Amazon’s ‘Working Backward’ Approach: Is It Really All That Backward?

December 4, 2020

Amazon gets an average of about 200 million unique visitors per month. For comparison, if every person who visited Amazon in one single month formed a country, it’d be the eighth-most populated country in the world. That puts it ahead of Bangladesh, Russia, Mexico, and Japan (🤯).

This success goes hand-in-hand with how much customers love using Amazon. Eighty-nine percent of people say they’re most likely to buy from Amazon over any other online retailer. Why? Because Amazon represents a near-perfect response to customer need. It offers an incredibly fast, convenient, and comprehensive experience that outshines most other online retailers.

A relentless focus on customer experience is built into Amazon’s mission. In an approach they call “working backward,” Amazon product managers must start new initiatives by identifying and clearly articulating customer need. Only then can anyone on the product team sit down, put pen to paper, and begin designing a product solution.

I’m a huge fan of this approach. Customer-centric thinking has been one of the central themes of my career, and I’m not surprised it’s such a big part of their recipe for success. However, I do believe the term “working backward” is outdated and even misleading.

Obviously, on a literal level, working backward is supposed to reference how Amazon PMs start with the end user, reversing the design process. But from what I’ve seen, diving deep into the customer experience has been so overwhelmingly successful over the last couple of decades that it’s now standard.

These days, it’s more or less non-negotiable to obsess over the end user before getting into the nuts and bolts of product development. There’s nothing backward about the way Amazon works; in fact, it’d be flipping the script not to start by understanding the end user.

It might just be semantics, sure, but the term gets the wheels turning about the nature of product development, especially in its current state. Grab a fork and knife and settle in for some food for thought about Amazon’s process and the past, present, and future of customer-first design.

Amazon’s unique exercise to get PMs to “work backward”

For new product initiatives, Amazon PMs have to write fake press releases to ensure the product is deeply customer-centric before development even begins. They call it working backward, but at the end of the day, writing a press release is just an exercise (granted, a great one) to get PMs to think deeply about the customer.

The goal of these fake press releases is to force PMs to consider and articulate, in simple terms, the impact the proposed product will have on the customer’s life. The PM is only allowed to move into the actual design process once the press release successfully convinces the team that, yes, customers need and want this kind of product.

Obsessing over the customer first isn’t backward — it’s the only way to work.

On the surface, this exercise is called working backward because — duh — press releases are typically written after the product is already made. But put that literal interpretation aside for a moment and ask, what is the right (or “forward”) order to work?

All of the most popular design exercises encourage PMs to think about customers first, including:

  • Google’s design sprints dedicate the entire first day to understanding the customer problem.
  • Journey-mapping workshops ask PMs to map out the customer’s current pain points and options, interview real-life users, and describe the customer experience in an ideal world, all before beginning to think of product solutions.
  • Eating your own dog food turns product teams into the users: they have to experience the highs and lows of their own product firsthand in order to intimately understand (and eventually improve) the customer experience.
  • Building a minimum lovable product for user testing, rather than a minimum viable product, reframes product development as user-first rather than performance-first.

The future press release is no different. Like I said, it might be semantics, but it’s important: obsessing over the customer first isn’t working backward — it’s the only way to work.

To give Amazon their due credit, the company’s leadership saw the importance of putting customers at the beginning of product development years before most.  

This customer-first approach was built into Amazon on the ground floor

A customer-first approach was Amazon’s guiding principle from day one. According to Jeff Bezos, it’s what propelled them to become the mega-business they are today.

In 1995, Amazon launched with the mission to become “Earth’s most customer-centric company.” While Bezos originally founded Amazon as an online bookseller, he believed that, so long as the customer experience was front and center, it could expand into (and dominate) any market. Turns out, he was right.

At the time, this degree of faith in the customer experience was rather bold. Take this 1999 interview with CNBC, for example, in which Bezos was more or less mocked for his theory that a customer-first approach could lead to virtually infinite growth.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/GltlJO56S1g

For much of the interview, the interviewer prods Bezos to admit that what Amazon is trying to do — open an online store where customers can easily order whatever they want — won’t work. He calls it “an intense gamble” and “corporate arrogance.”

But, no matter how much the interviewer presses him, Bezos always comes back to the same central argument: “If there’s one thing Amazon.com is about, it’s obsessive attention to the customer experience.” In Bezos’ mind, there is nothing Amazon can’t accomplish, so long as they understand their customers’ needs and pain points better than any other company and think of creative ways to address them.

It’s shocking, albeit impressive, how much faith Bezos had in customer-centricity. He even treated the approach like a business model. When pressed about how Amazon will convince investors to take a risk on his big idea, Bezos says, “In the long term, there’s never any misalignment between customer interest and shareholder interest.” His point is almost stupidly simple: uncover customer need and make it your North Star. If you do, everything else will fall into place.

Today, Bezos has the right to be a little smug. Amazon is one of the most valuable companies in the world, and, just like Bezos predicted, the company has successfully conquered nearly every nook and cranny of the eCommerce market (and beyond).

The most impressive part? Through two decades of unprecedented growth, he’s still beating the same customer-first drum: “The No. 1 thing that has made us successful by far is obsessive compulsive focus on the customer.”

Customer-first companies like Amazon literally flipped the script

Amazon was part of a transformative wave of customer-first companies that changed product development in a very real way, even reversing the standard order of operations of product development.

When you watch the CNBC interview, it’s clear that Amazon’s customer-first approach was “backward” at the time. The interviewer was baffled that they knew the customer experience they wanted to create before creating the business structure and technological horsepower. But Bezos just wasn’t there yet: he needed to obsessively understand the customer and their needs first.

The interview is indicative of a larger shift in product development around the turn of the 21st century. Until the late ’90s/early ’00s, companies were much more producer-oriented than they are today. Engineers built powerful products and then handed them off to the marketing department to figure out how to convince customers to buy.

But as the dot-com bubble began to swell, online companies (including Amazon) began rethinking the nature of product development. Instead of retrofitting customer need to an already-built product, they built tools with the goal of improving customer experience. This customer-first mentality proved to be a competitive advantage, so they built their businesses around it.

Take the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, originally written in 2001, for example:

Text taken from agilemanifesto.org.

Design thinking, which became popular around the same time, follows similar logic. It’s a five-step process: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test. This model asks PMs to empathize with the user and define the problem the product will fix before even beginning to ideate a solution.

Like the agile framework, design thinking puts customers first — and when I say first, I quite literally mean first in the order of steps. (Kind of like the future press release exercise, no?)

See where I’m going with this? Customer-first product development is so embedded into the modern-day PM, calling it “working backward” just doesn’t ring true anymore. The last 20 years have reversed the process of product development so thoroughly that any exercise to understand your customer, even writing a fake press release, is (thankfully) standard procedure, not working backward.

The evolution of customer-first product development shows no signs of slowing

Looking back over the past couple of decades, I’m struck by how quickly the rules of product development were rewritten to put the user front and center. It makes me wonder what new tools, processes, and mindsets will PMs adopt to become more customer-centric in the next two years, let alone the next 20?

Take a look at some of the current changes rippling through the product world:

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that product teams should be ready to roll with the punches. In a span of 20 years, a company like Amazon can go from batting off skeptics on the daytime news to transforming the way product teams around the world work.

Are you obsessed with being customer-obsessed? Are you sure? Check out our blog post, Is Your Product Team Really Customer-Centric? to see how you measure up.

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