I think many would agree with me that there isn’t a repeatable formula that guarantees the success of a product, but there are several parts to a larger strategy that could help put a product on a course to be successful.
To me, the product team is almost more important than the product itself. A good team can move mountains to make an idea or strategy work, quickly adapt to changes required from feedback and work as a tribe to reduce unneeded processes and documentation in the early days of development. Once you have the foundation of a great team and an idea, the next step is to clearly define what you are going to build.
That definition is commonly referred to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) but can also be Semi-Functional Prototype (SFP). The idea of the MVP/SFP phase is to get feedback from your core users as fast as possible and work on ways to incorporate that feedback into your workflow and team. These workflows should also grow as you scale, making user feedback part of your story writing, sprint planning, and release management. Users want to be part of the action, they want to help and be heard and when they see that you are listening to them they become champions of your product – helping to spread the word and make it more successful.
A big part of your MVP needs to be data collection and analytics. Over-invest in this early and build it into your story and sprint planning. It will save you so much time in the future if you know that you can see what your users are doing and accurately report on it at a moments notice.
Once you have a great MVP/SFP you should release it when the basic, core functionality it in a good place. This is one of the most complicated phases of a product’s lifecycle. As a product manager / team, you will have hundreds, if not thousands of ideas floating around to make the product better, features that will be massively disruptive to competitors at scale, features that some of your users are already demanding. The best advice I have for this stage is “wait and see”. Trim back features before they are developed and get the basics out, then, learn as much as you can as fast as you can on how your users are reacting to your product. Quickly start iterating on your feature set to make things easier, fix issues and bugs that will inevitably show up and prove to your users that you want to make something innovative and stable. This buys you time to really see what should be next and builds loyalty with your user base. Product managers and founders often ask me questions around this particular phase because it is so tricky. My best advice is to buy a great notebook (I recommend the Moleskin pocket-sized books) and record every idea you have in it. Sketch UX concepts, draw out workflows, and write everything down. You don’t want to forget any idea, but you also don’t want to confuse your team with everything at once. It is your job to think of everything your product can do but then edit it down to understandable chunks for your team. I often use the analogy of a chess master, they make small moves forward but know the entire game they want to play, changing it as they see their competitor adjust, like your product’s users and market inevitably will.
Your next feature release should be a big one, usually removing “alpha” or “beta” from your product if you have done the above successfully. Your users now understand they can count on your product, that it is stable and does exactly what they need it to do. Now you can really focus on what could “wow” your user base and make them love your product even more. It could be a feature that dramatically cuts down on their time requirements by using the data you have from other users, it could be a new demanded feature from a majority of your users or something you and your team feel will be a game changer. Once it is out, make sure you repeat your user feedback and workflows like you did when you first launched your MVP/SFP to make sure you are right.
At this point I usually like to go back and re-focus on stability and testing, adding new functionality for the development teams to test iterations in real-time without release needs. Pick a robust A/B testing tool (or create your own) and make sure it works with and amplifies your data collection and analytics work. This will allow you to start to move faster, make tweaks and feature introductions to smaller parts of your user base to gauge reactions and feedback at a faster pace. Done well, you could have 10-20 tests running at any given time across your product tailored to user segments that provide the best responses. Once proven successful, these tests become changes and features to your products in the next releases and are almost guaranteed to be successful because of the testing process.
Once you have a proven team that has created your product, a steady and happy user base, the right data and analytics coupled with the right testing workflow and your iterating and have reached a constant sprint velocity, it’s time for roadmap planning and a strategic focus. Many product managers do this too early in their development cycles, resulting in team confusion. Although the vision of the company or product manager should always be known across the team, the details don’t need to be filled in until you know you have something. It isn’t worth the time until this phase and will save you headaches in the long run.
Take your team “offline” for a day or more and get them into a new location for an offsite meeting. Bring all your data, ideas and even invite some of your users to attend parts of the meeting. You are planning your next version and you need all the help you can get to make sure you do it right. Open up the room to ideas, make sure you record everything and compare it to your own thoughts. There are no bad ideas and never treat any as such – you are fostering a culture with clear communication and that communication is imperative to a happy team and a successful product. After you have a good list of the top 5-10 features or changes, work with the team to plan out when they should be available and how to introduce them. It’s now a great time to bring in your executives and marketing so they know what you are up to, along with timelines and plans, to they can do what they need to do to support your successful product. Do this for every major release.
You now have a repeatable process that has a solid foundation built by a rock-solid team on true user feedback and testing. Repeat it, learn from it, optimize it and make your product a success.