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Product Strategy

Are you ready to build a digital product?

Five key insights to help you get ready and avoid costly pitfalls in the journey to building your own digital product.

We’re living in a golden age for entrepreneurs and product creators. There’s never been a better time to put a great idea out in the world.

Taking the approach of building a digital product is an exciting step in bringing your idea to life, and there are lots of ways you can go about it. However, if you’re not prepared with the right resources, planning, and understanding — it can end up a very costly endeavor (emotionally and financially).

Pulling together learnings from the hundreds of digital products we’ve launched with our clients, here are five key insights to help you get ready and avoid costly pitfalls in the journey to building your own digital product.

Substantial insight ready to build what success looks like
📷 David Keetz — Unsplash

Insight One

You are clear on the problem you are trying to solve and what success looks like.

Let’s say you have a great idea for a new app, website, or digital platform to revolutionize an industry or revitalize your business. You’re fairly certain who is going to buy into the product idea and have a sense of the market that has the capacity to support it. You are confident you should make something now and may have even gotten as far as to have a PDF of wireframes, functional specifications, or a PRD (product requirements document) ready to go.

That’s a great start to approaching a digital product, but often doesn’t lead to the results you’d expect. The success of a digital product doesn’t come from specific features or functionality — success comes from how well you address problems and can compete against what already exists. That means being able to answer questions like:

  • How are you helping your audience?
  • Are you creating a workaround for something that already exists or trying to change a set of behaviors that will help everyone involved?
  • Are there cheaper, easier, or more embedded processes that people in your audience are already using to support themselves?

Thinking about the problem and success criteria from a holistic set of perspectives — like audience, business, and market — will lead to easier prioritization, stronger solutions, quicker paths to launch, better reception from audiences, and better support for your business.

Substantial insight ready to build strong ongoing relationship
📷 Edwin Andrade — Unsplash

Insight Two

You have a strong, ongoing relationship with your target audience.

It’s costly to assume your personal experience is a great representation of your target audience. Or to create hypotheses about your audience at the beginning of a project and never go back to check them again. In both these scenarios, we’ve seen clients rack up a lot of associated costs to rework things they assumed were necessary, remove features that fell flat with their audience, or have to start all over again.

Avoiding these excessive costs is simple — solicit first hand feedback from your audience early and often. There are a multitude of channels that can help you gather this type of feedback like:

  • Setting up an early adopters or advocate group
  • Hosting participatory workshops
  • Doing ongoing usability and perception testing
  • Establishing third party forums or discussion tools

The most important thing to remember is that gathering first-hand feedback is not a “one-and-done” deal in your product’s lifecycle. Whether it’s during initial concepting, the middle of building, at launch, or as your product matures — it’s important to have strong, ongoing communication channels with your audience as part of your process.

It’s even more important to build these connections the larger your target audience is and the more ambitious your goals of scaling are. We can always use second-hand research and industry trends to make our best possible assumptions, but working directly with your audience is the best way to make sure you’re still on the path to success.

Insight Three

You are prepared to put your product out into the world — even if it isn’t perfect.

As a product creator, you need to be ready to let go, push your product to market and let your audience tell you how it meets or doesn’t meet their needs. Easily said, but in practice, we see quite a bit of hesitation when the time to launch comes.

Some typical ways launch hesitation manifests:

  • A vast and varied feature set required to launch
  • Constantly adding new features to the scope
  • Unclear or unrealistic success criteria
  • Lack of alignment between the stakeholders

Fear drives a lot of these behaviors — fear your product won’t be competitive enough, sexy enough, “big” enough. Once you start postponing your launch, you will find an endless set of reasons to continue to postpone. The more you postpone, the more you run the risk of blowing out your resources, missing a well-timed market opportunity, overdelivering features that your audience doesn’t even need, and increasing the potential to bring unintended consequences to your audience.

Whether you start fearful or become increasingly hesitant as you go, recognizing your fear gives you the opportunity to galvanize your mission and objectives, clarify what success looks like, and push something valuable to market sooner rather than later. In this way, you’ll take greater care of your audience by focusing more attention and support on the impact your product is having while iterating toward making a better experience.

Substantial insight ready to build plan to sustain
📷 Jaromir Kavan — Unsplash

Insight Four

You have a plan to sustain your product post-launch.

There is always a flurry of excitement and optimism as you start out. You are securing funding, building a team, and planning your MVP. We often hear requests to reduce the team, eliminate design support, or just “keep the lights on” when it comes to post-launch planning. Generally, there’s a belief from clients that they are better off spending the majority of their resources getting to launch– that only basic maintenance will be required and that everything will be covered in the initial design and development.

The mistake in that thinking is that a product launch often creates a tremendous amount of data that allows you to see user needs you didn’t anticipate or market shifts from where you started. You want the ability to react to that data in a timely and meaningful way. Having the resources and runway to keep full design and development team capable of feature iteration and creation post-launch ensures you have the ability to cycle these insights right back in to the product. This is the difference between good products and great products.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to acquire indefinite resources ahead of time in order to start building your digital product. You should think of the ebb and flow of your business now and look past the all-important launch to what it looks like at year one, two, and three and ensure decisions you make now don’t undermine your products longevity. Biasing your launch sooner rather than later, narrowing scope and increasing focus, and adjusting velocity are all ways we’ve seen clients balance their resources to support post-launch product needs.

Insight Five

You are intentional in the kind of product culture you want to create.

The success of your product isn’t just based on getting it to market — it depends on the culture you foster on your product team. Beyond team members and the build process, a “product culture” includes the decision-making frameworks, collaboration philosophies, and guiding principles that support your product and business. The most successful clients and products we’ve seen have been the ones whose cultures:

  • Are ready for decision-making in the midst of ambiguity
  • Prioritize the ethical considerations of the product
  • Thrive in daily collaboration
  • Focus on outcomes and aren’t precious about solutions
  • Aren’t afraid to authentically and constructively communicate
  • Strive to continuously iterate to improve
  • Have a plan for scaling, either internally or with external partners

The benefits of shaping a great product culture have included increased velocity, reductions in the cost of building, and the flexibility to respond to market and make improvements. Additional things we know drive success are daily integration of design and development teams, having a clear product owner, and a commitment by your core team for daily participation in the product decision-making and quality evaluation processes.

How you scale, whether you build an internal team or bring in an external partner, can have a huge impact on your culture long-term as well. Taking your product culture seriously will help you choose people and partners that bring the best out of your team and product.

To summarize…

Being intentional with just five things can put you in a great position to be ready to build a digital product, avoid costly pitfalls, and watch it succeed over time:

  • Be clear on the problem and outcomes you need to succeed
  • Speak to your audience throughout the build process
  • Don’t shy away from launch
  • Be ready to support your product post-launch
  • Set up a strong product culture

It’s not something you have to go through alone either. At Substantial, we’ve helped hundreds of clients create the digital products of their dreams. Assessing readiness is just one of the ways we can help your team get a product to market by collaborating to figure it out. It’s #thesubstantialway.

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