What makes a product great? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately as my startup moves on to the next stage of growth for our service from proof-of-concept to MVP. It has led me to reflect on past experiences both with product launches at SaaS companies and as a consumer of software and digital services.
A successful product combines a brilliant idea and great execution with a generous sprinkle of luck for good measure. Is this still enough, however, in the current day and age of tech?
Due to the rapid pace of innovation, a product needs to work harder than ever before to be successful. It needs to stand out from the crowd. It needs to be great. So, what sets a great product apart from the rest?
The Story Behind Great Products
In a great product, nothing is superfluous. The features work together in harmony to deliver a great experience. More importantly, this experience is beneficial; it supports users on their journeys from their current realities to better ones. This description might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s easy to see how it holds true for those great products we use daily.
Let’s take Slack as an example. Its purpose is to help people communicate in a work setting. Before Slack, most business communication was done over email. Threads were wordy and protracted over time, which meant decisions took longer. With Slack, work can be more organized and decisions can happen more quickly, providing an obvious benefit to an organization — especially a geographically distributed one — both in terms of competitiveness and workforce morale.
Slack itself isn’t particularly innovative, either. Instant messaging has been around for ages. What makes it great and sets it apart from the competition lies in the product narrative.
The product narrative is a carefully crafted message that the company creates around the product it wants to sell. It basically consists of the answer to two simple questions:
- What this product is about.
- How it helps the user improve their life.
In Slack’s case, the company’s mission, which is to “make work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive,” directly drives this narrative. Backed by a straightforward narrative, users easily understand a product like Slack. In turn, something that’s easy to understand becomes easy to talk about and recommend if it delivers on its promise.
Seth Godin, the famous marketer and author of Purple Cow, has written at length about the necessity for a product to be talked about, or as he puts it, to be remarkable, in order to achieve business success. Nobody’s going to talk about your product if they can’t explain it or if they can’t tell how it’s beneficial to them.
The functionality and benefit of your product must be obvious for it to be successful.
When Less Is More
As a result, when we design a product’s functionality, we need to bear this simplicity in mind. We can’t just create a bunch of features, cobble them together haphazardly, and call it a product. We must be mindful about what we develop and ensure none of the elements overly complicate our offering.
Traditionally, an ordinary TV remote control comes with a lot of buttons. Most of these buttons are used infrequently if at all, and they just confuse users when they’re trying to get to the content they want to watch.
Some of these buttons exist for legacy reasons. The channel selection numbers from zero to nine worked well when there were only a handful of TV stations to choose from but have become tedious to use now that there are hundreds of stations. Nobody’s going to remember more than a handful of them, and it’s not as easy as it should be to, say, assign the number “one” to your favorite channel.
In addition, whenever new features were introduced on the TV, they ended up on the remote control without much thought. So, we ended up with a button to access the TV guide, another set to access built-in program recording features, some more for interactive content (normally color-coded), and so on.
The end result was a device with a bunch of buttons that weren’t used much.
The Apple TV remote control, on the other hand, took a fresh approach: Remove everything but the bare essentials. Borrowing from the iPod, it had four buttons arranged in a wheel formation (up, down, left and right), plus dedicated buttons for “Menu” and “Play.”
Gone were the channel selection buttons, along with those for more obscure functions. These were replaced by on-screen navigation.
At the time, this change was met with mixed reactions. Although some users appreciated the simplicity of this new approach, others grumbled about the perceived loss of functionality over the more familiar paradigm of the traditional remote.
Fast forward almost two decades, and we can see the Apple TV approach became the standard for streaming devices. From Amazon’s Fire TV Stick to Google’s Chromecast with Google TV, we see the streamlined remotes with only the bare minimum of features being exposed to the end user.
Paradoxically, the streamlined nature of the remote is in stark contrast to the functionality these devices control. The streaming sticks of today are, without a doubt, more complex than the TVs of years gone by.
What’s been streamlined here is the product narrative. The new narratives focus on getting what users are after — video content — front and center and let everything else fall out of sight.
Dealing With Growth
Looking at the remote control example a bit more, we could argue that the TV remote was a victim of its own success. As new technology was introduced, the remote had to accommodate it, and therefore it grew in complexity.
We can easily draw a parallel here back to software. The world is full of examples of software that becomes too bloated until it’s supplanted by a more straightforward alternative, perhaps more in-tune with the times.
An easy one is Adobe Flash. This package was originally meant for vector-based animations and then became commonplace on the internet, powering anything from rich web applications to interactive advertising. Flash became a resource hog and a security nightmare before it was supplanted by more lightweight technologies built around HTML5 (just look at Adobe Animate’s list of supported publishing platforms to get an idea). Flash tried to do too much time and again, packing more and more features in until it started to burst at the seams.
This is not to say a product can’t grow. Growth can happen as long as the narrative stays the same. If a product’s narrative has to change, for instance to incorporate a larger scope, this change must happen over time, and needs to be well-communicated to avoid customer backlash.
When changing the narrative, we need to decide whether the customer segments impacted are still important to us, and how to offboard them if they’re not.
Adobe is again offering a good example here, this time around their photo editing offering. Whereas Photoshop has grown into the de-facto standard for photo manipulation, its expansive toolset and associated price tag risks alienating those users who need something simpler and more targeted to the traditional photo production workflow like developing and color grading pictures.
While Adobe embraced the expanded scope of Photoshop in its narrative, it also released alternatives such as Lightroom, a product which is more focused on a specific use case and therefore with its own, easily explainable story. This product met the needs of users who might have otherwise abandoned the company altogether, keeping them in the fold.
Sometimes, the affected demographic is just not worth saving from a business perspective, as the costs involved in supporting it exceeds by far the potential revenue. In such cases, good communication and a clear timeline for the end of support of the affected product is the best we can do, as demonstrated in this vintage example from Microsoft about Visual FoxPro.
In conclusion, a coherent product narrative is what separates a great product from its competitors.
The purpose of the product’s narrative is twofold: one one hand, it helps the user understand what the product is about and how it benefits them, while on the other it helps the company to focus on producing relevant features. This narrative can grow and expand over time, alongside the product’s customer base. However, any change should be well thought out and well communicated in order to avoid customer backlash.