You’ve held the meetings. You’ve put in the hours. You think you’ve done your research. You work together with marketing. They are confident you have a winner on your hands. Market research says so. You get the prospect and customer communications ready for launch day. Launch day comes. And…crickets. Instead of a successful launch, your product launches only to thud. What happened?
It is difficult to pinpoint one problem for a less-than-stellar product launch. We were confident in the market research. We 100% believe in product-market fit. We talked with customers to ensure they want this. Marketing was confident in their work as well that this was a good fit for existing customers. How well do we know those customers? And did we get product into their hands before launch? What kind of feedback did we get?
In his wonderful book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. The entire point of the loop is not to develop the next smash product. It is to learn. He advocates that every startup is or should be a learning organization. All startups, he reminds us, are business experiments operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty. When there are so many unknowns, Ries states, this is the only reasonable definition of a startup.
So many companies build products to 1.0 or to the best first version possible before they ever allow customers to use them. From a product management perspective, this seems to make sense. Only if you perform the work this way, you miss out on vitally important feedback from the only person or people who’s opinions matter the most: your customers’. If you build to completion or near completion before getting feedback, you’re setting yourself (and your company) up for cold reactions from the marketplace.
To combat this, Ries developed the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. The entire idea of this loop is to ensure that we are building things for people that they want and will use. We do not want to build more things for people who do not want them. So, we get the customer involved early and often, even if it means risking our design sense of pride.
It is through the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) that firms get customers involved early and often in the development lifecycle. What is the bare minimum viable product or design they can put in front of customers early that will begin the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop? What early feedback can we attain that will help to guide our product, letting us know what customers truly value? Do we know yet what customers value? Are we on the right track?
It is hard to put minimal products in front of potential customers.
The difficult part of the MVP from the company perspective is it need not be cool / tight / even close to completion before putting version 0.1 in front of the customer. If you’re developing software, even wire frames will work. It can be a physical mock-up. It could be something entirely modeled in Autodesk software to put in front of the customer, an idea made virtual. The selected vehicle of the MVP isn’t nearly as important as the early feedback from customers gained. Nonetheless, it is hard to place a Ghetto, wildly incomplete product in front of potential customers. As product managers and designers, we didn’t learn it this way in school. Yet even though this doesn’t feel right, it is the right thing to do. We need to know as early as possible whether we’re working on something people want. The more early feedback you can gather, the better your product will be in the long-term.
Who wants this?
It is important to point out how vital iteration is to the product development lifecycle. This is the crux of the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Note that you don’t go through it once. Firms go through it again and again in iterative development. Remember: startups are all about validated learning as Ries teaches. If they’re honest, startups may not know what they’re to build. It would be better to not know what to build than to build something to version 1.0 only to realize 12 months later that nobody wants your product. The faster you can get a customer to validate your product through a purchase — no matter how small — the better off the company is. A purchase answers the most important question for any startup firm: Does anybody want this?
Arguably the worst thing startups and product managers can do is assume they know what the market wants without asking them, gathering feedback, and iterating. Product assumptions will haunt you and your team’s efforts, sometimes for years. Why build features nobody wants or uses?
How much wasted work is going on?
In his latest book, The Startup Way, Ries talks about visiting an appliance factory and touring it with its executives. During the tour, they discussed the microwave production process and its intricacies. Ries thought to himself about the buttons he presses on his own microwave at home. He insisted he only ever presses five buttons max on his home microwave. He asked whether the executives present knew which buttons were being pressed on their microwaves. Such data likely exists in a database somewhere. No one knew. The poor production people on the floor were likely doing tons of work for no real apparent end goal. They’re wiring buttons to appliances that would never be pushed. This story is a terrific metaphor for all companies’ waste exhibitions. How much wasted work is going on? Do we have a handle on it? Company assumptions and prognostications are largely responsible for such waste.
Iteration is Key.
To combat this, firms need to get their product in front of customers early and often, gathering critical feedback and then iterating further. It is continuous cycling through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop that ensures a successful product. The key is iteration.