May 24, 2019

The 4 Biggest Mistakes Companies Make In Product Development

By Vanessa Martins

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How to build outstanding digital products and avoid common detrimental mistakes

Intersect has been working with different companies across multiple industries since 2006, and over the last 13 years we’ve gained insight into the choices companies make and the mistakes that come with those choices. These mistakes appear time and again when we work with new clients. We’ve made these mistakes too. However, we’ve learned from them and now know how to avoid them. Today, we’re calling out the four most common, detrimental mistakes we’ve come across to bring awareness and steer the course with solutions we use to lead us to success.

1. Solutioning Without Understanding the Problem

“I think often companies narrow into a problem too early, as opposed to figuring out what the root cause is. Or they’ll try to do what they’ve always been doing and make something nice and new on top of it rather than foundationally changing what’s not working.”

– Noorain Noorani, Senior Product Designer, Intersect

When people talk about problem-solving, they often miss the actual “problem” piece of the equation. The first problem identified isn’t always the root problem, or if it is, it’s not fully defined. To say the problem with your product is that it looks outdated and needs a better design is to ignore the real problems your users are facing. The problem you’ve identified needs to be taken apart, challenged, and brainstormed in the same way the solution is if you want to understand it fully.

Once you know the problem, it’s often helpful to keep asking ‘Why?’ to drill down to gaps in current knowledge. For example, a problem may be ‘it takes too long for a user to accomplish their tasks’ on a platform. Asking why can uncover that users aren’t being presented with the right information at the right time, because there hasn’t been enough due diligence to understand how a user works through the platform. You gain the most knowledge by getting users to talk about their experience, even if you think you know what they’re going to say. But keep in mind that solutions are best left to the product experts. Your user will uncover everything wrong about your platform, but they won’t tell you the right way to fix it. They will only offer you solutions they’ve seen before that aren’t for your specific problem. Listen to them for their problems, but be wary of following their suggestions for solutions.

Solution: Dive deep to understand the problem and its framing first, then find a solution that works for your user.

2. Business Needs & Tech Constraints Lead Product Development

“The biggest mistake companies make is not knowing what their users want and trying to force something that they think their users want onto them.”

Adam Borzecki, Engineering Manager, Intersect

Oftentimes, organizations lose track of the most essential part of building a digital product – the people it’s being built for. Instead, companies are left to frame their product development around their technology constraints or business requirements. This may not sound unreasonable at first, but by framing your product around business goals instead of users, you may be missing opportunities for even stronger business results. For example, if you feel that customer satisfaction is not as high as you would like, you might decide to hire three more customer service operatives to shorten wait times. But by speaking to users first, you could uncover some valuable information. With one company, we learned that users had to keep calling in to schedule a service and were frustrated by how much time it took. Building a feature that handles scheduling online frees up customer service members from scheduling calls, which then improves customer satisfaction and customer service performance.

Similarly, technical constraints limit companies as they think through how a product should be built. Technical constraints should never limit the potential of a product. Understanding what technical constraints you must work under is necessary; so is building out a roadmap that details a plan to remove, shift, or work around technical constraints to build the best product for the user. We work with our clients in a ‘blue-sky-thinking’ exercise that tells them to remove all constraints (technical, business, everything) and picture the perfect product for the user. Then we can start detailing how to work toward that given where we are today.

Solution: Fight for the user, not for business needs or tech constraints.

3. Letting Perfection Be the Enemy of Good

“So many companies want to launch MVPs but never actually allow for it to be a true MVP. They’re always trying to cram as much as they can into that first launch, and the whole product suffers because of it.”

Carolyne Garbas, UI Designer, Intersect

As you build a product, everything around you is changing. Customer expectations and interests, technology, and competitors are no exception. If you’re working on a product for a year before your first public release, you’ve likely built an out-of-touch product. Perfection in this instance is flawed, because the product you’ve built was perfect at the exact time you developed your strategy and outlined your product’s features. The time used to hold off on releasing a product, to add more features or build on current ones is almost always better used releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) and learning from it.

MVPs can be scary, especially for established businesses, because of how lightweight the feature set can be compared to past built products. Nevertheless, as long as an MVP is being built correctly (i.e. if the best product that could be built is equivalent to a Tesla, your MVP may be an unglamorous but functional skateboard, but it is definitely not a plank of wood with a wheel glued onto it) it almost always makes sense to release it and get feedback. This is how you collect data and keep your finger on the pulse for how you need to iterate on your product.

Solution: Understand the right way to build a minimal viable product and iterate frequently.

4. Avoiding Decision Making and Not Having a Product Owner

“[The biggest mistake is] failure to select a product owner on the company’s side who makes decisions. Not having a company product owner decentralizes decision making, reduces your ability to achieve momentum, and leaves the entire process open to responsibility shirking.”

Christopher Hirst, Director of Product Management, Intersect

One of our core beliefs that helps us build products so quickly is bias toward action. If you aren’t pushing to make a decision, it can be easy to get caught up in uncertainty, lack of information, the risk of being wrong, and disagreements that result in delaying development in hopes of perfection (see #3). Decision making is challenging because there may be endless possibilities, and you may choose the wrong one. Still, these decisions need to be made so the product can move forward; making a decision is better than making no decision.

There will almost always be conflict among a team about the course a product should take. The larger the team, the more opinions there are, and the harder it becomes to wrangle all of these opinions into a final choice of what to do next. That’s why it’s imperative the right people are empowered and specifically assigned as decision makers in a project – Product Owners. At worst, having no Product Owners can lead to an endless drain of resources and stalled development until a decision is made. At best, not having a Product Owner means delayed development as individuals try to understand who gets the final say on what to decide. But there are more delays without a Product Owner, with the eventual conclusion that a decision could have been reached if one had been initially assigned in the project. Regardless of the path product development takes, having a Product Owner is always in a company’s best interest.

Solution: Make decisions often and quickly with the right leadership.

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