I have a little heuristic which I find useful.  If I see a particular issue going on in at least three companies at the same time, I figure it’s a common and serious enough issue that it’s worth writing about.  In truth, I’ve already written about this from several different angles, but nevertheless I continue to see the problem, even with teams I’ve personally discussed this with.  So in this article I’d like to call the issue out more directly.

I see so many teams focus their discovery work on usability or engineering.  Specifically, addressing user confusion, or addressing performance or reliability issues.  Now, I’m not arguing that usability or reliability is not important.  I am arguing that for many products, this work is analogous to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  

I say that because what’s really going on is not that the user struggles to get through a work flow, or gets frustrated by a bug or the performance of an operation.  What’s really going on is that the user doesn’t see why they should use the app in the first place.  They don’t see the value.

If the value is there, then people are motivated to figure out how to get done what they need to, and at that point the usability and performance can help optimize the experience.  But that’s a big if.  Without that value, I’ve seen teams literally spend months pounding away on design and engineering work, without moving the needle in any appreciable way.

One of the things I’ve said for many years is that if you’re just using your engineers to code, you’re only getting about half their value.  I say the same thing about designers (albeit less pithy): if you’re only using your designers to create the interaction and visual design, you’re only getting about half the value of your designers.

The real contribution of a strong engineer or a strong designer is in helping to discover ways to create the necessary value.  The engineer focuses on applying technology in new ways that are just now possible, and the designer zeroes in on the user’s real pain.

And of course true product management is all about creating that value.

Contrast that with the typical product team laboring away on their roadmap items, where each item on that roadmap presumes the value.

Now I have seen teams report up to management: “the problem is that our customer’s don’t want that feature” or “don’t want to use the app.”  While that may be true, and you may need to show that, that’s not especially helpful.  Our job is to discover what would make this valuable, so the users choose to use the app.

Good teams know they’re responsible for results or outcome, not output.  And for most product work, you won’t get the outcome you need without value.

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