With global hardware and internet infrastructure improving rapidly, it’s now possible to build many services that were not so a mere 5 or 10 years ago. The internet revolution is coming to virtually all verticals in business and society, simply because it enables a lot more value to be delivered to people. Uber, shown in the image above, is one of the most successful recent examples of this – the company is hitting down hard on the taxi industry in many cities, while providing immense value to taxi-goers and making transportation through cities easier.
Although learning as an activity has so far been relatively untouched by technology, things are starting to move and there will be Ubers popping up to disrupt education related industries in the coming 10 years. At Kognity, we are trying to make use of these new possibilities to create real improvement in how learning happens for millions of students worldwide.
This post will quickly cover our view of how to grasp such opportunities; that is, how to build a pioneering product successfully – successfully in that the product will be loved by customers and users. The principles laid out are based on insights gathered while building our digital textbooks, but are applicable to other product types too.
I will go through the following three principles one by one.
So let’s start with the first one.
Many (if not most) companies spend a lot of time thinking about what their product should look like, do, what features it should have, and what they can add to it. They hold workshops on it, discuss alternatives and sketch out ideas. Favourites are selected, they try out a few different designs and launch the best one they have come up with. Once released, they start thinking about new ideas to further improve their product.
Unfortunately, this is often a waste of their time. However smart you are, it is more or less impossible to reason or guess your way to what will help a customer. The impact of the release is non-existent or minimal in 9 cases out of 10, and the product can end up becoming a collection of cool but dubiously effective features.
A different way of going about this is to not think about what the product should look like, but instead focus on and actively work with understanding your customers. In our case, the number one priority of our product organisation is to gain an as deep understanding as possible of the teachers and students we want to help.
There are a few different things we want to know about our customers, roughly in order of importance:
Notice that I ranked this last question as the least important – although it often receives the biggest focus from companies in their contact with customers. If you only ask your customers about the product, you will get answers and ideas that are confined within the realms of your product’s current functionality. Without realising, you are limiting your product and letting down the very people you are trying to help.
Beyond getting real tools to build product value, a positive side effect from this investigative work is that you also get a lot of invaluable input on how to communicate with your customers, which can be useful for other areas of your business.
If you put in serious effort getting to the bottom of the above questions, you will be in a position to truly help your customers. If you don’t, you will largely leave building a great product up to chance and luck.
For further great reading on this topic, have a look at Inspired by Marty Cagan.
Once you have a deep understanding of your users, you will have identified opportunities to create value with a product solution (either with new product or a new component in a product). In our case, this manifests itself in ways that we can improve learning and solve problems for teachers and students.
To make maximum use of the opportunities you’ve identified, you must free yourself from whatever information and preconceptions you have on what a solution should look like. It is a lot easier to base a solution on your previous ideas about something rather than to think from scratch. Our firm belief is simply that in product work, you should do your thinking with a clear state of mind, uninfluenced by analogy, what has gone before and the work of competitors. – we refer to this as working from first principles, a term borrowed from Aristotle and popularised by Elon Musk.
Let me give you an example. What do you think of when I say “digital textbooks”? My guess is a PDF online, maybe with a few alterations and an attached quiz. It is not a coincidence that this is also, more or less, what many traditional textbook publishers have in fact built when “wanting to go digital”. Why did it take half a century after the combustion engine was invented to build the first car? Because people thought about transportation as being by foot, by boat, or by horse – the way it had been for 1000s of years. When trying to come up with a product that solves problems, do not get stuck in old solution patterns and norms. Aim to get to the core of what you’re trying to achieve, and find the simplest and most efficient way of getting there.
Elon Musk has popularized the first principles thinking in the last few years. His company SpaceX has as its goal to make human kind a multi-planetary species - it is such an ambitious goal that their team members from the get go understand that they cannot think in terms of conventional solutions but instead are forced to think from the ground up.
While doing the legwork to understand your customers is relatively straightforward when you commit the time, working from first principles is hard. It’s a skill that is improved with time and practice and a lot of effort is required to make it part of a company’s DNA. At Kognity, one concrete method we use is to set impossible product effect goals, to the point where norm solutions would not be able to produce the result we are looking for. This forces us to think differently. We do this in brainstorming sessions of various formats. Although we are still learning how to use this technique well, we have by practicing this been able to build a product that lies outside of what most people expect when they think about textbooks. And one that delivers a lot more value to students and teachers.
Breaking patterns of thinking and doing things that make sense but feel unexplored and uncomfortable is the cause of most of the big breakthroughs in history – in science, products, and society. It is also a skill that is applicable across any part of a company and life. It is worth learning!
Even with a deep understanding of your customers’ problems and a free and creative methodology for getting to solutions, you will never see all product releases be successful. On average product organisations probably find that less than 1 out of 10 of major product releases are successful and have the desired effect. If you get to being successful with 1 out of 4, you’re most likely doing an outstanding job on the above two points. However, you also need to know which of your product releases or updates that are successful and which aren’t, something a surprising number of companies don’t know. You do this by measure the effect of everything you do to your product. A hunch on what is appreciated is not good enough – data beats opinion.
This is done through iteration – meaning trying something, measuring the effect, and using that input to try again. At Kognity we iterate in a few different phases of our product development process.
Can following steps as simple as these really ensure a better product?
Although it may sound like all this is something that takes up time, in reality it saves our 10 man product team 100s of hours, and more importantly, it prevents our customers from getting new releases that irritate them or don’t give them value.
When we iterate, we try to be drastic and make big bets to move outside of our current product boundaries (while staying focused on our vision). I saw this diagram just a week ago by Intercom’s founder Des Traynor that describes this idea much better than I would be able to do. Working from first principles means we have more room for exploration, and the refinement occurs in discussions with our customers – once we are sure we’re on the right track.
These 3 core principles constitute the general framework that we use to build our product. In my opinion there’s a surprising amount of companies who seem to ignore one or many of these – especially the first, which is perhaps the most important.
On a final note, I’d like to add that this framework is not everything we go by in building the product. Beyond it we have design principles, usability philosophies, vision statements and more. Though I do think they neatly summarize the most important foundations for Kognity’s product work. And while we don’t claim to have an uber in our hands just yet, we aspire to create a lot of value in novel ways for students and teachers alike.
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