The frameworks, tools and examples in this book illustrate five steps in the product journey: discover, design, develop, deploy and deliver.
Product launches are exciting, but also exhausting. In fact, the launch is only the beginning of another set of journeys in design, customer connects, and business growth. Many startups have tech and design skills but lack a strong product development culture.
This knowledge gap is addressed by Valerio Zanini in his new book, Deliver Great Products that Customers Love: The Guide to Product Management for Innovators, Leaders, and Entrepreneurs. The book is a must-read for entrepreneurs, techies, designers and managers.
The material is spread across 235 pages, providing useful and practical insights. The author’s website has a number of forms and worksheets for free download such as the product dimensions canvas and user journey map (showcased in this review), as well as the empathy interviews template.
Valerio Zanini is the founder of product innovation consultancy 5D Vision, and has helped build digital products for Fortune 500 companies like Cisco and Capital One. He was also the co-founder of Goozex.com, an online platform for trading digital media like video games and accessories. His other book is The Spark Engine: Drawing Exercises that Ignite Team Creativity.
My key takeaways from the book are summarised below. You can also see my reviews of the related books Product Leadership, The Hardware Startup, Lean Startup, Solving Problems with Design Thinking, and Intuitive Design. Refer to YourStory’s d-Zen (‘design Zen’) section for more resources on design and development.
Product and management frameworks
“A product is the aggregate of tangible and intangible attributes that deliver benefits to the customer and solve a specific need,” Valerio begins, as a definition of a product. Tangible attributes include ingredients and features, while intangibles are customer feelings of value, quality, and security.
“The goal of every team should be to find the fastest, cheapest, easiest way to test and validate a new idea and get to market-solution fit as quickly as possible,” Valerio urges. This should ideally be done without large upfront investments.
Product managers lead cross-functional teams with skills in human/customer, business and technology dimensions. They define the why, what and when of the product, while the how is left to the team. They need to have skills in empathy, leadership, customer focus, continuous learning, and entrepreneurship. They also need to have empowerment and trust from the leadership of the company.
The three pillars of product success are customer focus, agile culture, and empowered teams, according to the author. Customer focus should be present in all stages of the product management cycle. Needs, pain points, drives, expectations and behaviours should be assessed across a range of customers: average, extreme, existing, proxy, and even non-customers.
Methodologies like agile, scrum, lean startup, and design thinking help product managers get close to customers, condense the learning cycle, lower the risk of building the wrong product, and deliver value to the customer and to the business. The author provides a wide range of examples of these frameworks and tools in action.
Design thinking is based on empathy and experimentation. It involves cycles of observation, analysis, profiling, ideation, exploration, brainstorming, collaboration, prototyping, testing, ranking and refinement.
Waterfall models of development are being replaced by agile, but agile principles should be applied in requirements and design phases as well, Valerio recommends. The culture of transparency, quick feedback, fast validation, and learning from failure should permeate across the whole organisation.
Getting broad-based feedback empowers employees since they feel their opinion is being heard and matters. The author also recommends other steps such as roping in agile coaches, using kanban boards, starting daily activities with innovation games (e.g. creative ice-breakers), and reaching clarity on the definition of feature success and project completion.
Instead of a linear approach to the product management journey, the author describes five inter-connected dimensions, called the ‘5 Ds’ – discover, design, develop, deploy, and deliver (see canvas below). Each of these dimensions needs different tools and yields different artefacts.
The “fuzzy front end” of the product journey begins with assessing customer needs, general pain points, immediate problems that need solving, motivations, and broader market opportunities. Customer observation can be in person, in a simulated environment, or online/remote. Empathy interviews drill down to not just what or how customers do things, but why.
Customer feedback is needed at future stages as well, to ensure validation of expectations or to uncover new market changes. The author recommends the use of open-ended questions, note-takers, wrap-ups that invite further insights, and letting silences open up new comments.
A product vision or value statement helps with product positioning and differentiation, and identifies core offerings and value. It should also have an internal assessment of cost and profitability, along with specified metrics.
The design phase describes a range of user personas (e.g. drivers and passengers for a taxi app). It should represent their motivations, needs and behaviours, and can be fleshed out with names, photographs and aspirations.
The customer journey map (see below) should map out touchpoints, transitions, experience gaps, and moments of truth, along with accompanying emotional states. Overlaps between the journeys of different personas should also be mapped out. “Micro-moments” in the experience capture the know/do/buy/go steps. These should be captured during the core engagement phases as well as before and after.
Design sprints then validate product ideas after the problem is understood. They can be four to five days long for generating hypotheses, storyboards, wireframes, and prototypes. For each customer journey map, the product journey map must offer a set of features. These can be prioritised for different cumulative releases so that the first output is the MVP. Prototypes can be of various fidelity levels and can include physical, digital, or walkthrough simulations.
This chapter describes terms like product backlog and user stories (which may be confusing at first, since these terms have other common meanings). A product backlog is a list of all features, enhancements, and bug fixes. A user story is written on a card and describes what this particular type of user wants to do and what benefits are expected.
Backlog items can be shuffled depending on priority; they can also be merged or split up, and even deleted. Backlogs are continually updated, based on customer inputs, market developments, tech changes, and internal activities.
Items can be listed on a Kanban Board in categories like Work in Progress (WIP), to do, and done. The board can be a physical display on a wall, or a digital board using a tool like Trello or Jira.
Prioritisation can be via the “Moscow method” (what must, should, could and won’t be done). Users can also be given limited virtual currency to choose what features they would like to buy, thus percolating key features for the MVP. Other measures of prioritised development are based on value-effort tradeoffs and weighted shortest job first (factoring in delays, costs, risks).
Tech and business teams should agree on how requirements map onto tech capabilities, and on definitions of acceptability and completion. The author conducts an illustrative exercise in this regard, showing how “I want a fast car” means different things to different people (especially his grandmother, who wants a small car that can get into and out of parking spaces easily!).
A user story focusses on user benefits, and not technical functionality. “User stories are placeholders for conversations,” the author explains. They can be sized based on relative complexity, using T-shirt sizes as metaphors or Fibonacci series numbers.
A “silent enemy” in the development phase is technical debt, cautions the author. Product failures can be caused by complex or rigid architecture, or when the addition of new features causes problems elsewhere. Regression testing and automated testing are strongly recommended at regular intervals.
This phase involves product launch in the market but is no guarantee that it satisfies customers (delivery phase). The product could be an MVP or a new upgrade, and care should be taken to address when and where it is launched.
Successful deployment is the collective responsibility of all teams and should address how customers learn about the product, acquire it, use it, and get support when stuck. Marketing of the product should not be an afterthought.
An MVP should be seen not as just the first of many slices of a product, but a learning opportunity to collect feedback and validate whether customers are interested in this product, to begin with. For example, the core features of a car are different in the mass market, luxury and sports segments.
The MVP ideation blueprint is a form which documents the product’s goals, target customers, hypothesis, and validation criteria (“we are right if…”). Validation includes human, business, and technical components, eg. trust, price point, online support.
Finally, the product must deliver value to customers, satisfy their needs, and match their expectations. Companies must address outcomes and not just outputs – the culture must not be focused just on the number of products rolled out or vanity metrics like social media likes, but actual solving of customer needs and their overall experience.
Unfortunately, a “delivery gap’ arises when the wrong metrics are used, or when the voice of the customer (VoC) via direct input is not factored in. Focus on the cause, not the symptoms, the author advises, as a metaphor.
Customer observation and empathy interviews play an important role in this phase as well. After all, customers are investing time, energy, money, attention and emotions in the product – it is important to satisfy them, retain them, and make them advocates and even evangelists.
The book is full of examples of companies who were agile enough to succeed with their products and others who got their assumptions and design wrong. For example, Uber first tested its app-based ride booking in San Francisco by partnering with a local car rental company. Only then did it build out its own network of drivers and other app features.
Daybreak Hotels spotted an opportunity to let customers book hotels just for the daytime. Its MVP was a basic page with business support by a hotel professional. Emerson offers installation guide apps for those who buy its Sensi thermostats, along with phone support and contingency plans.
Tesla’s first Roadster electric car was manufactured by Lotus Cars in the UK. This allowed the company to test its hypothesis about the desirability of a lifestyle electric car, with lower upfront capital investment. Only then did Tesla invest in its own plants and charging stations.
Southwest Airlines designed its model around fast turnaround times at airport gates. Its stock ticker symbol is LUV and reflects its focus on customer delight. Airbnb provided human trust elements for its accommodation rental product by making approval mandatory for listings, and providing professional photographer support.
Smartphone users first preferred the physical keyboard of the Blackberry but eventually moved on to the touchscreen interface. The Iridium satellite phone project was meant to tackle problems with incompatible mobile standards and competing networks – but by the time the project was launched a decade later, these issues were addressed through arrangements like roaming.
To understand bank customers of Capital One, the author interviewed customers of other banks also, to get broader insights. While conducting a walkthrough for a retail concierge app, the author realised that a staff follow-up action by calling out the customer name in a noisy store may not be appropriate; a digital alert was chosen instead.
The author’s startup, Goozex exchange for video games, created a buzz at its launch by populating the site in advance with pre-registered users, focused initially only on the US, and priced its transactions lower than the competitor. In the long term, however, the gaming industry has changed via digital downloads and mobile games instead of physical games.
BookingBug, a provider of appointment scheduling tools, faced critical challenges in its growth phase due to a lack of regression testing and documentation. It took a year to fix quality issues with its product for bank Capital One.
In sum, the book provides useful frameworks and tools for entrepreneurs to visualise the entire product journey. This helps them plan ahead and anticipate changes, instead of being saddled with unwanted features, tech overhead, and unpreparedness for market change.