Monday, November 27, 2006

Reverse Engineer Your Product Development

A few months ago I wrote about reverse marketing. After talking to a client about recent issues with a new product launch, I came to think that a reverse process could work for product development as well.

If you ask software developers why their product fails to gain market acceptance, you are likely to hear that the culprit lies with either with the customers, the sales force, or both.

Customers are largely at fault for being lazy and incompetent: “How don’t they see that if they just pulled down this menu, clicked on Options, Advanced, More, and then checked this box they would be able to do exactly what they were looking for?!” Really, how don’t they?!

If faulting the customer is somewhat politically incorrect, placing the blame with sales is the common fallback position. “They just don’t know how to sell the product. They don’t show new prospects how to use all the options. They sell the product short.”

It’s not a question of blame. As long as we don’t change our product development process, we will continue to come up with products that customers can’t figure out and sales cannot sell.

Here is how a reverse engineered product development process would look like:

Step 1: decide on product positioning

Most products start as a solution looking for a problem. It would be much easier to sell the product if we could start with the problem. Who is the product for? What problem will it solve? How will it be used? How is it different from existing solutions?

Step 2: develop the sales presentation

Once we have answers to these questions, we can start testing the reaction of prospective buyers. Do they perceive the problem like we do? Is it important enough for them to take action? Does the proposed solution fit into their business process? Are the benefits clear? Will they be willing to pay for it?

One way to get answers to these questions is by putting together a sales presentation and running it by potential buyers. You can either do it yourself or by hiring a marketing research company to do it for you, and you would need to run it by 15-20 prospects to start seeing some patterns emerge.

Step 3: develop demo scenarios

Assuming the reaction to our sales presentation is positive, we can now move forward to the next step in the product development process. Now that we validated what our buyers are looking for, we can define the scenarios that describe how they will actually use our product to derive the promised benefits.

These scenarios serve a dual purpose. In addition to supporting the sales effort, they also serve as use-cases, which can help us define the functionality of the product.

Our positioning statement, sales presentation, and demo scenarios will serve as the guidelines for the entire product team from here on. With these three items in hand, we are ready to sell the product. All we need now is develop it…

Step 4: develop the product

We have two options here. The more formal process would be to write detailed product requirements and hand them to the development team. This formal approach reduces the risk of misinterpretation; at the same time, it diminishes the role of product developers and limits their creativity and sense of ownership.

Many developers would prefer the freedom to work on the product without detailed product requirements. Based on the product positioning, sales presentation, and demo scenarios, they should be able to come up with a product that delivers on the benefits users are looking for.

Whichever way we do it, the key is to make sure that once product development starts, it stays true to our demo scenarios, sales presentation, and product positioning. To ensure it stays the course, we need to conduct frequent (weekly!) reviews of product development against the above three items, and immediately correct anything that doesn’t match.

I have yet to see a company that follows this process. Most companies I know do it the other way around. Done right, I believe this reverse product development process can help companies make products that deliver more benefits to their customers and are easier to sell. What do you think?

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