Turning requirements into product definition

In his newsletter article last month, Ryan Olshavsky outlined an overall process for defining new products and services, taking a look at the start of that process. But how do you get from understanding your users to a vision for an innovative product which will appeal to them?

Avoid roadblocks to innovation

For many companies, identifying what they should create in the first place is the hardest question in developing new products and services. They know how to build things, but they don't have a good way to decide what to build.

Many technology companies simply follow the technical opportunities they see, hoping that the technology they create will find a market need. This strategy is high-stakes gambling. Many innovative products do come out of this strategy, which can result in huge profits—but many, many more "great new technologies" don't go anywhere. This is why you want a user-centered process, not a technology-centered one. Start from an understanding of users, and find technology to serve them, rather than the other way around.

Other technology companies grow existing products by responding to the feature requests which their customers give them. In the short term, this guarantees that the product will serve a market. But you won't get anything truly novel out of this process, just refinements of the product you started with, which may or may not be significant improvements. In the long term, you will have a product weighed down with feature creep, ripe for a competitor to come along and steal your market with an innovative new system that serves your customers in a better way. This is why you want a needs-driven process, not a customer request-driven process. Proactively figure out what your customers will want, rather than just wait for them to tell you.

Similarly, many companies have strong marketing groups who do quantitative surveys of their customer base. That kind of work is essential—it tells you where there are dollars to win—but it cannot give you true innovation because it only shows you how the market works now, not how it could work with the introduction of something new.

Innovation means delivering products and services that address needs that no-one else has seen. Development driven by technology delivers innovation, but inconsistently, because it just hopes to stumble across those hidden needs. Development driven by conventional market research doesn't deliver innovation because it only identifies how many dollars are out there to pay for products that address the needs you already know about. Development driven by customers' requests doesn't deliver innovation because your customers tell you about the features they want, not the underlying needs that could be met with a truly innovative product.

To keep from leaving opportunities on the table, you have to target innovation directly by looking closely at what people need, and by giving planners the responsibility to invent new products that address those needs. Done right, this can produce not just a single product but a portfolio of products and services that address a range of needs for a range of users and customers.

Frame the question to find opportunity

This is why you want to marry traditional quantitative marketing research together with qualitative user research. In last month's newsletter article, we discussed the importance of talking to users, and in an earlier article, Reconciling market segments and personas, we talked about applying different tools to thinking of people as users and as customers. An understanding of your potential user population provides the most powerful fuel for the definition of new products.

You also need to have a general picture of your capacities. What kind of organizational resources do you have to apply? Do you have some basic technologies you need to think about up front? Do you have a clear picture of how your products and services fit together? Planners need to have answers to these questions in order to make sure that the organization will get behind the product.

That said, some companies go overboard with talking about their capacities at this early point in product development. Big companies often want to get all of the organizational players lined up at the start, and technology-driven companies often dig deep into the technology from the very beginning of product development. Committing to a specific technology, working group, or budget before you have a product definition to talk about can mean missing opportunities that lie along a different path. Giving planners just a little background in these areas goes a long way.

Structure your company to include planning

Making use of a keen understanding of users is not just a new technique. It demands political change in your company, realigning the way that your company distributes the responsibility for developing new products. Because technology and marketing alone are not enough, you need to introduce a "planner" role that has responsibility for defining new products. I talked about how the responsibilities of these three groups fit together in my previous article.

Planners are a small but essential component in a company that creates innovative products and services. They are the ones who should be responsible for defining new products, and they are the ones who have to create the form and behavior specifications that will drive managers' decision-making and engineers' development work. That's a heavy responsibility, but an important one: if no one in particular within your company is held directly responsible for coming up with innovative product concepts, then your company cannot do it consistently.

Maintain planning team continuity

At least part of the planning team involved in the creation of the product should stay involved from beginning to end, from the initial research to the final testing.

Continuity with research provides enormous benefits: nothing can substitute for the subtle benefits of direct exposure to users, especially during the definition of a form and behavior specification. Even when others have done more thorough or skillful research, planners will commonly benefit the most from research where they have the intimate familiarity of having participated in the process.

Similarly, after the creation of the form and behavior specification, its authors will have a facility with its contents which no one else can match. Keeping the planners involved as the work proceeds helps maintain the integrity of the product vision, and saves developers time and energy.

Keep the core planning team small

Once they've recognized the range of things that will go into making a product, many companies try to involve numerous players in the early planning process: engineering, marketing, managers, and so on. In practice, this weighs down the process with coordination and communication overhead. It slows the process and demands enormous organizational effort. It also leads to uninspired, compromised products that are plagued with feature creep, rather than distinctive products with a strong vision.

You want a small, fast-moving, decisive core planning team. Involve other people in the company, but have those supporting people respond to the core team’s requests for information and discussion, rather than the other way around. This will help the planning process go more smoothly. At Cooper, we generally assign a core team of just two planners to a project, supported by others as necessary, because a team of two can communicate closely and work quickly.

A small planning team also helps protect you from committing to ill-conceived products. If the product defined by the planning team doesn't make sense to develop, it won’t yet have the momentum of many people’s involvement.

Think about structure first

The process of defining a product can easily get lost in details. Planners tend to start looking at details as soon as possible, but this pressure can also come from outside the planning group: In web and software projects, managers often like to see screen mock-ups as soon as possible, in order to have progress they can see. This creates problems: looking at one element of the product in detail, planners discover problems in some unexamined assumption about the product, which means making some changes to that structure, which then requires revisiting the details of some other element which had been discussed before, which has implications somewhere else. The planning gets bogged down in interdependencies within the product itself.

To avoid this, planners should split the time they spend working on the form and behavior specification in two. In the first half, they work on structure: the major elements of the product, the basic scenarios in which people will use it. Inevitably, this will demand a little bit of dipping into details, but planners should stay disciplined about focusing on structure. Once they have resolved the structure and switch to looking at detail, they need the opposite discipline, resisting the temptation to revisit and change the overall structure. Again, planners cannot avoid a little bit of cheating, but they need to minimize the backtracking as much as possible.

Take a short vacation from feasibility

Many companies, especially technology-oriented companies, start their thinking about new products by looking at the technology available. This makes sense: a form and behavior specification that describes a product you cannot build, or a service you cannot deliver, does no good. But stepping away from thinking about those real constraints for a little while, at the beginning of the design phase, can lead to better products that sometimes even turn out easier to build.

Setting aside feasibility for a bit frees the planners to think entirely in terms of the initial requirements, clarifying their vision. This often prevents feature creep, because the resulting product vision does not include any elements that are there only because the technology permits it. Occasionally, you can produce real breakthrough ideas from unrealistic brainstorming. As they work toward the form and behavior specification, planners infuse more and more reality into their thinking, progressively scaling back the idealized product they initially conceive.

Articulate product ideas in coherent chunks

Everyone knows that product design benefits from an iterative process, where the team proposes, reviews, and refines ideas. Your planning team will have to brainstorm and reflect on a number of product possibilities, but do not to try to expose the whole organization to these ideas. Your early ideas probably will not yet have reached a point of coherence where people can communicate and discuss them well.

Nor do you want to ask your planners to create heavy written documentation of their interim ideas, or bog them down with doing too many status reports. The whole point of checking in with the planners during this phase is to provide feedback to them as the product concept takes shape. Creating heavy documentation at the middle tempts planners to defend interim ideas too strongly, and confuses the organization about what the true "blueprint" is. Interim discussions with the company stakeholders should take the form of small, informal working sessions, where planners can speak from simple sketches on a whiteboard, or in a PowerPoint file. At Cooper we call these "chalktalks."

Ultimately, you want the company to work from a form and behavior specification that provides a final and coherent description of what the product is and how it should work. Next month, we will talk about this kind of document in greater detail.