Why should you develop a product thinking mindset?

Yashodeep Sengupta

Exceptional brands come with exceptional stories. Take Canva, for example. Back in 2007, when founder Melanie Perkins was teaching students how to use programs like InDesign and Photoshop, she realized how difficult it was for users to learn and use them. This sowed the seeds of an online tool to create school yearbooks. The under-the-hood tech eventually became the driving force behind Canva.

Similarly, Uber reimagined the entire cab experience by designing an app that allows users to order cabs on demand, track them, meet them, pay for them and use them. This helped them solve the relentless ‘analogue’ issues users faced through the traditional taxi system. What started off as an air mattress rental, blossomed into AirBnB in no time, thanks to the founders feeling the pulse of the users.

It’s the same story with other core influencers in the products and services business — like Nike, Amazon, Netflix, Tesla, etc. What is it that sets these cult brands apart from their competition? Technology? Not really. Most companies think technology is the be-all and end-all of any successful brand. Even as they pump in millions of dollars in taking their technology to the next level, they fail to achieve the game-changing shift in driving sustainable innovation and long-term differentiation in the market.

This is the cardinal sin of large enterprises. They often over rely on traditional factors of success like technology, manpower, funding, advertisements, etc. However, these factors can only take them till a distance.

On the other hand, start-ups generally don’t have too much money muscle or tech prowess to start off with. But they sure know how to start with a clean slate. They don’t bring too much baggage with them, and are able to think differently. For example, to execute a project, while an enterprise would allocate a heavy-duty team full of engineers, a startup would include a mix of engineers and designers. Similarly, while an enterprise would take a task-based approach to execute a project, a startup would perhaps iteratively innovate all along.

To go beyond traditional parameters of success, build a benchmark and sustain the numero uno position, one needs to think out-of-the-box: How can I take my product/ service to the next level? What core issues do my users face? What is the market demand? Where is the gap in the market? Etc.

Mind you, only a few businesses have the understanding, acumen and independence to ponder on these questions. And these are the brands that excel. Answering the question above, what makes consumers blindly repose their faith in a handful of businesses is the latter’s ability to not only serve consumer needs but also predict them and design experiences based on those requirements. In short, these key businesses put users in the centre and revolve everything else around them.

This approach is the product thinking mindset.

The importance of a product thinking mindset

Reputed global design school Interaction Design Foundation defines product thinking as processes and methods that begin by identifying an audience’s problem, establishing a strategy, objective, and then solve real problems by building meaningful solutions. In simple terms, it is the journey from the problem space of the users to the solution space of the business. Technology is used as a means to achieve an end; it is not an end in itself. It reflects what US entrepreneur Marc Andreessen said way back in 2007: “The only thing that matters is getting to product/market fit.” Product thinking is all about that — getting to know your user and giving them a product or a service that is better than the current alternatives.

Cases in point: While Nike’s Air range of shoes addressed the market demand of lightweight, cushiony shoes able to take high impact, Apple’s iPhones/ iPads boasted a highly navigable UX, clean UI and a no-frills overall experience. Similarly Uber’s cab services and brilliant UX revolutionized the cab experience. And Netflix’s predictive suggestions, impeccable categorization and wide reach took the ‘rental video’ experience to a whole new level. No wonder people swear by them.

In today’s digital world, where people are fickle with their choices, a few seconds’ dissatisfaction can make them change loyalties. In such a challenging environment, what can be better than seeing the world from the user’s perspective. Understanding customer behavior uncovers new opportunities, that could well be the treasure trove for long-term product differentiation.

Key tenets of product thinking

Here are some key tenets of product thinking that can impact businesses embarking on the approach.

Focus on the problem, not the solution

This is what sets product thinking apart from project thinking. While project thinking is all about reaching and measuring outputs, product thinking is focused more on the outcome. A Starbucks coffee experience is not only about the hot tasty beverage in your hand (output) but also about the ambience, how it is delivered to you and the customizations you can experience. All of this adds up to the outcome we are talking about.

Any successful outcome begins with getting up, close and personal with the problem, rather than fixating on the solution part of it. Product thinkers are not afraid of failing: they believe in the fail fast mantra and also believe that nothing is final, rather a continuous feedback loop. While the quantitative aspects of a delivery is important, their mission is to accentuate its qualitative aspects.

One thing to note is that fixing problems very often makes us myopic. Product thinking takes fixing problems very seriously but the approach considers anticipating needs more vital. The backbone of product thinking is going one step further and figuring out the requirements of users with an aim to minimize the problems faced by them. That’s the key difference between product thinking and problem solving.

Know your users first, then their problems

Yes, focusing on the problem is the first key step in any product thinking effort. However you can focus on the problem only when you know your users well. One common mistake that most companies make is they concentrate on individual customer touchpoints. For example, most e-commerce businesses closely track the product checkout process. Are they missing out on identifying a poor search experience in the process? Or a lack of predictive suggestions in the portal? Businesses that consider an integrated approach to access the entire customer journey through multiple touchpoints get to know their users the most.

McDonald’s’ initial success lay in discovering that customers prefer speed over anything else. So the kitchen turned into a mechanized assembly line and indoor seating gave way to a drive-in experience. The rest, as they say, is history — all possible because Mac and Dick McDonald spent considerable time observing why they weren’t getting too many customers.

Ditch micro, think macro

Most software companies tend to think in terms of single features: this feature will appeal to my audience, that feature will get me more sign ups. While features are an integral part of any software, over-relying on them can prove fatal. For example, while Boeing 737 boasted of its MCAS automation feature, one that stops the aircraft from stalling while gaining altitude, the back-to-back crashes of the 737 a couple of years back were primarily due to the feature itself.

Product development in enterprise tends to be feature centric. While it’s important to get the functionality working, it’s equally important to ensure that the product delivers a great user experience. It makes sense to see or consider a product or service from a holistic point of view rather than a narrow, fragile one. Uber’s ultimate aim is to get you a cab at any point of time. The arrival countdown, route map, security features etc. are useful embellishments. But Uber sure works even apart from these features. That is the core experience that people value the most. A product or service is the sum of all its features and offerings. In this respect, a macro or a zoomed out view is an essential part of product thinking.

Empathy over evaluation

It’s always people over processes in product thinking. To understand your user, analyses and metrics are important. But what works better is putting yourself in your customer’s shoes and experiencing a product or service from her point of view. What are the niggles? What are the roadblocks? Which need of mine is not getting addressed? How can I make the UX better? These questions can be answered when you empathize with your user rather than solely depend on a whole bunch of numbers, charts and graphs. Sometimes, organic intuition works wonders. Remember, Jobs once said, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

Innovate, innovate, innovate

That is the difference between a great brand and an exceptional brand: innovation. Innovation is the nucleus of any product thinking enterprise or team. Ideas emerge from innovation, they are nurtured due to innovation, strategies are built keeping the spirit of innovation intact, and ideas are implemented with innovation as the crux.

What are the prime ingredients of innovation in a product thinking team? First, build a team with an exploratory mindset. The essence of “whole brain thinking” is that ideas don’t understand hierarchy. War horses who are critical in running the business operations might not be a good fit to drive innovation initiatives. As we saw in the beginning, project teams are better off with an engineers + designers mix than only the former. Getting the team mix right is very crucial.

Second comes the idea of launching a minimal viable product (MVP) upfront — to see what works, what doesn’t, and iterate. It is opposed to the idea of spending big bucks and years to test features and launch a product as a whole. MVP is cost-effective, user-centric and it allows companies to take products and services to the market fast.

Finally, what drives an innovation team powered by a product thinking mindset is establishing an open culture. New areas call for a new mindset. In this approach, taking risks is imperative and failing fast is considered as a mark of value addition. Exposure and contribution to external innovation projects is also considered as a great way to drive internal capabilities and innovation.

Embrace product thinking for sustainable innovation

Does product thinking sound like it has got to do only with products? Absolutely not! Product thinking is an approach that fits as easily in the services industry (both digital and physical) as in products. Ultimately, it is the prime ingredient in building exceptional experiences in a competitive market. It’s a mindset that can also be nurtured by design teams, strategizers and visionaries. It’s a culture that sees the world from the point of view of the user and tries to align everything towards the user — with an aim to sustain competition-beating growth, reputation and innovation in the market.

Thinking about seeing your business in a league of its own? Think product thinking.


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