Are You Iterating Your Product Into Success or Into the Ground?

Text label that reads "Should You Start Iterating Your Product?" In the background an exhausted man at work rubs his eyes.

A Common Product Challenge

The class had not yet started, but I was already getting questions about specific challenges the Product Managers at this company were facing. A question from one Product Manager still stands out in my mind. “I just launched a new mobile application and I haven’t gotten the adoption I expected. Should I start iterating on my product?”

I was initially surprised by the “one way to solve the problem” perspective of the question, but as I reflected later, I could not really blame this Product Manager for thinking this way. So much has been written about product analytics, metrics, and incremental iterations of the product toward achieving desired outcomes for those metrics. I also understand why so many Digital Product Managers focus on this approach when recognized brand names like Google, Amazon, and Facebook have applied it so successfully. This is all well and good when done within the right context, and this context must consider the overall strategy for your product and whether you are still in an exploration or optimizing phase.

When the Only Tool You Have is a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

While using product analytics, metrics, and product iteration are important tools for successfully managing digital products, our Product Management toolkit should include many other tools. This allows us to select and use the best set of tools for the different product challenges we face.

The tools in your Product Management toolkit should support a structured approach to managing your products through all phases of its in-market lifecycle. This structured approach includes the following:

Monitoring Product Performance

Based upon targeted performance metrics, evaluate how is your product performing.

Conducting Root Cause Analysis

Your product performance is an indicator of issues, but rarely do they tell you what the specific problem is. You will have to do some digging to identify the root cause. This can include deeper analysis of your data, but often leads to qualitative approaches.

Making Adjustments in Strategy and Execution

With clarity on the root cause, you can now select the right set of actions to fix the problem. In some cases, this will be iterating on your product, but in many other cases, you may need to address your strategy or other parts of your business model.

Figure 1: Steps to Enhance Your Product’s In-Market Performance

In the particular case I mentioned above, the Product Manager was taking a shortcut from Product Performance (I’ve identified a problem) to Adjustments (let’s fix it) without doing a deeper root cause analysis across his business model. He leveraged the approach he knew best, which was iterating on his product.

Monitor Product Performance

Your product performance metrics are always the starting point for tracking the performance of your product in the market. While there are potentially hundreds of metrics you can track for your product, you need to focus on the top three to five indicators that reflect the key drivers of your business model at the current moment. These will be your top metrics to monitor and if the performance of any of these fail to meet their targets, you’ll need to take the next step to understand why this is happening.

Getting to the Root Cause

Data is only part of the story and is just an indicator of a performance gap and most often does not identify the root cause itself. To get the root cause, you must pull some other tools from your toolkit to get to “the why” behind the data.

You must be able to answer questions such as:

  • How are your customers learning about your product?
  • Why did they acquire your product?
  • What other options did they have?
  • How are they using your product?
  • Are they achieving the expected value from it?

While you may be able to identify some of these answers through product data, the most common set of tools Product Managers use to answer these questions are Voice of the Customer (VOC) techniques. These include customer interviews, observation, focus groups, surveys, etc. Unfortunately, I find this practice underused by organizations of all sizes and Product Managers of all maturity levels. It is so fundamental to our product success, but too often we assume we already know the answer, or we do not feel we have time to do it.

Tools to Take Action & Drive Customer Success

Product Managers tend to focus on enhancing our products as our primary tool for achieving business outcomes, but we should not forget all the other action tools we have available in our PM toolkit. These include actions such as strategy changes, pricing adjustments, marketing promotion campaigns, and working with our sales teams and distribution channels.

Figure 2: Product Management Range of Potential Actions

Guidelines for Choosing the Right Tools

Here are some questions to ask that will help you determine which tools to use:

  • Are you trying to discover product-market fit (exploring) or improve on what you have (optimizing)?
  • Do you know what business model or product problem you are solving for?
  • Do you have core weaknesses in your business model or product which limit growth?
  • Are you working on improving a specific metric in the customer journey, such as acquisition, activation, retention, referral or revenue?
  • Are you trying to achieve incremental improvement in a metric or a material change?
  • Do you have a large enough sample size to learn from data analytics?

Asking and answering these questions will provide you better insight to make the right decision on which data to collect, where to dig deeper for your root cause analysis and which actions are available to you to make course corrections.

What Did I Recommend in the Scenario Mentioned Above?

I asked a few diagnostic questions and quickly concluded that iterating on the product was premature. How did I know that?

  1. The adoption was so low that the Product Manager could not collect a statistically significant dataset.
  2. Overall awareness was still low for the application and its perceived value.
  3. The application did not yet have a clearly defined customer journey that could be tracked through awareness, acquisition, usage, and loyalty (it was primarily being promoted through representatives in their local offices).

I knew that this Product Manager needed other tools to analyze the situation and to take corrective actions. I suggested that he do some VOC activities. That included speaking with representatives in the local offices and reaching out to customers that were candidates for using the app, or already using it, and gain some insights as to the challenges of adoption.

Based upon my experience, I recommended the following possibilities to explore:

Product promotion

The representatives in the local offices were not properly promoting the product to the targeted customer segment. That is, they weren’t promoting it at all, promoting the wrong value prop, or promoting to the wrong market segment.

If this is the case, he would need to look at additional training and internal promotion or possibly re-evaluate the incentives for the offices to promote the product.

Communicate on value

The targeted customers did not understand the value of the application.

If this is the case, he would need to review and adjust the product messaging.

Does the product deliver that value?

The targeted customers knew of the product and understood the potential value but did not find the product useful in delivering that value.

In this case, he would want to understand the fundamental weaknesses of the product and make more material adjustments, rather than just iterating on the product.

I strongly believe that if this Product Manager had relied only on data analytics and product iteration, he would have iterated the product into the ground. With the new direction above, he had the opportunity to hypothesize, test, and learn with a more comprehensive toolset which would lead to much greater chances of achieving success with his new product!

Next Steps

If you find yourself too focused on analytics and product iterations, it is time to take a step back and understand the bigger role of product management. 280 Group’s Online Optimal Product Management and Product Marketing course is an awesome way to enhance your understanding of the product management/product marketing role and to develop (and strengthen) your tools of the trade. Your product is worth it – drive it to success.


About the Author

Tom Evans is a Principal Consultant and Trainer at 280 Group.
Tom Evans is a Senior Principal Consultant and Trainer at 280 Group and is an internationally recognized authority in product management, product marketing, international business, go-to-market strategies, business partnerships, and entrepreneurship. In his extensive experience, he has helped start-ups through Fortune 500 companies create and launch winning products and has led business development efforts in the US and global markets. Tom has been responsible for successfully developing and implementing Product Management & Product Marketing methodologies at multiple companies.

280 Group is the world’s leading Product Management training and consulting firm. We help companies and individuals do GREAT Product Management and Product Marketing using our Optimal Product Process™.

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