Start With the Problem – Insights from Lift: A Product Summit

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The recent Lift Product Summit drove home a key lesson: make sure your product is actually solving a problem that needs solved. How does a product owner or entrepreneur know their problem is worthwhile? Let the customers tell you.

The product experts doling out advice represented both the physical and digital realm, but had words of wisdom that could apply to nearly any business.

Ryan Frederick, Principal at AWH, looked at how human nature influences product creation.

When someone says there’s a problem, the natural inclination is to want to solve it. And many times entrepreneurs or teams will start solving a problem before really understanding it, leading to solutions for no- or low-value problems.

In another presentation, Nathan Vega of the Columbus Collaboratory echoed Frederick, stressing not to start with the technology, but to start with the problem. Innovation is collaboration: let users tell you what the problem is – then try to solve.

Frederick says ego is the enemy and product developers will make a lot of assumptions if they are not staying close to customers. A few words of advice: get and stay close to customers and users. No exceptions.

Interacting with customers doesn’t stop with figuring out and solving their problem.

Vega points out that the question then becomes, ‘Will they spend their resources on my product?’ The solution has to have enough value that the user wants to take advantage of it, either adopting a new process or removing an incumbent solution (which is hard work).

As Frederick outlines it: define users’ current state, define the new reality with your product, and understand the path to frictionless adoption. Friction points include things like downloading, logging in and entering data. Anything above three friction points becomes cumbersome; five and forget it.

Once a product is delivered, the cycle of ‘measure and responds’ begins. In order to continue innovating, Vega says you have to set up the right KPIs to measure.

A line Frederick often says to startups seeking validation from customers, “Tell me why I shouldn’t spend one more minute of life working on this.” Give customers and users permission to be negative and tell you what they don’t like about a product.

He adds that once a product hits users’ hands, it should have analytics built into it. What a user tells you that they do and what they actually do are likely two different things, and the only way to know for sure is to see how customers are using it.

All of this should be happening on a pretty tight time frame, as well. As Frederick says, constraints – a limited amount of time, money, and/or resources – drive focus. That’s why smaller companies can build better products faster.

Take too long to build a product and the problem and the customers could change. Frederick says products need to move fast – three to four months fast versus losing context taking years to build something.

That first version of a product should do no more than three things, Frederick advises. Many product creators think about scale too soon, eager to add features and functionality. Frederick says get 10 people to love your thing. Thinking scale and thinking millions doesn’t matter if you can’t get that first 10.

In a keynote panel, Pam Springer of ORIS Intelligence added more context to features and scaling. First, don’t forget about adoption of features you have before before moving on to new features. Avoid putting yourself in the position of only being able to add customers by adding features.

She reminds builders to be aware of where that drive for new features is coming from as well. Springer says early on be wary of having one or two dominate customers because they will dominate your roadmap. And if a company dominates your revenue line, a perception is created that they own you and can “steer you away from being Switzerland.”

More information on the summit can be found at liftproductcon.org.