Building the Product Right vs. Building the Right Product

In today’s startup-fueled world, the buzz is all around “disrupting” an industry with a product that consumers didn’t even know they needed. Successful new products change existing markets or invent them from scratch, essentially creating a new industry and displacing current market leaders. And compared with sustaining innovations, disruption requires a unique philosophy and mindset during the design process. This difference can be summed up pretty succinctly as “building the product right” versus “building the right product.”

Sustaining innovation, or “building the product right,” uses design requirements typically set by requests or feedback directly from customers. It’s a design method to incrementally improve an already existing product; the small changes gradually build a better and better product and theoretically delight your buyers, as the product is designed to be exactly what they asked for. Over time, these incremental changes produce a higher-quality and better performing product at lower and lower cost. These changes aren’t usually substantial changes to a product; but they enhance it and make it more robust.

But is the customer always right? While they may be able to tell you how to improve a product and can use colorful language to describe problems they currently face, they can’t be expected to describe what a solution to those previously unresolved issues should actually look like. They might be frustrated with something, but accept it as a fact of life. The only thing they can do is say that they wish there was a better way, but they can’t tell you what to build.

Recently, many startups have adapted approaches typically used in software development aimed at “building the right product”. When the goal is to develop something entirely new, the product requirements are relatively unknown at the beginning. The only thing to base a design on is a frustration with the way things currently are. The product requirements aren’t decided by the customer, they’re decided by the designer and still need to be tested to see if the proposed features actually fit the market need.

Because of this, effort is focused on delivering the absolute minimum viable feature set that resolves the primary source of pain. The first product that Fitbit introduced to the market did one thing and one thing only – counted steps. It resolved the core issue that people had – not being able to quantify their daily activity level.

The early adopters of these products are essentially the test group for whether the assumptions about the problem and approach to the solution are actually correct. Early adopters are great, because they will pay you to test out your extremely bare-bones prototype of a product. They’ll serve as a test group to see if you need to drastically change your product because it doesn’t match the real market need. Before having a customer base, the customers can’t tell you what they want, so the disruptor must have a framework for the idea and build it and test it.

Once product/market fit has been established, then you can begin the sustaining innovation work to add more features to draw in more customers and better delight the early adopters. For Fitbit, that included wireless sync, heart rate monitoring, more advanced activity metrics, with more yet to come.

For now, startups and small companies have a distinct advantage in adopting a “build the right product” approach. They don’t have loads of existing customers to keep happy. They don’t have to invest effort into making existing technology or products better. They don’t have established processes that have been honed to making incremental improvements to products as efficiently as possible.

For larger, established companies, the key is understanding that developing breakthrough innovations requires an entirely different approach. Measuring the success of teams tasked with developing new products is about learning, iterating, and finding true product/market fit.

Brian Sather is a product marketing manager at Autodesk. An engineer by trade, he likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Half the things in his home work twice as well as they should, and the other half don’t work at all.

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