The Most Important Thing About your v1.0 Product: “Product Surface Area”

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In this age of the “lean startups,” “agile development” and “minimum viable products,” the temptation for product designers is to get something out quickly and iterate with feedback.  So many great applications have been built that way. Early features are intended to grab an audience. The next step is to proceed to incremental development with a goal to deepen user engagement. It’s an attractive theory. What’s the point of inventing the future in a dark room and missing the market? Why not ship quickly and, rather than debate with your co-founders about which features matter, let the market decide.  A/B test your way to heaven.

If releasing a “minimum viable product” and then iterating quickly isn’t the key to a successful v1.0, then what is? The key is your “product surface area.”   Your product surface area is the broad collection of features that enable your potential user or customer to define you in their mind.  For example, by adding a broad set of use cases for publishing and sharing videos, YouTube’s product surface area created a mental space in its users that it was a “video sharing website.”  Even though a lot of the early use cases were centered on dating, it did not become a “dating website.”  The founders ensured that the product surface area was broad enough to go after the larger opportunity.  When you take your first product to market and pitch it to your first 10 prospects – you are holding your product and your business up to a mirror. You are asking the mirror, “How much do you love me; and what would it take for you to love me a little more?” The mirror will give you a totally rational answer. If you are medium build, slightly pudgy, wearing a yellow shirt and your hair is a disheveled, it might come back with, “you look pretty good.  Just lose a little weight, throw on a jacket to match the shirt and comb your hair.” But it certainly won’t come back and give you the path to become a fashion model. That’s the nature of your product surface area. Customers do a tremendous job giving you highly valuable incremental feedback but they can’t perceive value propositions that are well outside of the feature set. Therefore they can help make sure your stated value proposition improves but they can’t tell if a whole new bucket of features might be a lot more valuable. Given that you’re about to bet dozens of people, millions of dollars and your reputation on a product direction, the most important thing to get right in your v1.0 is the right depth and breadth of your product surface area. Go too broad and the execution will be terrible. The response you will get back will be a function of poor execution rather than a poor idea. Go too narrow and you run the risk that any feedback you get misses a much larger opportunity.

At BloomReach, we recently released SNAP (Search, Navigate and Personalize). It is a product with meaningful surface area. A “minimum viable product” approach would have suggested we just release a faster, better site-search product and iterate from there. If we did that, we’d get a lot of feedback on how to build better onsite search. Instead we believe that search technology needs to come together with navigation and personalization to deliver a new class of discovery on websites.

Building that combined stack took longer, but it ensured that the surface area was broad enough for us to claim a much larger market and make ongoing feature sequencing trade-offs across the larger surface area and that we received feedback across the full dimensions of the feature set. Picking your product surface area for v1.0 to balance timeline, scope, quality and opportunity is art, not science. While finding your optimal product surface area is important for consumer internet businesses, it’s critical for enterprise businesses.  Here’s why:

  • Feedback Cycles: Consumer products are about driving delight among millions of consumers. Enterprise products are about driving immense value among hundreds (maybe thousands) of companies. The sample size of feedback you get from your early enterprise customers will likely be much slower and much less representative of your broader market than in a consumer business (too few data points). Hoping to iterate on feedback simply takes too long.
  • Less Tolerance for Experimentation: Enterprises can’t tolerate radical experimentation.  They really need something that meets the test of someone working at a company justifying to their boss why they paid money for it.  As a result, you don’t get a lot of chances to take half-baked products to them and its important that the initial “surface area” be appropriate so you get the right feedback off of your v1.0, knowing there may not be multiple opportunities.
  • Reputation Matters More: When a consumer company’s experiment fails, it moves on to the next five experiments. In an enterprise-focused business, when a prospect is the one who tried your failed experiment, the only thing they can tell colleagues is “I tried it and it didn’t work.” Good luck selling to the prospect who received that report.

Consumer hardware devices may actually look a lot more like enterprise businesses in this regard. When Amazon released its phone, it seemed they were asking the Mirror – “if I give you the same full-featured phone as the iPhone with better 3D capabilities and a Prime Subscription thrown in, will you love me?” The Mirror will now speak, and I can assure you that if the phone has missed the mark, lightweight iteration won’t be the answer.

Next time you’re planning v1.0 – remember the Cinderella fairy tale, “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all….”

Image from Surface Area by Jon Fife licensed under CC by 2.0

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