When I start working with product teams, one of the first things I try to do is to get them to stop thinking of their job as one of gathering and documenting requirements.  In fact, I try to get them to stop thinking in terms of requirements at all. Most requirements are not actually requirements, and the rest are better thought of as constraints.

Instead, I try to get product leaders to think about defining product in terms of two key dimensions:

UNMET VS. UNREALIZED NEEDS

The first dimension is whether the problem you are solving is addressing an unmet need or an unrealized need.

Unmet needs are problems that customers are well aware of, and they are just frustrated with current offerings.  There are countless examples of this, in every industry.  Most “better” products fit into this category.   A better search engine.  A better music service.  A better navigation system.  There are also great and easy techniques for identifying these unmet needs, starting with simply observing users trying to use a product.

On the other hand, unrealized needs (also called “latent needs”) are those solutions where customers may not even be aware they even have the need until after they see and experience the solution. Examples include digital video recorders, tablets, always-on-voice, self-driving cars, etc.

CUSTOMER-INSPIRED VS. TECHNOLOGY-INSPIRED SOLUTIONS

The second dimension is the source of the solution: customer-inspired or technology-inspired.

If you get out of the office and truly get to know your users and customers, and observe their frustrations and their needs, you’ll often see opportunities to provide a better solution.  I see product opportunities constantly, everywhere I look, from watching people try to use their phones or computers, to trying to find qualified candidates for an open position, to trying to buy a car, to trying to share and collaborate on a document.

The other source of solution is the enabling technology itself.  We are constantly seeking new technologies that enable new and better solutions to existing customer problems (whether realized or unrealized).  Whether that’s leveraging sensors, moving to the cloud, new battery technology, or newly invented algorithms, each of these can potentially enable new and better solutions.

THE FUTURE OF DEFINING PRODUCT

The major industry trend that I’m seeing in all of the best product teams is the increase in technology-inspired solutions. And then the second-order consequence of these new technologies, which is an increase in the solutions that are addressing unrealized needs. Examples include progress in sensors and connected devices that are opening up major new areas of innovation. Many are helping teams provide better solutions to long-standing unmet needs, and many are enabling solutions that could not have been imagined by the customers.

I’ve long argued that the magic happens when engineers, designers and technology savvy product managers are able to interact directly with customers in their native habitat.  This is because that combination facilitates the full spectrum of needs (unmet and unrealized) and solutions (customer-inspired and technology-inspired).

NOTES:

Traditional Market Research: As you can hopefully see, customer surveys and typical market research essentially limit us to addressing unmet needs, as perceived by the customer.  This is fine as far as it goes, but not likely to inspire or differentiate.  The same with sales-driven and marketing-driven product.  One of the many reasons that Waterfall-based methods are so bad is that they preclude most innovation from happening.  Waterfall wants to separate the “problem space” from the “solution space.”  First define the “market requirements” and then go figure out a solution that meets that market need.  One of the most important changes in how we do product today is that we knock down the walls between the problem and solution space.  This is also, not coincidentally, why product managers today must be more technical than they often were in the past.

Constraints: While I resist characterizing stakeholder needs as requirements, there is no question that every business has very real constraints.  In larger companies, stakeholders represent many of these constraints.  Marketing is concerned with brand.  Sales is concerned with distribution.  Legal is concerned with contracts.  Finance is concerned with costs.  And so on.  One of the challenges of creating product is that it’s not enough to create products that customers love; we must also create products that operate within the constraints of our business.  The product manager must understand these constraints.

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