as possible by engaging with the user. They use real-world data to make decisions and translate those into product requirements. The key phrase here is “validate” because until users interact with your product, all you have are unvalidated assumptions. Slack, Spotify, and Notion are a few good examples of companies that use data to validate assumptions, launch new products, and reduce risk.
Perceiving the Problem
To start validating assumptions, ask one question: what are my user’s main pain points? This will help focus your team and potentially lead to finding your product’s North Star.
However, this is a monumental task for most companies because they generally lack focus. As a result, they create a laundry list of problems that “must be solved,” which translates to an unprioritized list of features that “must be included” in their first release.
A problem that arises with a laundry list of features is twofold. First, there is the risk of starting development work without user data, which can lead to your software being developed in isolation and cause ambiguity in the future. Now is the time to start using real-world user data to validate assumptions and prioritize work. You can leverage your product roadmap, conduct in-person interviews, and send out surveys to make data-driven decisions.
In addition, the “must be included” approach can lead to costly consequences resulting from an unwavering pursuit of perfection. Companies may end up implementing unnecessary features as they fail to incorporate frequent user feedback. This all-or-nothing mindset often prevents teams from questioning why certain features are being developed in the first place.
One method to reduce this risk is to inquire with the business about the potential consequences of not including the feature upon launch. While it may be difficult to obtain a definitive response, this can encourage individuals to reconsider their commitments. At the very least, it can assist stakeholders in recognizing feature overload, which presents an opening for PMs to help them improve their prioritization.
Building your Assumption-Busting MVP
Now you’re probably asking yourself, how should I solve these problems?
Here are some recommendations based on my own experience. These shouldn’t be considered silver bullets, but they can help bring clarity to a state of chaos.
Done Is Better Than Perfect
Something I’ve alluded to, if not outright stressed, is getting into production quickly. Getting to production is the ultimate goal, as it allows you to validate assumptions with actual users and collect real consumer data.
Your metrics will be active, and you can collect data from genuine users rather than just test data. You’ll also have access to analytics dashboards to provide the business with concrete evidence that you’re moving in the right direction!
One of the key things I strive for is done is better than perfect.
In agile development, it’s better to get something done and validate assumptions rather than waiting for the perfect solution. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever have a perfect solution, since there will always be room for change, modification, or updates. This is what makes agile development beautiful.
Slack Huddles is an excellent example of how data can be used to improve a product. Initially, Huddles only offered voice communication. However, Slack gradually added more functionality in subsequent releases. Although video calls were briefly added to Huddles, they were quickly removed, presumably because they did not meet user needs. Slack took the time to modify the feature based on the data they gathered and re-launched it. As a result, Huddles has become a valuable feature that enhances collaboration and improves people’s day-to-day work.
It’s time to build your great idea.
Tackle the Simplest Problem First while Providing Value and Derisking
When in doubt, seek simplicity. That’s what we strive for at Integral. Seek the simplest user flow and tackle it. Starting with simplicity lets you quickly get software out the door and into your user’s hands. It also allows you to engage with your users and talk with them. In essence, you start validating assumptions and removing risk.
Ideally, you identify a simple flow that mitigates your biggest risk. However, if that isn’t possible, tackle simple work first while simultaneously solving your biggest risk. Doing this allows you to ship software and engage users. Just be cautious not to overload the team and lose focus.
Use your Product Tool Kit
Lastly, Product Managers have a variety of tools at their disposal to prioritize work effectively. The first among them are product strategy tools such as a North Star and Outcome-Based Roadmaps. At a deeper level, we have tactical tools like OKRs and KPIs. Finally, various frameworks such as AARRR, RICE, Feasibility, Desirability, and Viability can be used to prioritize work. All of these tools can help communicate priorities and provide clarity throughout the organization.
These are my tips for building an MVP and engaging in agile development.
If you feel like you are constantly climbing uphill to gather requirements and meet business needs… stop! Try understanding what may be causing this. Cut through the ambiguity. It will most likely lead back to unclear requirements and that constant, entirely impractical pursuit of perfection.