Product Leadership — How to build successful products with a product mindset

April 8, 2024
6 min read
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Henry Ford

You have three children. The twins, who are pre-teens, and a younger one. You buy them a toy to play with.

You have two options: Toy A or Toy B.

For those who bought Toy A—congratulations. It’s a hit. The twins take to it. They take turns using it. They bring their younger sib into the game. It’s soon the younger ones' number one toy. You buy two more so that each can play on their own. When their friends come over, all the kids play with Toy A. It’s the talk of the neighborhood.

Other parents call and ask you where you got Toy A.

If you bought Toy B, you had good reason. It was cheaper, and it was immediately available. You bought it from a big, reputable toy retailer. The retailer mostly sold you on the Toy’s parental controls. You could set the maximum play time, even the frequency and intensity of play. But it was a miss. The twins played with it once but had better things to do. The younger one played with it occasionally, mostly when they were bored, and you reminded them about the Toy.

In the back of the cupboard, gathering dust, lies Toy B.

Toy A was a Rubik’s cube.

Toy B was a BeatBo.

If you haven’t heard of a BeatBo, that tells you everything.

In this wildly made-up story, the twins went on to big business. One is the VP of product-something. The other a  VP of corporate-something. The younger one is an entrepreneur.

But, the parents in the story are more interesting. The parents who bought Toy A have a product mindset. The parents who bought Toy B have a bureaucratic mindset.

Why are some products successful and others not so much?  It comes down to the decisions—big and small—on the way to building that product. The culture that informs those decisions. It comes down to the difference between a product mindset and a bureaucratic one. It comes down, in the end, to product leadership.

Product leadership requires a product mindset. When you talk to product leaders, people who have the scars and experience of building things and bringing them to market, you see, over and over again, six rules that they hold dear:

  1. Borrow ideas from everywhere.
  2. You have to understand constraints.
  3. Design for how people work (or live).
  4. 90% of the job is how it looks.
  5. Patterns make things repeatable and scaleable.
  6. It isn’t a product unless you can sell it, deliver it, and people use it.

#1. Borrow ideas from everywhere.

Aka. pay attention to the world around you. Product people are idea magpies. They take in and connect, think systemically, and look for inspiration in all sorts of ways, from looking at how customers behave to new technologies. It's the innovation that comes from the collision of ideas.

Behaving this way encourages openness to inspiration from a variety of sources and staying attuned to external changes. This rule advocates for continuous innovation and adaptation based on trends, user behavior, and market dynamics, fostering a culture of learning and flexibility.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. What sector outside my expertise is ripe for exploration today?
  2. Can I identify a trend in another industry that solves a similar problem differently?
  3. What recent technological advancement could be applied to my current project?

A warning comes with this rule. While it’s good to feel as though “it can always be improved,” it’s bad to get to a point where “it’s never done.”

Products have deadlines to hit and markets to meet. See rule #6.

#2. You have to understand constraints.

Everything has constraints. They are the engine of creativity.

Humankind’s greatest achievements had constraints. Constraints give us focus and direction. A firm foundation to push off. The Pyramids were built with limited technology and limited resources. What wasn’t a constraint? Time and labor.

Constraints free creativity. The limitations are pathways to invention. The movie Apollo 13 dramatizes this ingenuity. When an oxygen tank exploded, the Command Module (CM) was crippled. Three astronauts sheltered in the Lunar Module (LM) for the remainder of the trip; a vehicle designed for two astronauts and seventy-five hours of operation.

The engineers at NASA had to—literally—put a square peg in a round whole. The great grandaddy of constraints.

Their solution, using the materials on board, plastic bags, duct tape and other scavenged parts, was built through understanding constraints.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. What is the most significant limitation facing my project, and how can it drive creativity?
  2. How can I turn a current constraint into an advantage?
  3. What would an ideal solution look like if resources were unlimited, and how can I approximate that within my constraints?

A warning comes with this rule. Functional fixedness. This is the cognitive bias where we assume constraints even when none exist. We have a hammer, so everything is a nail.

We must push against constraints to fully understand them.

#3. Design for how people work. (or live)

In this rule, water flows downhill.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get water to flow uphill—you can—it just takes a lot more work and energy. It's much easier, for instance, to put in a CRM system built around a user's email because they have built-in email habits. It’s much more difficult to get people to log in to a second system.

You may spend 100% of your time and energy thinking about your product. I can guarantee your users won’t. If water doesn’t flow downhill—if your product doesn’t slot into their routine, if it isn’t a straightforward fit or an easy habit to build, you will struggle.

Adoption will lag. Usage will drop. Excitement will wane.

Venmo and Uber snuck into the smartphone ecosystem and made things easier. More convenient payments, more convenient rides. VR, despite the hype, struggles because we don’t wear bulky headsets as part of our everyday wardrobe.

Think frictionless. Don’t make me think. Intuition over instruction.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. Which aspect of my product fits seamlessly into the user's daily routine?
  2. Is there a feature in my product that could be simplified to enhance user experience?
  3. How can I gather feedback on the ease of use of my product from real users?

Warning: Fitting into existing routines doesn't guarantee long-term success. Think TiVo. The black box checked a lot of boxes. A mashup of VCR and hard drive; dressed in a sleek design and user-friendly interface, it commercial-skipped its way through your favorite shows on hundreds of cable channels. It fit perfectly into household viewing habits. Except it missed streaming, cord-cutting, and binge-watching—the once pioneering product is a niche afterthought today.

#4. 90% of the job is how it looks.

If it looks difficult to use, people will shy away from using it. And vice-versa, if it looks inviting, comfortable, or tempting to try, people will.

Take a Smeg refrigerator. Beautiful. Retro. Colorful. Charming. But also pricey, energy-inefficient, and noisy. Yet they’re incredibly successful, with glowing product reviews, a celebrity following, and brand recognition.

Contrast that with the Pontiac Aztec: a bug-like front end, endless amounts of plastic, and boxy proportions. Ugly. Yet it was a versatile, spacious, all-wheel-drive loaded with standard features.  But still—a flop.

Humans use products—and you want them to. But we’re capricious. We like things to look a certain way, to feel a certain way. Perception and first impressions are a powerful tandem.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. What first impression does my product give, and how can it be improved?
  2. How can the design of my product enhance its usability?
  3. Which design element can I tweak this week to make my product more inviting?

Here’s the warning: Concorde, Delorean, Fisker Karma, Yeezy Foam, Palm Pre. Beauty is only skin deep. Everything else has to work.

#5. Patterns make things scalable and repeatable.

This isn't Etsy.

Hand-crafted, difficult to maintain, and difficult to scale don't make profitable products. Patterns are reusable design elements, code component, or business processes that simplify development, maintenance, and growth.

They’re everywhere.

A design pattern might be the reusable elements like buttons and menus that create a familiar and intuitive user interface. They’re part of the design language that makes your product look like your product. In a luxury car, the shape of a front grille, headlights, the overall proportions, and body creases: all to distinguish a BMW from an Audi without ever seeing the badge.

Code patterns are pre-written snippets of code or modules. They save developers time. The single sign-on through your Apple or Google ID, the shopping cart functionality that tracks items you select and updates prices, or the social media-like functions. All pre-written centrally and used over and over.

Business process patterns: repeatable workflows that onboard new employees, or new customers, service processes that handle customer inquiries and complaints. The patterns are codified as process and practice to allow smooth experiences and focused work.

Build patterns into your product. They offer scale: foundational components that can adapt and grow as your product expands. They offer fit; for a consumer, patterns are “the way things work.” The affordability of a button that looks like you can press it or a menu item where you might expect it to be—making products easier to learn and navigate. They save time (and resources); developers don’t need to invent everything from scratch, established workflows streamline production.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. What design or code pattern can I standardize across my product for consistency?
  2. Is there a business process I can streamline to save time and resources?
  3. How can I balance the use of patterns with the need for innovation in my product?

Patterns have a downside. Taking a cookie-cutter approach to product stifles creativity and reduces innovation. It makes your differentiator the same as everyone else’s. Mindless use of patterns can increase complexity, ignore context, and reduce agility.

#6. It isn’t a product unless you can sell it, deliver it, and people use it.

Says it all really. No one cares about your theory.

What validates a product’s success is not that it’s finished. Or that the development came in on time and under budget—although if it did, congratulations. Success is confirmed by every sale, verified by every install, and backed by consumption and use.

This is where the real work of product leadership begins.

Measurement matters. Product leaders become product champions, driving adoption and usage. Crafting compelling product stories. Developing go-to-market strategies and building strong customer relationships. Building a feedback loop to improve the product in its next cycle.

The real test of a product lies in the hands of the users.

If this is something you want to practice, try asking yourself this:

  1. What's one channel I haven't explored yet for marketing my product?
  2. How can I make the onboarding process for my product simpler for new users?
  3. What's the smallest feature improvement I can make that users have requested?

To this, there is no downside.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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