What is product strategy?
If I have to settle on the most important aspect of product management, I would say it’s product strategy. But what is strategy, and more importantly, what is product strategy?
If we look at Wikipedia, then a strategy is defined as “a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty”. That’s reasonable but vague and ultimately unhelpful. To be honest, for a while that’s where I was stuck at. When I searched for definitions of product strategy, they also seemed generic and unhelpful. For example, here’s a definition of product strategy:
A product strategy is a high-level plan describing what a business hopes to accomplish with its product and how it plans to do so. This strategy should answer key questions such as who the product will serve (personas), how it will benefit those personas, and what are the company’s goals for the product throughout its lifecycle. – Product Plan.
According to this definition, we should figure out who’s the target personas, what’s the benefits being offered, and what’s the goals of the company. I can’t help but feel that it’s not very instructive. I also suspect that the context in which these thinking become important is what makes them important, but it was unfortunately lost in communication.
But then I stumbled upon the series How to define your product strategy by Gibson Biddle – a former product leader at Netflix. I immediately found his way of thinking interesting and helpful. His series is very insightful and is highly recommended. However, some of the interesting things I noticed and thought about were not explicitly mentioned.
The next section talks about Gibson’s way of thinking about product strategy. The rest of this blog post presents my own take on product strategy, which is inspired by Gibson’s, together with my experience and thinking.
A product strategy seeks to delight users in margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy ways
According to Gibson:
A product strategy seeks to delight users in margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy ways.
Margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy
In order to understand why a product strategy must be margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy, we first examine the definition of company strategy from the book 7 powers.
A company strategy is a route to continuing power in significant markets.
Power is defined in the same book.
Intel simultaneously succeeded in microprocessors but failed in computer memories despite sharing the same managerial, technical, financial prowess. Whatever differences must lie outside all such common grounds. We can only assume that microprocessors possessed some sort of rare characteristics which materially improved cash flow, while at the same time inhibiting competition. These rare characteristics are referred to as power. Power is the set of conditions creating the potential for persistent differential returns.
The term “persistent differential returns” is particularly interesting, because it implies that power must be associated with benefits and barrier:
- Benefit. The conditions created by power must augment cash flow. It can manifest as any combination of increased prices, reduced costs, and/or fewer investment needs. In other words, it must be margin-enhancing.
- Barrier. The benefit must persist. There must be aspects of the Power conditions that prevent existing and potential competitors from engaging in value-destroying arbitrage. In other words, it must be hard-to-copy.
The point of a company strategy is to continue a configuration that creates persistent differential returns, which means that it must be margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy. A product strategy must also meet the company strategy, so it must also be margin-enhancing and hard-to-copy.
But that’s only half of the story, the other half is what stood out when I first parse Gibson’s definition. A product strategy must, above all, delight users. It doesn’t matter if a company is gaining profit and staying ahead of the competition, if the product doesn’t delight users then you’re not really playing the product game. I think this is a sentiment we can all reasonably agree with.
Customer delight is usually discussed in the context of customer service (for, some examples). I believe that putting the concept of delight at the heart of product strategy opens up many possibilities. Offering delightful customer support is obviously important, but it’s also equally important, if not more, than the product itself delights.
The spectrum of delight
One interesting thing I noticed is the implication of defining product strategy in terms of delighting users. Follow the line of reasoning, I think it’s natural to see that there’s a spectrum of delight across which product aspects or features are scattered.
On one end of the spectrum, we have the things that are the opposite of what’s delightful: buggy features, bad onboarding experience, bad customer support, and more. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the power configurations, things that delight users in margin-enhancing and difficult-to-copy ways. In between these two ends are the things that are okay, and things that are delightful (but not yet part of a power configuration):
|Aspects & features that are broken, do not work as promised, or are below the industry’s standard||Aspects & features that are useful, acceptable that get the job done well||Aspects & features that get the job done very well, better than the competitors||Delightful aspects & features that are elevated even further so that they can’t be replicated by competitors and they increase the company’s profit|
The last division is likely the most unfamiliar. Let’s take a look at Netflix. One of their delightful “features” that’s also margin-enhancing and difficult-to-copy is Netflix’s originals.
- It is delightful because their originals, for example, House of Cards, achieved excellent ratings and widespread audiences.
- It is margin-enhancing because it attracted millions of new paid subscribers.
- It is difficult to copy because, with more paid subscriptions, the marginal cost of building high-quality originals also becomes lower than its competitors. more Netflix subscribers mean the company can charge less while producing more quality content.
The other divisions on the spectrum should be more familiar. Unacceptable aspects or features make users churn, decrease retention, create bad reputations and decrease acquisition. The Okay aspects or features are things that are getting the job done, but there’s more to be desired. Delightful aspects or features are usually things that make people adopt the product if there are multiple similar products in the market.
I include the term “aspects” because there are things that are not features but they delight your users nonetheless. For example, if your users often remark that you have a lively community, and they receive answers minutes after asking a question, then that community is a delightful aspect. If your product competes against open-sourced projects, a delightful aspect is the pace of development and the professional commitment to improve and maintain the product. Without acknowledging them, we lose part of the bigger picture.
I use the term “features” because it’s more familiar, but your product probably has a lot of features with varying degrees of details, and your product strategy should remain high-level. I’d recommend applying the Job-to-be-done framework to identify the jobs that users hire your product to get done. The jobs and the aspects will become the units of your product strategy.
Once you’ve identified the jobs/aspects of your product and categorized into the divisions on the spectrum, then the strategy is to elevate the items in each division as far as you can towards the state of delightful, margin-enhancing and difficult-to-copy.
- For Unacceptable items, your product strategy must first improve them so that they’re at least Okay. In the following quarters, they may be taken into the Delightful division, and even in the Power division.
- For Okay items, the product strategy must make them become Delightful. In the following quarters, they may be even elevated into the Power division.
- For Delightful items, they can be used optimize your marketing strategy to deliver the most valuable message. Your product strategy should aim to take them into the Power division eventually.
- For Power items, the strategy must seek to maintain them.
Some aspects/jobs can be margin-enhancing in a non-obvious way. For example, if community is an item a delightful aspect, then improving it will reduce the burden on your customer support team, which increase resources to support key clients, which provides them with higher satisfaction and potentially attracts more license subscriptions (if you’re a SaaS company).
The most important part is identifying the jobs/aspects of your product and the divisions they belong to. The next section describes the JTBD framework and how it plays a role in product strategy.
The role of the JTBD in product strategy
The job-to-be-done theory is a theory about why consumers consume. It posits that people adopt a product or an innovation in order to get a job done. For example, when people buy drills, they want to hang a family picture on the wall. If you invent a product that helps people hang family pictures without having to dig a hole, then it will be adopted over drills, because it gets the job done better (with less collateral damage).
The following statement captures the essence of JTBD:
In the factory we make cosmetics; in the drugstore we sell hope.
I won’t go into too many details about the JTBD here, because there are available online resources that do an excellent job at that. However, it is useful to look at the two schools of thought on JTBD. Broadly speaking, JTBD can be categorized into two camps:
- The Switch school of thought of Bob Moesta. Through qualitative interviews, it seeks out to reverse-engineer the underlying motivation for changing one solution to another. The researcher can then deduce “why” people hire a solution a product to get the job done and use the Four Forces of Progress to increase demand for a given product or service. It is also called JTBD-as-demand-generation.
- Outcome-Driven Innovation by Tony Ulwick. Through qualitative interviews, ODI seeks to uncover desired outcomes that people want. Then these desire outcomes are prioritized quantitatively. ODI aims to create products that address unmet needs. It is called also called JTBD-as-innovation-generation.
Both these schools of thought are useful for product strategy because they allow us to uncover the jobs/aspects that belong to different divisions on the spectrum of delight.
Use the Switch Interview to uncover Delightful jobs/aspects
The purpose of the Switch Interview is to reverse-engineer why people adopt your product. The output of Switch Interviews can be used to increase the demand for your product by crafting messages that resonate with your potential users. But more importantly, it helps you identify the delightful aspects or jobs of your product.
You’re ultimately looking for the moment people start struggling with the previous solution because getting this job done is likely what’s delightful about your product. After all, they adopted your product, likely after considering the alternatives, so it’s reasonable to think that your product is getting the job done significantly better than others. For this task, my favorite way is to use the Four Forces of Progress framework to analyze the observations.
The four forces of progress can be used to analyze the factors that influence your users when they’re considering adopting your product:
- The problems with their existing solutions make them look for alternatives.
- The attraction of your new product, the promises you make that your competitors can’t.
- The Uncertainty surrounding adopting your product.
- The Habits that keep consumers from adopting your product.
The observations coded on the Problem and Attraction are likely the candidates that delight your users. Use observations coded on the Uncertainty and Habits to improve your product.
Use the JTBD Interview to uncover Okay jobs/aspects
JTBD is a theory, therefore it doesn’t specify concrete steps to uncover the jobs, or provides any guidance to do so. Fortunately, Tony Ulwick – who invented Outcome-Driven Innovation, has managed to put JTBD theory into practice. Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) is a process that enables companies to conceptualize and invent new solutions that help customers get a job done better and/or more cheaply. According to Strategyn, It has a 86% success rate, because it begins with a deep understanding of the job-to-be-done and employs unique quantitative research methods, which the JTBD Interview is a part of.
The JTBD interview focuses on uncovering the jobs, the need statements, the context surrounding the jobs through qualitative research. For product strategy, it can be used to uncover the jobs that are in the Okay division on the spectrum. Because the premise of most user interviews is to improve the product, users are naturally biased towards things that can be better. Therefore, you’d most likely uncover what your product is doing okay, but that they can be improved in some ways.
You can use some guidelines as follows:
- Get the background on the job performer and the job
- Tell me about yourself and what you do for a living?
- What was the last time you had to do the job?
- Focus on the main job and related jobs
- What problems were you trying to resolve or prevent?
- What else were you trying to get done?
- Understand the process of executing the job
- How do you get started?
- What is the previous step, what is the next step?
- How do you continue after that?
- How do you know you are doing the job right?
- How do you wrap things up?
- Find needs
- How do you consider the job done?
- What workaround are you using?
- What do you avoid doing? Why?
- What could be easier why?
- What is the most annoying or frustrating part?
- Find out the circumstances
- In which situation do you act differently?
- What conditions influence your decision?
As you interview more users, you will be able to build a more comprehensive Job Map.
If you don’t take initiatives to counter natural biases, the Job Map will likely contain only the jobs that your product is getting done in an okay way, and the associated needs will point to the direction of improvement.
If you take initiatives to counter natural biases during user interviews, the Job Map will be a comprehensive description of all the jobs your users hire your product to get done, along with the associated needs. You will get extra clarity. Since you are aware of all the needs, you can ask users to rank them in terms of importance and satisfaction and discover underserved needs quantitatively.
Either way, it helps discover the jobs/aspects that belong to the Okay division on the spectrum of delight.
Use Churn Survey/Interview to uncover Unacceptable jobs/aspects
Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of insights to add to this section. Churn is a beast that’s difficult to slay. However, it is an important part of your product strategy, because the jobs/aspects that make people churn need to be uncovered in order to make for a comprehensive product strategy. One of the popular methods you can go for is churn surveys. If you are lucky to get them on a call, apply the Switch Interview to analyze what jobs/aspects of your product are chasing people away.
My approach to product strategy
Put them together, my approach to product strategy is as followed:
- Conduct the JTBD user research.
- Conducting Switch Interviews.
- Identify the delightful jobs/aspects.
- Conducting JTBD Interviews.
- Identify the Okay jobs/aspects.
- Conducting Churn Interviews/Surveys.
- Identify the Unacceptable jobs/aspects.
- Conducting Switch Interviews.
- For each division, except for the last one, the strategy is to elevate all items to the next level.
- Each aspect or job forms a swim lane in your product strategy.
- For each strategy swim lane, define a metric and the tactics that will move the metric along.
Here are examples from Gibson’s Netflix case study:
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