A 7-Step Product Development Strategy That Actually Puts Users First
March 17, 2021
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So the time has come to develop a new product. You want to build something that’s innovative, helpful, unique, and resilient. And as you know, that can feel like scaling Everest. That’s where a product development strategy comes in.
A product development strategy is where you determine the high-level direction for your product. It’s a critical step to get the entire team aligned and ready to build something remarkable. It’s also where you decide how you’ll build a product that stands out. Industry giants use strategies of all kinds to get (and stay) ahead:
- Apple focuses on creating premium products that draw customers away from lackluster competitors.
- Amazon works “backward” to create products so helpful their users feel as though they couldn’t live without them.
- Google leans on technical insights to aggregate, organize, and optimize competitor features.
These days, many product teams realize that centering the customer is a strong strategy for growth. But “customer-centricity” can’t just be something you talk about; it has to be put into practice. Truly customer-centric product teams think deeply about their customers at every stage of product development.
Here is a seven-step product development strategy that will help you put your users first.
1. Identify a problem or need in the market
Identifying a demonstrated user need isn’t just the first step in product development, it’s the single most important one. Full stop.
When product teams forge ahead before pinpointing how a product will help their target customer, they risk building a product that doesn’t serve a relevant purpose. And no amount of bells and whistles can sell a product like that. Too many product teams make this mistake; according to CB Insights, “Tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need” is the number one reason startups fail.
If you’re googling product development strategies, chances are you already have the seed of an idea for a product. That’s perfectly fine — you haven’t jumped the gun. But before you invest time and resources into the idea, conduct generative research (i.e., research that gives you deep background knowledge about the people you’re building for). You’ll learn about their goals, behaviors, pain points, and existing processes — all key to developing a fully realized product packed with user value.
Generative research comes in all shapes and sizes. Here are a couple of the primary methods:
- Generative interviews, which help you learn about your target users’ problems and experiences, in their own words.
- Field studies, which allow you to see how your target users approach those problems with existing tools through direct observation.
2. Design an innovative solution
A product can be innovative for a number of reasons: It can be technically powerful, luxurious, or creative. But for customer-centric product teams, innovating means building effective solutions to user problems.
The “jobs to be done” framework explains the importance of keeping user goals in mind during product design. It argues that when people purchase products, they are “hiring” the product to do a job for them. The job could be to organize data or enable communication, or a thousand other tasks. Regardless, the product designer’s duty is to build a product that can do the job (or solve the problem) better than existing solutions. Better could mean:
- At a lower cost
- Easier to use
- More scalable
- While integrating with other products
Take Slack, for example. Almost a decade ago, Slack was new on the team-chat scene and competing with bigger, established apps, like HipChat. How did Slack edge out its Goliath competition? It wasn’t by reinventing the wheel. They improved the user experience, added integrations, and offered a better pricing model to make the user’s job to be done — communication and collaboration among teams — easier. Now, Slack is one of the most popular remote-work tools in the world.
3. Create a minimum lovable product
With a design in place, you’re ready to build a prototype that you can show to early users. The traditional model for a prototype is a “minimum viable product,” or a bare-minimum version of the product. But the minimum lovable product mindset is a much more customer-centric alternative.
Jiaona “JZ” Zhang is a product lecturer at Stanford and a product alum at DropBox, Airbnb, and WeWork, among others. She explains, “[W]hen you’re only relying on the MVP, the fastest and cheapest functional prototype, you risk not actually testing your product, but rather a poor or flawed version of it.” Instead of settling for a prototype that just works, Zhang encourages product teams to build a prototype that — although not perfect — still aims to delight the end-user.
A narrow, focused scope is key to building a minimum lovable product. “When you start building,” Zhang says, “zero in on just one or two features that truly bring value and delight to the user. That’s what makes the MLP ‘minimum,’ yet still lovable.”
4. Test the prototype with your end users
Once you’ve built a minimum lovable product, it’s time to show it off to your target customers. This is a key step in gauging product/market fit and discovering new opportunities before you’ve sunk too much time and too many resources into development.
Failures at this stage of product development can save your product. If you find that your prototype doesn’t accomplish its job or spark delight, you’re that much closer to building a version that does. And since you’re working with a bare-bones prototype, now is the time to shift course. Design changes become exponentially more expensive later in the development process.
Use evaluative user research at this stage to help you validate your prototype’s potential and spark new ideas.
- Evaluative user interviews allow you to get deep, firsthand insights into the prototype’s user experience.
- The “I Like, I Wish, What If” method gives you a sense of what’s working and what could be improved upon.
- A/B testing allows you to compare two versions of your prototype to identify which specific features offer value.
5. Build benefits, not features
Users don’t care about the features of your product; they care about the benefits those features will provide them. So as you develop your prototype into a full-fledged product, keep a stubborn focus on a handful of high-value benefits for your users.
The difference between a benefit and a feature is subtle but important. Imagine you were building a data management platform. A feature of the platform could be automated report building. But “automated report building” isn’t really what your users are looking for. They’re looking to spend less time fussing with data and cut straight to the takeaways. That is the benefit.
When building, it’s also important to home in on a small selection of core benefits, especially for smaller teams. Expect stakeholders, customers, and even members of the product team to get excited about all of the things your product could do. But as any PM knows, it’s far too easy for product requests to balloon beyond the scope of what’s possible. That’s why it’s so, so important for PMs to be able to say no. If your goal is to attract, delight, and keep users, you’re better off building a few world-class benefits than a long list of mediocre ones.
6. Launch a full-blown customer experience
Remember, users don’t engage with your product in a vacuum. The experience surrounding a product is just as (if not more) important than the product itself.
These days, competition among digital products is stiff. Customers have the pick of the litter when it comes to services and software, and a solid customer experience could make the difference between customers choosing you or your competitors. According to PWC, “82% of the top-performing companies report paying close attention to the human experience around digital and tech.” In other words, a great product, while crucial, is no longer enough.
A great product, while crucial, is no longer enough.
Many companies implement entire CX teams to align effort across departments to delight users, increase conversions, build loyalty. But even if you can’t launch a full-blown CX team, it’s mission-critical to make your product as intuitive and supportive as possible for new and existing users. Before launch, consider tactics like the following to ensure your great product won’t be undermined by a poor surrounding experience:
- Use plain language within your product to make navigation effortless.
- Create a knowledge base that helps users to learn and to resolve issues on their own.
- Offer human customer support to resolve more challenging issues.
- Give users a place to leave feedback and feel heard.
7. Use Continuous Research to ship valuable updates
Product development doesn’t stop after your product launches, so your focus on user needs can’t, either. Continuous Research can help you keep learning about your users so you can continue adding value once the product is up and running.
Two features of Continuous Research allow you to gain user insights at scale: micro-surveys and automated text analysis.
First, in-app micro-surveys allow you to ask users targeted, contextual questions within your product. Because they’re short and pop up when users are within your product (rather than scrolling through a crowded email inbox), response rates are much higher than traditional surveys. Plus, because they’re immersed in the context of your product when answering, respondents can give more specific, helpful details about the product and their experience.
Second, text analysis tools allow you to make sense of all those responses in a matter of minutes, saving you hours of combing through and interpreting open-ended survey data by hand. With UserLeap, micro-survey results are reviewed by a combination of artificial intelligence and human user-research experts and then presented as straightforward suggestions. In other words, we help you collect and translate user insights into a ready-made development queue.
You can unlock value in many ways with Continuous Research. For example:
- Understand why site visitors aren’t signing up for your product and how to increase conversations.
- Identify areas to improve UX and remove barriers between your users and their goals.
- Learn why users churn and how to prevent it.
Check out our gallery of survey templates. You’ll see 75+ unique ways Continuous Research takes the guesswork out of product development and helps you ship updates your users will love.
Customer-centricity is a marathon, not a sprint
For new and existing products alike, creating a lovable user experience doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why it’s so important to embed genuine customer-centricity deep into your product development strategy.
These days, B2B business leaders consistently claim that building excellent customer experiences is a top priority. But as Nick Caffentzis, a senior fellow and an adjunct professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, says, “[M]ost organizations lack the feedback tools, metrics, and processes to deliver a differentiated experience.”
In other words, going customer-centric isn’t just a shift in mindset or some new marketing copy; it requires that you learn from your users, deeply understand their needs and goals, and deliver targeted value at each and every turn.
If you want more concrete tips and tricks to ensure that you’re practicing what you preach, check out our blog post, Is Your Product Team Really Customer-Centric? It’s full of tips and tricks to keep you honest about designing with customers in mind.
Also, be sure to watch The Biggest Launch, our interview series in which we share stories and lessons learned from building and launching products with top product leaders from companies like Uber, Webflow, and HubSpot.