Product planning series: who, what, why, how

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This is the second post of my Product Planning series (which uses a new web app as an example to illustrate how you go about planning the release of a new product or service.)

In my last post I outlined some of the questions that you should ask to establish a business case for your new product or service. Once that’s done, it’s time to define who you are building the product for and the problems they face, what your proposed solution looks like, why you think it is better than anything else out there, and how your solution will work to solve these customer problems.

The first question some people ask is: why segment and target? If one does a wonderful job with product development, shouldn’t the product sell to anyone who might find a use for it? My answer is this: it is not possible to develop a wonderful product without knowing who you are designing it for.

Let’s say our web based B2C consumer SaaS offering is an educational site for children that focuses on advancing the musical education of kids who are learning an instrument.

Right away we can see that the buyer (a parent, grandparent or teacher) is different from the user (a student). You will need to build a buyer persona and a user persona. The buyer (parent) wants the child to learn. The user (child) just wants to have fun. To be successful the product must both educate, to meet the needs of the buyer, and entertain, to satisfy the wants and expectations of the user and to ensure stickiness and compliance in product usage.

If the word “persona” is new to you, Pragmatic Marketing has an excellent article explaining the persona concept, and Scott Sehlhorst has a great article on this topic. You can also consult my post on using ethnographic techniques to develop personas.

The purpose of developing the persona is to use the target buyer and user to help decide what to build and how to present it. What age group are we targeting – do you need to cater to the pre-reading crowd? How high do we go in the age bracket? These affect the user interface and use cases because clearly a 15 year old violinist playing first violin in a youth orchestra has vastly different needs and wants than a 5 year old violin novice working on basic bowing techniques.

Persona development goes far beyond demographic information and goes deep into situational scenarios. What is it like living in the households of these music students? What is their daily schedule? How long do they spend on music practice each night, and for how many nights a week? When do they practice music? How involved is the parent? Are they distracted by their siblings? What parts are hard to learn? What are the objectives of the child and what problems does he or she face? What are the objectives of the parents and how do they measure their child’s success?

A good persona provides demographic and psychographic information, as well as additional information about the attitudes and motivations of the persona in the area of product use. It is well worth the initial investment to develop a good set of personas, then clearly delineate the problems they face. It will help make development more efficient down the line and help you develop a great user experience that is tailor made to your target end users.

Once the buyer and user personas are defined, and their problems are well understood, it’s time to figure out what the solution to these problems might look like. For example, it is very hard to motivate a young child to learn all those pesky Italian musical terms. Perhaps an on line memory game might help them remember those terms. Another example is that the child may need to work on posture. Perhaps a video feature that allows the parent to take a video with their cell phone, then upload to a server and share it privately with the teacher might help. A third example is that the child has forgotten the correct technique 3 days after the teacher demonstrated it. A video snippet of the lesson might just do the trick. And having this all in one place encourages usage and compliance.

As a product team comes up with solutions, there are invariably way more ideas than what would fit in a desired timeline. Here is where the persona will be useful: the product team can use the persona to help them imagine what is of the most use to those personas, and develop a release roadmap where features that deliver the most benefits and value are released first, followed by other features that either broaden the offering or offer secondary benefits.

Many wise product and startup people, including the folks at Y-Combinator, have commented on the need to focus on the customer, not the competition. This is very true. However that doesn’t mean you get to punt on doing a thorough competitive analysis to understand exactly what is out there in the market. This helps you in several ways:

  • You can check to see if your solution really solves an unmet need. If to your chagrin you find something that solves the problem quite well, it’s better to know sooner than later so you can pivot to solve a different problem that REALLY represents unmet needs.
  • You can learn from the successes and failure of other people who were in the market before you.

With a good understanding of the competition you are well poised to articulate your competitive advantage which is necessary for developing an actionable and meaningful positioning statement.

Interestingly, many technology startups start with the “how” as the basic premise for starting a company. Someone comes up with a brave new technology, develops a prototype for it, gets it to work, falls in love with it, then sets off starting a company with a field-of-dreams business plan.

That works sometimes if the technology is really world shattering. In consumer SaaS, the technology itself is sometimes commodity software. So for those types of products, the “how” comes only after having figured out the who, what and why. The “how” is concerned with how to actually implement the solution. For this example, you would pick the technology platform to develop your new site on – fielding considerations such as open source versus proprietary platforms (my vote: Open source), database of choice (I like MySql), programming platform (for complex web apps: Java EE back end with Javascript or HTML5 front end; for quick hacks, I like Ruby on Rails). You will need to make decisions early on about hosting and server care and feeding too: certain platforms bring a hefty server side license fee and you will need to account for it in your projected server fees and expenses.

Once the platform is picked, you can now work on defining and designing the product in detail, staffing up for success, and executing the plan to bring your offering to market in the desired timeframe.


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