The myth of the genius founder is pervasive in product development despite ample evidence that there is a better, more reliable way to build products and services.
Winning products tend to do just one thing better than all their competitors. Product developers and product managers focus on finding that one thing that really matters and obsess over doing it best. Finding a competitive advantage and delivering that in a product experience is the main job of any product development process.
What is product development?
Product development is the process of bringing a product to market. Sequencing product development into a repeatable process enables teams toeliably develop and deliver products to customers who want them.
If you like to build things, you think constantly about what the world needs and how you can build it. The product development process helps you progress from thinking to taking action. Your job as a product manager is to go out into the world to research, test, and validate those needs, and contribute to building a product to meet the needs of the market and your users.
Product development vs. Product management
Product management is a job title while product development is the job function. Product managers facilitate the process of product development in concert with folks from design, engineering, testing, and marketing.
The 9 stages of the product development process
Product managers and their teams are often sent “back to the drawing board” when a test or prototype fails. The most important thing in times like these is to simply begin again. The following stages of product development can be used both as a linear progression and a learning loop. Wherever your team falls, the best advice is to keep moving forward.
1. Team formation
I used to work for an early stage VC firm. Entrepreneurs often asked me what they needed to get a meeting with the leadership team and were often surprised by my answer: “All you need is a good team.”This philosophy led to some of our best investments and a strong team is behind almost all successful products. The hard work of team formation should be your first step in product development.
A product development team is cross-functional, endlessly curious, and wildly creative. The curiosity usually comes from a product manager or team lead who commits to learning everything they can about the customer. Creativity comes in when engineers and designers take customer insight and turn it into workable products.
Many product teams are just two co-founders trying to figure it out. They share a breadth of responsibilities until they can grow and hire a full product team. Product development teams are generally composed of the following roles and responsibilities:
Product management: Product management guides every step of a product’s lifecycle — from development to positioning and pricing — by focusing on the product and its customers first and foremost. To build the best possible product, product managers advocate for customers within the organization and make sure the voice of the market is heard and heeded.
Design: Designers help ideate, define, and prototype early iterations of the product. Design remains a key contributor throughout the product development process.
Development: A developer or dev team builds the product. Dev teams handle engineering and often include testing and quality assurance teammates.
Marketing and sales: It’s best to consider marketing and sales quite early, to ensure you have a strategy before the product goes live.
2. Customer discovery
Customer discovery is the process of understanding your customers needs and pain points. This is best done through in-person interviews aided by surveys and persona development.
Let’s imagine an entrepreneur who’s identified a customer that they want to help. In an in-person interview, they validate the existence of a customer pain-point, and share a potential solution . They’re thrilled to learn that the customer thinks that the product would work for them, and they’d likely pay for that solution. They’re puzzled a few months later when that customer and others are hesitant and unwilling to buy what they created with such confidence.
This entrepreneur underestimated how nice people can be when they’re sitting across from someone who’s energized about their problems and wanting to help. Customers will often tell you what you want to hear, especially when you are seeking validation. Use the invalidation interview to improve your customer discovery process.
Let’s say you live in a world with all spoons and you want to design something new: the fork. You give a customer a plate of broccoli and say, “I’m guessing you want a spoon to eat this.” You then hear that actually, no, something with a few sharp spikes would probably be better at picking this up. You’ve just validated that they need a fork by encouraging your customer to say no to your question and to explain why. I find that passionate customers give the best insight not when they say yes to validate your solution, but when they say no to invalidate another solution. By seeking invalidation you find validation.
Ideation is the creation of a solution to a known problem. For many, this step focuses on brainstorming. But, remember that this process is designed to help you move away from just thinking about it! Rather, we can refocus on the core insight of most successful products: They do one thing well.
Start by setting the boundaries of your ideation. The best guidelines come in the form of your target market. You’ve spoken with these folks, and hopefully, learned a bit about them. Limit your idea generation to things that exist in their world only. Another great boundary is existing products and solutions. By analyzing what competitors do well, you can find an unmet need that becomes the one thing that your team can really focus on. The outcome of ideation is not a product spec sheet with functionality and features, it’s one problem worth solving and a hunch for how to solve it.
The last check in ideation is an honest look at your team and resources. Is your chosen solution something that your current team can execute? Do you have resources or tools to unlock the capabilities that you lack today? If you find a mismatch between your team and your ambitions, there are still many paths forward. You can return to the team formation step to build out a stronger team. You can also bite off a smaller chunk of the problem so that your team can continue to move forward.
4. Define the product
You have a hunch about how to solve your chosen problem. Now, you can start shaping that hunch into a real product. This is a dangerous stage, where the planners and doers can run a bit wild creating full product requirements documents with all the bells and whistles. I’d caution you to quickly look ahead at the next step to refocus your energy on only what is required at this stage.
Defining your product includes deciding what shape, form, and delivery method you will use. Common definitions are “hardware, software, virtual, SaaS, CPG”, and more. You probably gravitated towards one definition early on, and you may be right on the money! Many of the most interesting products broke the mold in this definition state. Imagine when the team at iTunes wagered that the future of music delivery was going to be via software not hardware. Their world was full of CDs and records and that product definition changed the industry as we know it.
Do you have doubts about your product definition? Revisiting your customer discovery might be the best signal on which direction to choose. Customers that shared hopes for a cheap, easy, on-demand solution might be hinting at SaaS while customers focused on durability or security might respond best to a hardware solution.
Prototyping is an iterative process used to create a physical manifestation of your product. Efficient prototyping efforts focus on creating a large number of iterations quickly and cheaply. The rise in 3D printing and low-code software development has made prototyping more approachable than ever.
Your goal in prototyping is to de-risk some of the assumptions made in your product definition. If you assumed you could make an amazing digital music experience like iTunes, your prototype would focus on the upload, download, and playback of one song. If a basic download took too long, or the playback quality was extremely poor, you might need to return to your product definition.
For example, Chris is the founder of Nocs, an optics company that makes durable and waterproof binoculars for outdoor exploration. He’s an ardent supporter of prototyping, as evidenced by an office nearly taken over by dozens of prototypes of zoom tubes, pro-, and standard-issue binoculars. Asking Chris why he prototypes yields a simple answer. He says that there is no substitute for holding the prototype in your hands and seeing how everything comes together. Seeing an early prototype, and improving it in the next iteration, gives him incredible confidence that not only can he execute his vision, but that customers will love it. Chris keeps a 3D printer in his home office so he can continue to prototype when inspiration strikes.
6. Minimum viable product (MVP)
A minimum viable product, or MVP, is the simplest possible version of a product that you could deliver to real customers. Many entrepreneurs struggle with the notion of releasing a product that they know could be better. This fear is so pronounced that often, entrepreneurs soldier on and develop their product more fully, only to be confused by poor adoption.
It’s tempting to think of the MVP as a pared-down version of your final product. I’d then ask, “How do you know what your final product is?” The product development process is full of opportunities to challenge and change your assumptions about your product, and this stage is your biggest learning opportunity.Ground this experience in finding the strong foundation on which to build the rest of your product. Your MVP is that foundation, and you may not hit bedrock on your first try.
Hear Tanguy Crusson, Head of Product for Jira Product Discovery, talk about how to use MVPs to gather user feedback, prioritize your roadmap, and deliver a great product.
Example of a Minimum Viable Product
Pizza delivery is a phone call away. Most of your life, you probably picked up a phone, referenced a paper menu you had in some drawer, and recited your order to a pizza shop employee. Your team has a hunch that pizza delivery could happen via an app, so your product definition is a software solution. Your prototype is a series of clickable screens that handles the choice of a pizza and the input of an address. Your MVP is a real app with that exact functionality, with the addition of one important ingredient: Real pizza.
Your app, “The Cheese Slice” is an excellent MVP. It’s dead simple. Users have only one option in the app: ordering a cheese slice. Users input their address and receive a simple confirmation, with a friendly note to tip their delivery driver. You partnered with a local pizza shop who agreed to set aside 20 cheese slices for your one-weekend-only test. You pre-paid for these slices at $5, and plan to sell them for $3 because your goal is not to make money! Your goal is to find out if folks can break out of a traditionally phone-call-based experience and get the same satisfaction out of your app. Your MVP will deliver that learning in one weekend, at a materials cost of $100.
Remember our philosophy from earlier? Standout products do one thing well and your goal with an MVP is to find that one thing and validate that it’s what the customer wants.
7. User Testing
User testing is the process of observing customer interactions with your product, and learning what level of satisfaction your product delivers. User testing can happen in controlled and distributed ways. Many folks set benchmarks and compare MVP usage data to a pre-set goal. If you noticed that 20 people opened The Cheese Slice and clicked around for every 1 successful order, you are doing user testing! It might be hard to know exactly why so many people abandoned the process, so you can step up your user testing to find out.
User testing brings further validation of your MVP and paves a path forward for your development team. User testing might feel like it sets you back. You might find that none of those customers were satisfied with the app experience. In that insight is an opportunity to go a few steps back in this product development process and try again.
User Testing in Action
Imagine walking into a local pizza joint and paying them $100 for the phone numbers of their top 20 delivery customers. You call down the list and offer these folks free pizza if they come down to the office and order it with you. In the office, you slide an iPhone across the table and ask them to order some pizza. The only app on that phone, and the first thing they see, is The Cheese Slice. What happens next surprises you.
Many might open the phone and dial their favorite pizza shop straight away, not even seeing the app. For those folks, you ask them, “Why?” You might learn that they really like the people at their local shop. You wonder how you can bring a more human aspect into your app. You might watch them balk at the single choice, and ask them what other choices they want. In that moment, you learn what your next offerings should be… and it only cost you $100 and a bunch of leftover pizza.
8. Product roadmap
Ideally you gained strong insights from your MVP and user testing stages. Capturing those insights and sequencing them on a product roadmap is the next step. A product roadmap is a visual representation of the vision, direction, and progress of a product over time. Product roadmaps help you see how different work streams and initiatives come together to move your product forward.
One of the challenges with roadmaps is that they are usually static and disconnected from the actual work items that compose each work stream. The solution to this is a work management tool with a roadmap feature built in. For example, Jira Software allows you to toggle directly from your work board to a roadmap view. Let’s explore how The Cheese Slice could sequence their next app improvements in a roadmap.
The Cheese Slice team learned two things: They need to bring a human touch into the app and they need to offer more pizza selections. If they’re going to offer more than cheese, they also need a new name! Here’s a two week sprint visualized on a roadmap with three development tasks. First, they change the name of the app. Then, add pepperoni, veggie, and combo choices. Last they add a profile picture, snapped of their local pizza shop employee at work.
9. Launch and go!
With validation and a plan to keep improving, youre ready for customers. You might never feel ready, but you need to launch to keep product development moving forward. From this point forward, your customers will be the main inputs into your development process. Sure, you’ll respond to the market and your business needs, but you’ll get nowhere fast without customers.
Product development continues with smaller, faster “learning loops” than the full process outlined here. Think about ways to do customer discovery, prototyping, and user testing on a continuous basis. Think about ways to test hypotheses and challenge your assumptions before building expensive features. Put in the work to build repeatable processes and manage your work to keep things from going off the rails.
Product development examples
Every product has a story worth telling. The following stories help illustrate how to find the one thing your product team can really focus on, how to listen to customer insight, and how to begin again when things go awry.
When Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom co-founded Instagram, there were many photo sharing apps on the market. Kevin and Mike were rolling out new features but hadn’t yet found their differentiator. Then they noticed a sharp uptick in the usage of one feature above all others: filters. Instagrams filters allowed the everyday cell phone photographer to feel and present like a pro. Kevin and Mike quickly doubled down, offering new and better filters within the app. Soon filters became so prevalent on instagram that we had to assure all our friends that our most beautiful photos were, in fact, #nofilter. Scroll far enough into any millennials instagram feed and you’ll find egregiously filtered photos at the start of their instagram journey.
Customer insight can be so powerful that it causes a product to “pivot.” The core tenant of a pivot is that you keep one foot planted. Most successful pivots stay rooted in one aspect of their product while changing direction in another. My favorite pivot is Play-doh. Yes, that Play-doh. Originally called Kutol, Play-doh was a cleaning product facing falling adoption. They then talked with a school teacher that was using Kutol as an arts and crafts tool in her classroom. Play-doh continued to invest in their product but pivoted who they market to. By launching new and exciting colors, Play-doh rebounded and became the childrens toy we still love today.
The hardest times in product development are the setbacks. The MVPs that nobody uses and the prototypes that fall apart might stop you dead in your tracks. Instead you can cycle back through this process and revisit what you might have missed in each stage. I remain inspired by the team at Google+, one of the bigger flops in our time. While Google+ was failing, the product teams were spinning out amazing, enduring products, most notably Hangouts and Google Photos. When the opportunity changed, these teams stepped back through this process, formed new teams, and invested in new opportunities.
How to supercharge your product development process
Throughout this process, you’ll create docs, roadmaps, work items, and more. To support your efforts, you need product management tools and systems that are as flexible as your team is creative. These tools need to work together so you can seamlessly progress from discovery, to building a roadmap, to completing the first workstream, and documentation of it all. Internally, Atlassian product teams have used the Atlassian suite to successfully deliver products and services for… decades.
How Jira Product Discovery helps in the product development process
Until recently, the most challenging part of this process to manage is the why behind what you build. Traditionally, it’s the product manager’s job to communicate this “why”, and show evidence for the team's direction. Jira Product Discovery is a central hub where you can prioritize, collaborate on, and deliver new product ideas - all in Jira. It’s designed to help you integrate data from customer discovery into your development process. Building on that data, you then prioritize your opportunities, communicate your direction, and plan the work moving forward. Try Jira Product Discovery to rally your team and build for impact.