Technology-driven Products: The Founding Block Of Product Management | by Rafayel Mkrtchyan | Nov, 2021


Rafayel Mkrtchyan

Many of us are already building or are planning to build products that are going to solve problems of various market sizes and scales — ranging from problems that exist only in specific industries to global issues, various geographics — ranging from specific regions to the entire world, and various complexities — ranging from problems that can easily be solved using currently available approaches to the ones that require technological innovations and new discoveries. Hence, it’s worth learning about the foundations and origins of the things that we are building.

Look around. Many things that surround us are products — the computer on your desk, the mailbox you use, the faucet on your kitchen sink, and the subway you take every day. They are indisputable parts of our lives, and we interact with them to satisfy our daily needs such as dining, communication, transportation, sanitation, healthcare, etc. The bigger the need, the more valuable and demanded the product that is designed to satisfy that need will be. This is a differentiating factor in terms of the popularity of various products, and most of the time, one of the main aspects determining whether the product is going to succeed or not. This is why among all the products that have been created throughout time, only the ones that satisfy big customer needs and efficiently solve their given problems have remained in the market and continued to evolve.

Many people think that products have to be tangible objects. This was true decades ago, but nowadays this conception is not valid anymore. “Softwarization” is consuming the world, turning many of the tangible tools that were meant to solve specific business cases into their software alternatives. We use many of those software products on a daily basis, without even noticing it, such as the Operating System in our computer, the electronic key for our garage, the meetup scheduling application in our office, the news feed application in our smartphone… The continuous technological discoveries and advancements open new perspectives in terms of product offerings we see, as well as combine the old and new approaches such as the Internet of Things to solve already existing problems more efficiently.

An important characteristic of all products is that throughout time, they were improved and transformed into something more sophisticated in order to provide stronger value to people using it and stay competitive in the market. Without these types of transformations, those products wouldn’t last long in their industries because they would eventually lose their value and strength. Remember the fanciest car you have seen so far. It looked near perfect, didn’t it? But this vehicle has got its predecessor. If we view cars as products meant to transport people from point A to point B, then a chariot drawn by horses had that same functionality back in archaic times. The chariot was first being used for ancient warfare during the Bronze and Iron Ages. But later, since the horses were gradually bred to be bigger, they started to be used for travel and entertainment.

So, maybe you have not even given a thought to this previously, but you can see how a product has evolved into something more sophisticated based on people’s needs. And we see this every day. However, this wouldn’t be possible without the ongoing technological discoveries and development that empowered those products throughout their entire lifespan. Modern technology is disrupting various industries, and new inventions reveal new opportunities to make existing products smarter, cheaper, and more efficient. Remarkably, technological advancements can provide unique value propositions to the existing customer base and robust the competitiveness of the product in its industry.

Each of the components inside the laptop is a product itself. Those components need to be discovered, designed, built, tested, and delivered. These are called integral products. Integral products can be tangible products, but as you will see later they can also be non-tangible. Integral products are essential for creating other products. Even though they don’t do anything themselves, integral products assist other products to rely on them to come to life. However, they are the key components that need to be created. In this case, the circuits, sensors, storage, and other parts of a computer are considered to be integral products. Here, the complex ideology of abstraction comes into play. It allows us to interact with a product without having to know its integral products and how they work. To use the product you only have to know what’s above its abstraction barrier and you don’t have to understand how it functions underneath.

Of course, the hardware is only half of what makes your laptop work. The other half is the software that comes with it. First, you need to have an operating system (OS) — Mac OS, Linux, or Windows. The OS is the platform that connects the hardware on the device to the apps and interfaces that you work with. Operating System is an example of a platform product. This one needs further explanation. So, there was a time when the word “platform” was used only to denote the environment where software programming was being carried out. For instance, the Android Software Development Kit (SDK) acts as a platform where people build online applications such as Facebook. But things have evolved through time. Facebook nowadays acts as a platform by itself. It allows other applications to utilize Facebook’s external application programming interface (API) to allow their customers to register to those products using customers’ Facebook profiles. Here stands the dual nature of some platform products since they not only serve their primary purpose but also serve as an environment for other products.

A laptop is a product that we can use with our hands. It is tangible. On its surface, a laptop may not appear as intricate as the components built inside of it. Each program or tool in the computer is a product because each one has to be discovered, designed, built, tested, and delivered. So, we basically call these products software products. The platform products are essentially software products, but we give them a specific name to highlight their particular objective. However, there are other types of software products too.

Another type of software products that we interact with frequently is service products. Let’s take Dropbox as an example. You can have everything in the cloud and also visible on your desktop. Dropbox is a unique service product. Your computer uses other service products too. For example, every time you send an email, or you upload a photo, a service product is working underneath without you even noticing it. They are these transit hubs that allow systems to work. Another great example of service products is software as a service (SaaS) products built by business-to-business (B2B) companies to satisfy the needs of those partnering vendors. An identifiable factor for service products is that customers directly pay for the usage of those services.

There are technologies called standards that are part of how software and the web work at a basic level. Examples of these are things like IP (Internet Protocol), TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), and FTP (File Transfer Protocol). IP is the principal protocol for network communication. It essentially establishes the Internet. TCP allows two network hosts to establish a connection and exchange streams of data. FTP is used for the transfer of computer files between a client and a server on a computer network. These standards are the rules for how information sent across services is broken down, how it finds its destination, how it is validated and accepted. We call these products base products. These base products, again need to be discovered, designed, built, tested, and delivered.

So that makes sense for the laptop or your personal computer, but it applies to other things too. Take a car. The car is a tangible product. It has an engine, which is an integral product. The Windows Embedded Automotive can be one of the Operating Systems used for the in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system for that car. It is a platform product. The Operating System might contain various applications that are designed for audio or video entertainment. These are essentially software products. At the right side of the driver are the radio and GPS systems, that require base products such as connections and services to communicate and work with other radios and satellites.

So, you see that there are various types of technology-driven products out there. Depending on the context, you might be working with one or more of the products described above. Many of the tangible products that we see nowadays consist of lots of integral products that are strongly connected to each other. Moreover, software that acts as a platform for other products might be software that is created using another platform. Platform products might contain various software products, each of them bringing a specific value to the users of that platform. Some of those software products might be service products that provide a specific service to their target entities. Finally, many of the above-mentioned products would not exist if we didn’t have the base technologies that empower those goods.

Great products are always designed with not only the product’s consumption in mind but also the whole process of owning, using, troubleshooting it. Likewise, great product designers don’t just concentrate on creating beautiful or usable products, but they also focus on other aspects of the UX such as effectiveness and emotions such as comfort, joy, fun, etc. Usability stands as one of the most important metrics for the success of the product. Imagine building a product that provides meaningful value to the customers, but the usage of that product causes so much pain, that it discourages customers from dealing with it.

Bad usability hinders the value of the product, questioning the worth of going through all the pain to get the desired value.

In this era of competitive product landscapes, we should not question the value of good design. As famous German industrial designer Dieter Rams stated in his timeless commandments of design:

Good design is innovative. Good design makes a product useful. Good design is aesthetic. Good design makes a product understandable. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is honest. Good design is long-lasting. Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Good design is environmentally-friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.

All these commandments are universal for every type of product, and there is no justification in today’s demanding market to not follow any of those rules.

There is no specific “algorithm” to crack the great UX for the product since it depends on the type of product, its user persona, and the problem it is trying to solve. Each of those factors significantly affects how the user interacts with the product. Users of base products are engineers who essentially need well-implemented standards and protocols to build their technologies on top of them. Users of trading platforms are traders who need well-presented and meaningful analytical insights in front of them to make justifiable decisions. Pilot in the airplane wants to have a comfortable interface to manage the aircraft in stress environments, such as turbulence. That’s why there is no single definition of great UX. The most important rule here is to find out the needs of a particular user persona in a specific context and try to meet those needs through product design.

Roughly, if the design answers the questions Why? What? and How? then you have got chances of creating something valuable for the users. Let’s break this down:

  1. Why? — Questions why we are designing this particular solution in the given way.
  2. What? — Questions which primary action of the product we are enhancing through this design.
  3. How? — Questions how is this particular design solution going to improve the desired metrics?

Thus, the user experience is all about how people interact with your product. If the interaction takes too much time or is nerve-wracking or boring or something else that hinders efficiency and fun, then you have got to work on your product design to make the user experience as awesome as possible. Note that here we have only discussed the design aspect of the User Experience. UX, however, is way broader than just a design.

When interacting with a product, people usually think that the interaction limits with the actual usage of that good. This might not be true for various software products. User experience nowadays involves more than just the interaction with the software. It also involves all the processes the user goes through after using the product and in-between. The interesting thing about this is that user experience in those periods might not involve the actual usage of that software product at all. In those types of products, to describe the overall experience that the user gets from the product is called holistic user experience.

Let’s take a transportation network service such as Uber as an example. If you are a non-smoker and it turns out that your Uber is just full of cigarette smoke, then you get a negative holistic user experience from the product. And this has nothing to do about the value or the usability of the application that was used to order that car. You might have a great experience when ordering the car, but a negative experience during the entire ride. Hence, the offline experience is equally important as the online experience. As a product manager, you should consider the different types of user personas who might use your product (the non-smoking user in this case). Some of them might be fine with the smoke, some others — won’t.

It’s critical to consider the needs and the expectations of your target audience while designing holistic product experiences. Before people love your product, there is a big journey they have to pass with it. So, if the journey is not as expected, many times they won’t even give it another chance. So, here is why it’s key to provide a good holistic user experience which basically involves eliminating the gap between a product’s online representation and the value it gives offline. Simply put, you should offer the same quality offline as promised online.

Questions like these might arise during the product acquisition process. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the customer does not trust the quality of the technology product. Many times customers need more than just the quality and high standards of the products offered by their prospective partnering company. Questions presented above showcase the additional characteristics of your product, and that is usually called an augmented product. Brian Lawley and Pamela Schure from the 280 Group present a well-detailed definition of an augmented product.

In our product offering, we usually talk about the key value propositions of the product. These are the unique benefits that customers gain when utilizing our product. It can be, for instance, a reduction of manual work by 30%, or speed up of the closing pipeline for the sales process by 3 times. This is actually called the core part of the product as it is the primary differentiating factor of the product from its competitors. But this is not enough. To increase the competitiveness of the product we care about various additional characteristics such as the interaction and visual design, its supplementary features, the company branding, and the monetization model. All these characteristics are included in the actual product.

The augmented product covers all the spheres where the customer interacts with the business and the product besides the actual interaction with the technology product. This can include other holistic aspects of the product such as the one we have discussed for a transportation network service such as Uber. It also covers the actual interaction with other business units such as Customer Service, Account Management, and Technical Support. In this image, you can see how all those three aspects of the product are connected to each other.

We usually say that the customer buys the whole product, which includes the core, actual, and augmented aspects of it.

Customer cares more than the actual product offered to them and they expect to gain all the benefits of the whole product and service that they are paying for. You as a company has given them a product promise to provide all the solutions and services to them the same way as your technology brand guarantees. Violation of at least one of the promises will break the product promise, causing customer dissatisfaction.

This many times can have nothing to do with the actual product. You might provide the customer a great experience with your technology and design, but the interaction with the Customer Service organization in your company might cause a big disappointment. If things like this happen on a continuous basis, the customer might even decide to leave your product for another competitor.

It’s vital to keep the product promise as it’s one of the key requirements for successful products.

One way product manager empowers product success and helps the company to keep the product promise is by creating a team culture where all the members feel accountable for the success of their product.

But does this mean that the product manager is also responsible for the success of the augmented product? This can be valid for early-stage companies, but in emerging and enterprise businesses it is not realistic to expect the product manager to have enough time and resources to manage augmented aspects of their product. However, product managers can influence other business organizations to improve the quality of their service, hence enhancing overall customer satisfaction.

In the software industry, things are different. If you are building an online application or some other software product, you can change it as many times as you want. You continuously iterate on a weekly and even on a daily basis to make it better for your customers. And believe me, there is no perfect product — there is always going to be room for improvement. And that’s fine since you are building a technology product, a product for a world that is evolving rapidly and needs everything to change accordingly.

Flexibility, rapid improvement and pivoting are what define product management in the software industry.

There are industries where you cannot pivot quickly or regularly (like the fashion or aircraft manufacturing industries). However in the software industry, if you have failed in something as a product manager or if the customers didn’t like the product or if something else went wrong, you can certainly pivot and offer alternative solutions. Pivoting basically means changing the direction towards which you are leading the product and experimenting and trying out new stuff until you reach your final destination.

Pivoting will be different based on the industry. Sometimes, it would be hard and costly, other times quick and easy, and most importantly, affordable. Thus, the industry you are operating in has got a lot of impact on product management.

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