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Advice on building great products

The role of any product leader is knowing how to manage ebbs and flows to build something truly special and important.

Advice on building great products
[Image Source: Jacob Lund/Adobe Stock]

While there are many critical components of any successful business, the product is the heart of any organization. It represents the lifeblood of the system. Everything else is built around it. Yet seeing the effects of changing a product often involves one of the longest waits.

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Every part of a company will affect the product, whether it’s sales looking for a highly requested feature or legal pushing for a more defensible layout. The role of any product leader is knowing how to manage ebbs and flows to build something truly special and important.

Drawing on my experience in past roles where I’ve decided which products to prioritize building and which features would have the most outsized impact on customers, here’s my advice on building great products.

CUSTOMERS MATTER MOST FOR PRODUCT DECISIONS

All research should be done within this context. While building incredible, shiny, difficult new features might be a fun challenge, they often don’t align with what users want the most.

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Deciding what users want the most often doesn’t align with asking them what they want the most either. Very commonly, customers don’t know what is possible or will ask for a faster horse when really what they want is a car. The job of the product team is to understand what the customers’ actual day-to-day pain points are and solve them. Profitability will naturally follow.

With very few exceptions, customer happiness should remain at the forefront of all decisions, no matter how many obstacles or other distractions come up. Sacrificing customer happiness for short-term financial gain is one of the most common mistakes that can kill a successful business or prevent a good venture from starting.

Many highly popular social media sites started off unsuccessful or were a pivot from a failing enterprise or product, but customer success in one key feature led to world-leading monoliths. Tracking customer attention to a specific feature or page is arguably the most valuable information a company can have, as it shows what users actually care about. Being borderline obsessed with customer happiness is one of the easiest ways to guarantee not only that your product is worthwhile but also that it will continue to retain customers.

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BEING USEFUL OR EASY DOESN’T MAKE SOMETHING RIGHT

Thinking about or executing on something that internally seems like another cool feature to add to a product is often one of the worst decisions to make. There’s an adage that a good programmer adds code, and a great programmer removes code.

In fact, one of the most valuable tools to improve any product is deleting content. While having a million different options may seem nice, having too many options can actually make users significantly less happy. For this reason, having just a couple of features that perfectly encapsulate what users actually want will often lead to a better product.

More importantly, having a small number of features means the ones that are built will often be highly polished. The more time spent building new features, the less time engineers have to spend on improving and perfecting the experience of the current ones. Many great products have only a handful of features. Look to social media monoliths and airlines to see highly successful companies with a bare offering of a handful of true core features. It only takes one key thing that users can’t live without to create an unkillable brand.

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PRODUCT DECISIONS SHOULD BE MADE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE

The nuance of making effective but not rushed decisions lies in the phrase “as possible.” It’s easy to spend an eternity writing documents, running numbers, asking questions, studying every possible angle and conducting the perfect analysis for a new feature or product before starting to build it. Yet, when actually releasing it, it might be obsolete or worthless because it’s not what the market actually needs right now, or, worse yet, the time spent building it means someone else got to market first.

If the investment into a product is steep and releasing it would not be quick to reverse, the goal with a prototype shouldn’t be an MVP (minimum viable product), but rather an MTP (minimum testable product). Building out something that doesn’t fully work but lets you test on real users to get actual reactions will let you get far more valuable information than any amount of number spinning and hypotheses. It also will allow you to find real vulnerabilities that are often unforeseeable. More importantly, if the MTP is an overall failure, the investment into the product is as small as possible and avoids what time would have been wasted actually completing it before it failed.

Even better yet, if a change is minor, uncertain to work and easily reversible, there’s little to no harm in just canary deploying the change to see whether users like it. The worst-case scenario is users ignore the feature and you have concrete proof that it’s not worth investing time into. The best-case scenario is it’s popular and users are already using it. Either way, the immediate feedback loop means faster cycles on experiments. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when debating decisions that should ultimately be left up to the user. For this reason, the fastest path to getting a prototype in front of users is often the best.

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BUILDING GREAT PRODUCTS IS A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT

One of the most critical things to remember when focusing on a product is that it’s a lot easier to talk about good principles than to actually enact them. Especially on the longer timescale usually accompanying big shifts in a product, remembering to focus on customers, maximize return per effort and not linger on uncertainty can help guide the way toward better solutions.


Noah Mitsuhashi is Growth Hacker, Keyboard Whisperer, Email Power User // noahmitsuhashi.io

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