Other topics I care about · Product management · Recognizing excellence

A passion for great products

Even as I am working on number seven in my top ten list of core responsibilities for product owners, I wanted to take a brief break to write about something else. This week I finished two books about people with a passion for making great products and I wanted to share some of what these books provoked in my own thinking.

The two books were Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (http://amzn.to/U1YM7V) and Marty Cagan’s book Inspired (http://amzn.to/XLE9aK). During the past three weeks I listened to an audio version of the biography (audio books are a great way to spend a long daily commute) and finally finished Cagan’s book which I have been reading off and on for almost a year. Cagan is a huge fan of Steve Jobs in general and Apple in particular, and his book uses Apple as an example at several points in discussing how to make excellent products that thrill those who use them.

Here I want to pull out three themes that the books have in common, and then to highlight one key difference in the approaches to product development.

Design and user experience matter – as much as functionality. One of the key insights that both Steve Jobs and Marty Cagan stress is the fact that user experience matters. Great products don’t just do great things – they are also designed well and provide users with an enjoyable experience. Websites that are easy to navigate, computers that look well crafted, and software that guides users seamlessly through an intuitive workflow are simply more appealing than products that ‘do more’ but are harder to work. This idea relates to the second insight shared in these two books.

Generating passion and emotion for a product is crucial to making it successful. Who would have dreamed that people would camp out all night to buy a new phone or computer? Well designed and fun to use products create loyal customers, and consistently strong products spawn brands that users feel passionately about. Product developers who recognize this and seek to capitalize on it in both the creation and the marketing of their products can find great success, and so both Jogs and Cagan advocate taking this aspect of product management seriously.

It takes great teams to make great products. This third insight shared in both of these books highlights one of the key themes I have been writing about in my blog. Before you can build a great product you need to build a great team, and making sure that the team members function as well together as possible is vital to sustaining a strong product development organization. Cagan’s book talks about each of the important roles on a strong product team, and Job’s regularly emphasized the need to have all ‘A players’ working on the products he was developing.

While there are many central areas of agreement in these two books about what it takes to build truly great products, there is one fundamental difference in the approaches each outlines. Cagan’s Inspired stresses the vital role of frequent user testing I the process of product development. Creating prototypes that can be tested by real users, getting regular feedback from the market about feature and design decisions, and having clients ready to provide a glowing reference at the time that products launch are all deeply important from Cagan’s perspective. To build a product without this support risks creating something that the designers think is awesome but that the market will not pay for.

On the other hand, Steve Jobs took a diametrically different approach. He believed that users don’t know what they want until they get it, and he sought to have Apple’s products designed in secret so that he could reveal them as fully formed innovations. His obsession with controlling every aspect of developing a product combined with an incredible grasp on what would thrill users allowed Apple to hit repeated home runs with their products (although at times there were also spectacular failures). Whether or not this model can be replicated consistently by anyone else, it certainly brought great success to Apple and does present one model for how to produce outstanding products.

Marty Cagan and Steve Jobs have both been involved in some great companies and in making great products. Jobs continues to inspire people with his vision, and Cagan’s work with Silicon Valley Product Group (www.svpg.com) regularly offers insightful comments on product development. As I look to grow as a product owner I am glad for the things both of these books have taught me. Temperamentally I line up more closely with Cagan, but both men have inspired me with their passion for great products. Hopefully I can apply some of their principles in the work I do. Of course I know that in truth it’s not that simple.

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