Why Do We Build Products That Suck?
July 7, 2013

Why Do We Build Products That Suck?

by Brian de Haaff

Is your product unsatisfying to customers? Worse, do you hate working on it? It is one thing for your customers who probably only need to tolerate it for less than an hour or so a day, but you toil away at it for 40+ hours a week. Think about it this way — you spend about 50 percent of your waking hours working on something that is rotten.

Now, if your product is pure awesome and customers rave about it, you should stop reading here and get back to making it even better. You are a star, your career is flying high, and you really enjoy the team that you work with. But if you or others think that your product is lousy or needs real improvement, keep reading and consider why.

The culprit could be your boss or her boss or maybe it is the corporate culture or engineering. You may think that it is just bad market timing and customers do not understand how much better life could be with your offering. Maybe you are actually on to something big and it is just going to take a few revs to deliver a Minimum Lovable Product. Then again, it could be that Marketing does not know how to position it and Sales is clueless when it comes to identifying the right customers.

There are lots of reasons for lousy products. But more likely than not, you are holding yourself and the product back. If your product is just ok or worse, the problem is probably with you and how you think about it and what you are doing about it.

Every great product manager or engineer has worked on a lousy product. So it does not necessarily make you a terrible person or your colleagues morons. But slog away on a market loser for long enough, and it will reflect poorly upon you and impact your career.

No one wants to work on a stinker, so it might be time to become more self-aware and break the behaviors that are leading to product suckage.

Consider how many of these six bad habits that you regularly exhibit. Do you…

Fear yourself The biggest obstacle you have to overcome is yourself. You may fear any one or combination of the following: what people think about your ideas, that you will not be able to deliver what you promised, that your product or career will not turn out as you want it to, or that you will get fired. The reality is that most people are too concerned thinking about (and fearing) themselves to be worried about you. Step back, take a breath, and start thinking. You probably already know what is wrong with the product and what will make it great. Set a clear vision, present a rational roadmap that is on strategy, and write down what you and the team need to do to win. Leaders look past fear.

Do not use the product You hate using poor products, right? They really annoy you. And you probably notice them every day and can easily explain how much better they would be if this bug was fixed, this feature was added, or this improvement was made. The reason it is so obvious is because you are perceptive and you use the product yourself. Here is my challenge to you. Use your product at least 2.5 percent of your work week (that’s a ridiculously short one hour in a 40-hour work week). It is true that we cannot all use our own products (e.g. medical equipment, car manufacturing, derivatives trading), but we can certainly set up staging environments or watch our customers. That counts too. If you take one idea away from this blog post, take this. There is no better way to improve a product than to be forced to use it.

Avoid customers It is hard work talking (really listening) to customers. It takes time to get on their calendar, set up the meeting, and ignore all of the day-to-day distractions to truly tune in to what they are saying. If you follow the advice above and spend 2.5 percent of your time per week using your product, you should spend another 2.5 percent listening to customers. (If you cannot use your own product, spend at least 5 percent of your time listening to customers). And the point is not to tell them about the great features that are coming out next quarter. A perfect customer meeting is one where you get to the emotion. What is really vexing your customer that your product can help solve? Is it that your product saves your customer two hours a week so she can actually make her son’s late Thursday afternoon soccer game? How does the customer articulate what your product does or does not do? What time of day does she log in and why? Learn to ask probing questions and leave lots of silence, because people speak from their soul when they are trying to fill an awkward void.

Focus on features There is a time and place to talk about what your product does, but you should do it after you explain why it matters. Focus on the “why” before you launch into the “whats.” This is true when speaking both internally and externally. Remember, goal first. Your engineering team has a good chance of delivering greatness if they understand why a customer wants a feature. Stop yourself from living in the details of features. The greatest products are the synthesis of brilliant customer understanding and engineering prowess. Does your customer really care that your software now has a new and improved reporting engine? Yes, but the reason why is what matters. She can now complete her status reports in five minutes rather than taking 30. Sell the “why” and better “whats” will follow.

Manage perceptions rather than the business Get real. Focus on the business rather than perceptions. Perception management is a disease. “Perception management” was a phrase coined by the U.S. military during the Cold War and the U.S. Dept. of Defense (DOD) gives this definition:

“Actions to convey and/or deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning as well as to intelligence systems and leaders at all to influence official estimates, ultimately resulting in foreign behaviors and official actions favorable to the originator’s objectives. In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover and deception, and psychological operations.”

There is not much else to say here — if you are focused on “truth projection” and “cover and deception,” you are not working in the best interests of the customer, team, or business. You probably know folks who spend all of their energy trying to alter reality — do not fret — reality stares everyone down in the end. And a career spent shadowboxing delivers the gift of paranoia.

Give up I have written before that one of the lessons I have learned is that it is ok to give up. Sometimes the company or product problems are too great or your manager is too maniacal to work with. It is often wise to move on and pour your energy into something that has a better chance of being satisfying and creating value for more people. There have been a number of times in my own career where I have identified a big hairy problem and after struggling against it for at least a year, I decided it was best to move on. And every time my life has benefited and I have gone on to create more happiness for others. The key is that I identified the problem, spoke clearly about it with those who could help me resolve it, and only decided to give up when it was obvious that they would not help and I would be better off doing something else. In those instances, giving up meant moving on. The reason that I am including “give up” in this list is that giving up and continuing to manage the same product is disastrous for you and your customers. The problem is that when this happens, you just do not care about the product anymore. Just walk into the local post office or D.M.V. to understand what I mean.

Many great products start out as lousy products first. And many great product builders find that their offerings stink at some point. But the key question to ask is whether it is the product or you (especially if you work on a more mature product). If you have the courage to admit that you are the problem, you have made giant progress. The first step to banishing bad behaviors is to internalize that they are holding you and the product back. And if you do eliminate the negative habits, it is likely that you will deliver a product that customers love and you will be happy doing it.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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