If you're a Product Manager, odds are you've been asked to launch something that has been handed down by another team, whether that's strategy or the R&D team or just your boss. You've probably got limited responsibility to change the idea itself and it is tough to negotiate on features and scope.
How do you disagree with the concept in a constructive and helpful way?
Even in a waterfall decision making structure, there is room to explore and all good businesses want to build products that people need.
Here's an example of a project that might take a year to get to an already crowded market and how you could influence the solution and get to market quicker:
Imagine you've been asked to develop an online product where people can make a personalised photo-album and have it printed (pretend the printing fulfilment part is already sorted). These products already exist and so you'll be competing on price as well as brand awareness with established players (like Snapfish) in the market. It seems daunting to consider the sheer amount of features they already have, you do a competitor benchmarking exercise. You put together a roadmap and you're pushing months uphill to even consider a launch date, where you're vaguely competitive on features, price and so on.
How do you break this down into achievable parts and how do you establish which features are needed and which are not?
1. Understand the problem you're trying to solve
You could do some user testing and validation by comparing all the competitors, to get a benchmark. You could also run some focus groups to ask people what they'd need to create their ideal photo-album online. But all of this takes time and money. And, in my view, it creates inherent bias which sets up a false sense of security in the launch success. This is because by asking somebody which features they'd improve about something, you're already assuming they've made a decision to use it. You need to go back to before the time they've considered that they may need a photo album made online. How do you establish that desire and ensure your product is the one they think of? Sure, if they did an internet search, they'd find your competition and you could invest in SEM and SEO to ensure you're at the top of the page, but it'll be costly and if people are still not aware they can make photo albums online, are they really searching? What you need to do is find them where they already are and make them need you.
How do you test that and prove it to your business?
2. Ask real people about the issue, don't lead, listen
You need to understand the problem you're trying to solve, even if you've been handed the solution. The best way to do that is with real people and common sense. Put out a call on Facebook and ask people if they have 10 minutes to answer a few questions.
Do you take many photos? What device do you use? Do you get them printed? Why? Where? What's hard about it? Do you value printed photos? Dig and delve and try to get to the emotion around printed photos. People may evoke memories of flicking through family albums as a child, some may tell you that they only ever use a camera and plug the memory stick into the computer no worries. Others may only use a mobile phone to take pictures.
3. Validate with a quantitative survey
After this, you may be more confused than ever, but no loss - because it only took you a couple of days. It could be time to do something more qualitative and you can pull together a SurveyMonkey based on your learnings so far, to help you validate some of your assumptions.
4. Articulate the problem
Once you're done with that, start trying to articulate the problem you're solving and what the opportunities are:
Grab some sheets of A3 paper and a pack of pens and split your sheet into four columns: Problem, why, and so, and then. and add 5 rows. In the first Problem cell, write the problem that users have:
Problem - People no longer print photos because they can't get them off their iPhone to the PC and then figure out how to get them printed off
Why - Because there is less need to use a desktop computer at home now that features for most activities are available on mobiles, from banking to calendars and shopping
So, there is an opportunity to provide a quick way to get photos printed directly from the phone
And then we will have a point-of-difference to our competitors by being a mobile first product, where photos are located, where users are comfortable and where payment is simple
Get a second sheet and write it again, with different assumptions:
Problem - People who use computers don't print photos because it takes too long to upload them to websites for printing
Why - So there is an opportunity to offer printing directly from the place where they store their pictures - if it is already in the cloud - like DropBox or iCloud
So - they could use our website to order prints and point directly to their existing storage to print them (don't know how)
And then it will be quicker and ordering prints will take a few minutes
5. Develop possible solutions
Do it lots of times and it doesn't matter how dumb the assumptions are, keep asking why, why, why. Finally you'll get stuck on something that rings true and keeps coming up and you'll see the problem from a new perspective.
Now you've got a solution that actually helps to solve a problem that exists. All you need to do it test it with some users. You can build a really quick prototype with tools like InVision, if you're not a designer you may just need to draw a few wireframes without graphics - you can even take a photo of a drawing and InVision will help you turn that in to a mock up. Sending a link of the mock-up to people means they can comment directly on your little app and you can collate the feedback. It's a great way to figure out what people think and feel when using the product. You still haven't asked for a single line of code yet either.
6. So what is your prototype? KISS: Keep It Small Stupid
Keep it really small and try to test a few things out - maybe your first idea of an iPhone app where you can select some photos from your library and have them printed in a little book with no pagination options, no editing, no colour changes etc. is enough. They'll tell you if they wanted to change things in their feedback. Wait to be told, don't offer.
7. Define the final MVP
Before you know it, your MVP (minimum viable product) is defined. An iPhone app that lets people pick a fixed number of photos from their library and is organised into a simple photo book (of fixed theme, size, quality) for $10. You can get to market in half the time and build a user base, brand and more importantly market validation of demand as well as the ability to test prices and features quickly and easily. You also start to influence the messaging, based on the emotional connection to photos you learned about in your interviews.
8. Keep your business informed on your approach
You can share your approach internally. Businesses want to hear how they can get to market quickly and with a product that has been validated. You've got everything to gain and the worst that can happen is that you are forced to build the competitor clone, which is what you faced anyway. No win, no loss
I appreciate that in some businesses, the interplay between department, hierarchy and your own sphere of influence may prevent an easy path, but why not try?
Understand the problem you're trying to solve
Ask real people about the issue, don't lead, listen
Validate with a quantitative survey if you need more data - use something free and easy like SurveyMonkey
Articulate the problem as many times as you can, with possible solutions, using the why, and then and so approach.
Develop multiple solutions, no matter how crazy they appear
Develop an MVP KISS: Keep It Small Stupid - the smallest possible version of the product and create a mock-up using InVision. Get some real people on to it, get their feedback, watch them use it
Use the feedback to outline your final MVP proposal
Keep your business informed of your approach and the outcomes
You can read more about developing lean products and attend training to help you get the hang of this, otherwise reach out to somebody who has some experience. You can always find a sounding board who can ask you why until you run out of breath.