The process of coming up with a multi-year product strategy often frustrates action-minded product executives. On one hand, this work is necessary to set long term goals and plot a path to success. On the other hand, product planning sessions often consume a great deal of time and energy. Worse, they often result in a direction that rapidly becomes obsolete – because the voice of the customer is not integrated into the planning process.
Lack of customer input is a common phenomenon even with teams who are highly disciplined in product testing after it exists. The critical time for customer input, however, starts before the product requirements are defined – because customer input can help the team choose the right problems to solve, as well as come up with the right solutions.
Here is a step-by-step guide to help you inject the voice of the customer into the planning process itself.
1. Start with Customer Development
Before you begin, put aside a couple of weeks to do a round of customer development in the area of interest. Talk to existing and potential customers in an open-ended manner about their pain points, and try to understand where the biggest problems lie.
2. Sketch out a Strawman Strategy – Quickly
Now get together in a kickoff working session to brainstorm ideas and come up with a strawman strategy. Don’t overthink it; just sketch out a general direction. This first pass should not take more than a couple of weeks. If you find yourself in this phase for months, you are probably overthinking it.
3. Enumerate and Test Hypotheses with Customers
Write down all your hypothesis. What do you believe is true, and can you cite evidence from the market to support your beliefs? If you cannot cite any evidence, it is a hypothesis that you should test in the market.
Now go back into the field, and test these hypotheses with real customers. It is critical that you keep an open mind in this phase. Avoid asking leading questions, or pushing your ideas on the customers. Listen well and learn. This process should take a good few weeks.
4. Regroup and Iterate the Product Strategy
Once you have some data in your hands, get back together with the team, and think about what it all means. Keep an open mind, and iterate the strategy based on this learning.
This phase should once again take no more than a week or two (ideally less). At this stage, the data that helps you make decisions is in the field, not inside the building. Try to turn it around as quickly as you can, so you can get back out to continue your learning process.
5. Build and test a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
Now comes the difficult part: You now need to take a broadly stated high level strategy, and break it down into a series of MVPs that you can test sequentially.
The first MVP is the most difficult one. In the beginning, there will be a temptation to build a more complete solution than necessary. For example, you may be obsessing about the cosmetic appearance of a prototype, when what you really need to know is at a more fundamental level, such as whether the product fits well into customers’ real life use cases, and whether customers resonate with its value proposition. Obsessing about the wrong deals simply delays your opportunity to learn from the market.
Instead, adhere to the MVP philosophy, and build and test the smallest possible thing that allows you to test it in the market. There is almost always a paper prototype, landing page or some such artifact that you or someone on the team can hack up in a day or two that allows you to start testing. Time is of the essence. Start small, and get going as quickly as you can.
6. Regroup and Iterate, Again
Now that you have some new data, get back together again, and think about what it all means. What did you learn that you didn’t know before? What surprised you? What does that imply for the broader product strategy? How about the implementation path you sketched out? Take a little time to digest it all, and adjust your path accordingly.
7. Rinse and Repeat Until Product/Market Fit
Come up with a series of follow-on MVP tests to further validate the strategy. After each test, regroup and iterate, and keep asking yourself this question: “Does our current direction still make sense? If not, what can we tweak to incorporate our new learnings?” Rinse and repeat until you start hearing consistent validation from the market – that is an early sign you may be approaching Product/Market Fit. Only now are you ready for detailed planning and implementation.
By the way, the same customer driven mentality should be applied throughout implementation. This provides you with a self-correcting mechanism to help the strategy adapt as the market conditions and customer needs and wants change and evolve.
A process that integrates customer development tightly with product development will provide product executives with much better data to build winning solutions that delight customers. Try it – you will be amazed at how much more nimble, responsive and effective your planning process will become.