How to create killer products

As I was writing the posts on the product development process, I thought of a number of the questions that I ask when I’m designing the actual product.

The thoughts below are based on more than 12 years of product management experience at companies ranging in size from 18 (uReach) to 15,000 (AOL) people. Although all of my experience is in the Internet business, many of these questions are generally applicable.

What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

Try to distill your product concept into a few sentences. A paragraph at the most. Having a concise, focused problem will help when making priority calls. You can compare feature line items against this statement to see if the feature is core or if it’s a bell/whistle.

Why am I building this?

There are many reasons for launching products. Generating revenue is the obvious one. But you might also be launching a product to fend off a competitor or to build long-term engagement with your audience. If you’re a startup, your primary objective may be to get awareness of your company and your product.

Although you can have multiple objectives, it’s important to know the relative priority. If a feature would reduce revenue, but increase engagement, you need to know which is more important.

Who am I building this for?

If you’re building a product for senior citizens, it’ll be very different than if you’re building it specifically for teens. This should affect everything, from the design of the UI down to the tone of the text in your help files.

The most important thing to remember here is that chances are, you aren’t building this product for you.

At my first job, I built the publishing tools for startribune.com. News stories could go into buckets like St. Paul news, Minneapolis news, etc. I wanted the option to get Minneapolis and St. Paul news at the same time. I wanted to be able to control how many stories appeared on each page of the results and how much of each story appears in summary form. The controls were cool. But they added to the complexity of the architecture and the UI. And I was one of the few people using them.

How am I going to measure success?

The answers to “Why am I building this?” should help with this question. If not, you may want to make sure your objectives are clear.

If you’re being measured primarily on comScore page views, first try to talk to your boss and come up with a better metric. You can create really bad user experiences chasing this metric. But if you’re stuck with this, it’s important to know that going in.

Most likely, there will be multiple metrics. You need to know the interaction among these metrics.

There will probably be custom metrics for your product. If a key metric is how many people invite their friends, the application needs to log that. Knowing your metrics up front allows you to get them into the requirements and have the measurement tools built.

What are my competitors up to?

You need to look at the competition from all angles: features, pricing, distribution strategy. If all of your competitors are giving away a product and you’re trying to charge for it, you’re unlikely to be successful. (Unless you can articulate a fundamental difference; see below.)

The competitive landscape is constantly changing and will change as you build your product. You can’t (and shouldn’t) respond to every move your competitors make during that time. But if there’s a significant shift in the environment, you might want to reassess your plans.

What makes my product different?

I’m not a big fan of “me too” products. While it’s tempting to copy success, you need to thoroughly analyze the situation first. You may not achieve the same level of success because your audience is fundamentally different from your competitors. There may be network effects or switching costs that are tough to overcome. You need to know what the drivers of their success are and how they apply to your business.

At one job, I was asked to copy eBay. I did the analysis and found that even if we paid our users to list on our site, the network effects were so strong that they were still better off listing on eBay. We couldn’t get the liquidity needed.

Google Maps is a great example of a product that was late to market, but isn’t a “me too”. They came into a space with entrenched competitors and did something really different that had a large impact on the space. (VentureBeat has a good story on the creators of Google Maps, who recently left to join Benchmark Capital.)

It’s important to stick to key established conventions. You don’t want your product to be so different that users don’t know how to use it. North is still up on Google Maps.

What’s going to make people fall in love with my product?

The truly great products are the ones people become addicted to. Think about the products that you love and why you love them. Can any of those attributes be translated to your product?

Some of the products I love: Apple TV, flickr, Facebook, Google Maps. For Apple TV and Google Maps, I love the elegance and simplicity. For flickr and Facebook, it’s that plus staying connected.

Talk to your target market and find out what they love and see if you can identify common themes.

Getting people to fall in love with your product will help with getting them to spread the word and having them develop add ons for you. You want people writing blog posts titled “I (heart) your product” (See below.) I have a friend who names her car and other products she loves. You want to stir that kind of passion.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of my company?

Your company may have products, features or relationships that can make your product successful or create barriers to entry for others. A number of the products I designed at AOL were based on the Buddy List, which provided an instant network of tens of millions of networks. That’s an asset very few companies have, creating a significant advantage.

These benefits need to be weighed against the integration costs. If it’s going to take an extra 6 months to integrate those features, you may want to phase that in.

If you’re at a large company, it may have a reputation that casts a negative shadow on your product. There are lots of factors that can influence people’s perception of your product before they even try it. For example, if your company is perceived as one that sticks lots of ads in all of its products, you may want to go the other way and deliberately have fewer ads than you planned.

Some weaknesses can be addressed in functionality, others in positioning and marketing.

How can I get my product out faster?

Time to market is critical. You can always polish later. What are the key elements of your product that users will value? Get those out as fast as you can and iterate on them. There’s no point building for the perfect experience at launch; you won’t ever get it.

But if you get something out and iterate from it, you’ll learn from real users.

How will search engines see my product?

If you’re building an Internet product, it’s impossible to overestimate the impact of search engines. You need to think hard about how search engines will see your product. This includes your URLs, link structure, keywords, images and a lot more.

Unfortunately, in some cases the things you do to be search-engine friendly are detrimental to the user experience. It’s usually a tradeoff worth making. Without the search engine traffic, you’ll have a lot fewer users.

On the plus side, many of the things you need to for search engines (such as ALT tags on images) make your site more accessible for people with disabilities.

How can I get users to spread the word?

Getting users to talk about your product increases the likelihood of success and reduces your marketing costs. It works even better when the other person gets drawn in through some immediate, direct benefit. e-cards are a great example of this. You become aware of the service through getting the benefit of the greeting card sent to you.

This does not mean spamming your users’ friends. Any time you use a friend’s email address for your marketing, it should be clear to the user that that’s what’s happening. Disclosure should be obvious, not buried in fine print.

Spreading the word includes widgets, modules and badges. Think of ways users can incorporate your product into their blog, social networking site, feeds, etc.

Pay special attention when designing incentives. If you’re running a contest, make sure that users have an incentive to tell their friends. In one contest I designed, the prizes were paired; if your friend won, you automatically won the same prize. Instead of each friend reducing your chances of winning, each friend increased your chance of winning.

Whose help do I need to get this to market?

If you need the help of a big company for distribution, say a wireless carrier, you need to learn all you can about their needs as fast as you can. You will likely have to make changes to your product or plans to meet their needs.

It can take years to get a deal done. Even when you think you’re close to signing, there could be a last minute re-org and all the people you were talking to are gone and you’re back at step one. I had this happen to me repeatedly at uReach. Marc’s Moby Dick theory of large companies is dead on.

How can I get others to help build my product?

Google, Flickr, Twitter and Facebook have all been very successful in getting the Internet community to build new products around using their open APIs. Even relatively obscure products like the Squeezebox have thriving developer communities. These users are more than just developers; they’re evangelists. Nik Cubrilovic has a post on the importance of APIs that’s worth reading.

As powerful as APIs can be, you don’t want to take them lightly. You can’t just throw out an API and expect the developer community to flock to you. You need to have sufficient documentation, sample applications, code samples and support forums. You also need to recognize and reward developers who do interesting things.

Ideally, your own product experience is built off your APIs. This gives you a chance to field test them and helps to identify holes in documentation.

How will users abuse my product?

People will always find ways to abuse a product. You should spend time thinking about how people might abuse yours. Some things, like spam, you want to head off early.

My preferred approach is to identify potential areas of abuse and be ready to respond quickly. Sometimes the best uses for your product might be discovered by your users; if you’re overly restrictive at the outset, you might never find those.

Who am I going to piss off?

I had a lot of fun with this. I wrote up a list of the different groups that my product might upset. For each group, I brainstormed their likely objections and what features I could build that enhanced the product but also helped assuage their concerns. If I couldn’t build around it, I figured out how I could position the objectionable features.

If you’re not pissing someone off, you’re probably doing something not worth doing. (Especially if you’re a startup.) Pissing people off isn’t all bad; it can be useful for raising awareness. I hadn’t paid attention to YouTube until the Lazy Sunday controversy with NBC. Come to think of it, I hadn’t paid attention to SNL until the Lazy Sunday controversy with YouTube.

But if you think that you’re going to piss off the RIAA or MPAA, be sure you have your lawyers as your five.

Speaking of pissing off the MPAA, if you haven’t seen This Film Is Not Yet Rated, check it out. It’s a documentary about the sham that is the MPAA Rating Board.

The NSFW trailer is also on YouTube.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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