Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


I recently finished reading a book by Marty Cagan titled Inspired – How to Create Products Customer’s Love. For all of you who don’t like to read, this is only 225 pages with pithy chapters of only 3-4 pages in length. In short, the book is a gem and has loads of advice from an industry veteran. My edition is mostly stained with yellow highlight, but the section that made the biggest impact for me was chapter 28: “Startup Product Management—It’s All About Product Discovery”. It boldly shines light on an engineer-driven industry that too often puts technology before everything else.

Cagan argues that startups work terribly inefficiently in spite of limited funding and time. Not only does this inefficiency cost money and time, it may also cause many startups to never reach it to market!!! According to Cagan, this is why many startups fail. They ”simply don’t have the funding to go to two years before they gain traction in the marketplace. So they hire engineers, take their best shot, and see what happens. Ready, fire, aim.”

Here’s the complete scenario as he describes it:

Someone with an idea get some seed funding, and the first thing he does is hire some engineers to start building something. The founder will have definite ideas on what she wants, and she’ll typically act as product manager and often product designer, and the engineering team will then go from there. The companies are typically operating in “stealth mode” so there’s little customer interaction. It takes much longer than originally thought for the engineering team to build something, because the requirements and the design are being figured out on-the-fly.

After six months or so, engineers have things in sort of an alpha or beta state, and that’s when they first show the product around. This first viewing rarely goes well, and the team starts scrambling. The run rate is high because there’s now an engineering team building this thing as fast as they can, so the money is running out and the product isn’t yet there. Maybe the company gets additional funding and a chance to get the product right, but often it doesn’t. Many startups try to get more time by outsourcing engineering to a low-cost offshore firm, but they’re still left with the same process and the same problems.

So as Cagan states, engineers are typically brought into a project at an early stage and they’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to code and test new ideas at the same time. Sometimes weeks of coding are thrown out the window as the company “feels” itself through the unfolding product. For small startups it’s like pouring a house’s foundation and at the same time, deciding where the walls go.

But Marty Cagan isn’t some cranky product manager trying to wreak havoc on the startup community. He continues to describe what a more efficient process might look like:

Here’s a very different approach to new product creation, one that costs dramatically less and is much more likely to yield the results you want: the founder hires a product manager, an interaction designer, and a prototyper. Sometimes the designer can also serve as prototyper, and sometimes the founder can serve as a product manager, but one way or another, you have these three functions lined up—product management, interaction design, and prototyping—and the team starts a process of very rapid product discovery.

Cagan emphasizes that the focus is on product discovery via a high-fidelity prototype that mimics the desired user experience. But this isn’t enough—you must validate the product design with real users that fit your target audience. Without testing real users, you’re still in the dark when it comes to understanding how your users may respond to your product or service.

What then continues is a refinement process that includes several versions of the prototype in order to get closer to a winning product. The end result is that you have:

(a) identified a product that you have validated with the target market, (b) a very rich prototype that serves as a living spec for the engineering team to build from, and (c) a much greater understanding of what you’re getting into, and what you’ll need to do to succeed.

The engineers are then brought on and they’re able to build something based on a clear vision of the product and a stable spec. Not only does this make the engineers’ job much easier, but the company has reduced the risk of shipping a flop and has also saved a lot of time and money on development. The startup is building a successful product “on purpose”.

Cagan finishes his argument by asking:

So why don’t all startup teams do this? Because we’re such an engineering-driven industry that we just naturally start there. But any startup has to realize everything starts with the right product, so the first order of business is to figure out what that is before burning through $500K or more in seed funding.

…Definitely something to think about for your next startup.


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