Woodworker carefully nailing a delicate frame.

What does it take to build a great product?

James Barr

A great product has to solve a problem that matters—in a way that provides a customer some sort of value. A great product should not force the customer to change their lives to use it (most of the time). And a great product should be dead simple to understand.

User Experience Sets the (Right) Course

The first point is all about research—and you’ve done yours. You have a great idea and it’s going to provide serious value to your customers. To do that, however, you need to make sure your product fits their world, and that it’s simple. That’s the core of User Experience (“UX”).

UX is a whole area of study, and there are a lot of flavours, but ultimately it’s about understanding—and the output of that understanding maximizes the potential for a product to be successful. For simplicity, it can be broken into two parts: research and design

The Research part of UX is all about developing a deep understanding of potential customers, how they work, and how they experience the “problem that matters”. UX research methods can include:

  • Surveys 
  • Discovery interviews
  • Usability studies
  • Observational research
  • Affinity mapping

The Design part is focused on communicating solutions to that problem and validating them with your customers—if customers agree “this is the solution”, you’ve got something powerful. A number of design practices can be used, including:

  • Story mapping
  • User flows
  • Low fidelity wire-framing
  • High fidelity design & prototyping
  • User validation studies

When UX is done right, it takes time. But that time derisks everything else. If you’re not absolutely certain the market is ready for your product, you could end up spinning your wheels for months—or years—in development.

Development is All About Choices

If you get the UX right, it’s easy to just build your product. Right? 

If you do the UX work, It’s infinitely easier to build the right product. But the right product, built poorly, will create so much friction that your users give up and move on. It’s not enough to build the right thing, the right thing needs to be well-built.

How do we define ‘well-built’? There are a thousand different opinions on this, but the shortest path to a great product is one that surpasses core user expectations.

  1. Customers expect your software to be reliable. It should work every time—on their schedule—and things that worked before should keep working!
  2. Customers expect your product to have integrity. Data should never change, and it should always be clear where that data is coming from.
  3. Customers expect performance! They don’t all need a Ferrari, but they do expect to be able to drive at or near the speed limit.
  4. After nearly twenty years of apps and web 2.0, it’s table stakes to expect “visually compelling” and “easy to use”—your customers need your software to be intuitive.
  5. After a few uses, your customers are going to have asks. They’ll expect your product to be adaptable when they have great ideas to improve it, and they’re only going to wait so long for the next big feature before they move on to something else.

All of these expectations are dependent on the choices you and your team make up front. Make the right ones, and satisfying your customers is easy (from a technical point of view). Make the wrong choices, and it’s virtually impossible. 

These choices fall into several core categories:

  • Infrastructure 
  • Technology selection
  • Architecture 
  • Security & privacy
  • Accessibility

Each of these categories needs consideration, but you don’t have to do it “all at once”. You put the effort into your User Experience process and you know what people want—the next step is to figure out how much you absolutely have to build in order to start building momentum. That’s an MVP. An MVP can be fast(er) to build, and it doesn’t need to be perfect, but you will need to make decisions about core pieces of it, and those decisions will really start to be felt six, twelve, eighteen months down the road.

Product Owners Are the Secret Sauce

Building software to disrupt new markets means building something the world has never seen before. This means being able to visualize a future where your new product already exists, and ensuring the development team is on the optimal path to get there.

This takes an essential, skillset: Product Ownership.

Product Owners don’t just organize work—they understand the product’s users, what those users expect, and how they’ll interact with the final result. They understand how to adapt to change and they communicate clearly when decisions need to be made. 

Product Owners tie everything together:

  • Detailed specifications
  • Product roadmaps
  • Scrum leadership
  • Testing & quality assurance
  • Release management
  • Demonstrations, training, and acceptance
  • Communications & reporting

It’s happened before and it’ll happen again: A company with a great idea, the means to fund it, and a market ripe for disruption pulls together brilliant designs and a team of talented developers—and then struggles to get the product out the door and fails to meet expectations.

When this happens, it’s almost always a failure to recognize the critical role of the Product Owner in managing change. As is often paraphrased: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Product Owners exist to manage change, hit targets, and surpass user expectations.

A Great Product Needs the Right Inputs

A great product starts with a great idea. Translating that great idea into reality, and doing it successfully, means hitting all the right notes for your market. Design best practices are the closest thing to a crystal ball: allowing you to figure out whether your customers are going to love your product before you ever start building. Development best practices ensure that once you build, it performs way your customers expect. Product Owners tie design, development, and your market together, and allow you to adapt to challenges when they inevitably arise. Outside of sheer luck, these three inputs, taken as a whole, are the best, most predictable way to turn a great idea into reality.

James Barr has co-founded or led delivery of multiple new products, and is currently the CEO of Strata Research—a high-end product delivery agency based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


Product Leadership

Idea to Revenue

User Experience

Software Development