We’ve all used a website or an app that makes us happy. It accomplishes what we want it to without having to call customer support. It makes our lives better. It scratches the itch that has been driving us crazy. You might say that website or app does all of these things because it’s simple. But I would use a different word: focused.
While there are common traits that delightful products have — like beautiful graphics, clear copy, personality, and ease of use — I believe that the true common denominator for these great products is focus. They take one problem that you have and solve it extraordinarily well. It’s not about the bells and whistles but about doing its job. And a darn fine job at that.
I’ve seen too many companies (including one I started) make the mistake of trying to do too much for their users. They try and account for so many different edge cases and add extra features they think will help them sell more products. What happens to teams — especially small ones — that fall into this trap is that they end up creating a product with a horrible user experience. A product that is clunky, hard to use, and difficult to describe.
Unless you’re Google or Facebook, you probably lack the resources needed to design and build such a large scale product right off the bat. If you try to, you will probably start to see your team miss deadlines. There will be a huge number of customer support tickets. People won’t be converting on your landing page. And you will look more like a waterfall than a lean, mean, agile fighting machine. If this all sounds familiar, my money is on a lack of focus — trust me, I’ve been there.
“Swiss Army knives are incredibly useful, providing a set of tools to address a wide range of needs all in one convenient package. But at some point, as you add more and more tools, a Swiss Army knife gets wider, heavier, less usable, and less valuable. Focus is critical when defining a new product.” — Dan Olsen, The Lean Product Playbook
How do we make it simple?
Like David Pogue said in his TED talk, “Simplicity sells”. And I couldn’t agree more. But we hear so much about simplicity. How do we even make a product simple? Merriam-Webster defines simple as: “not hard to understand or do”. Great. But how do we make something not hard to understand or do?
It comes down to one thing: focus.
Focus is what keeps out the extra features that end up cluttering an interface. Focus is what helps keep you on track when meeting deadlines. Focus is what helps you clearly define who you are as a company.
When we first have an idea for a product or a great company, we actually have so many different ideas going through our heads. We think about all of the possibilities and all the people that would use it. But what we need to do is sift through all those thoughts and start with a single core idea.
Define the problem
In order to narrow down that core idea, you need to first and foremost define the problem you are solving. Too many times do startups bounce around with all the different things that their product can do. Their elevator pitch only works if you are going to the top floor of the Empire State building. And their websites don’t really tell you anything about what they are doing. These are all signs of a lack of focus.
Start thinking about your value proposition and the problem it relates to. You need to be able to articulate that value proposition in a clear and concise way. It’s not easy to nail down, but you have to do it. Otherwise, you are dealing with an identity crisis. And no one will use or buy your product if they don’t know who you are or what you do.
Here is a formula that I think can help startups and product teams define their problem, articulate their value proposition, and fix their identity crisis:
Stick to the plan
After defining the problem you are solving, you can use it not only in your fancy marketing material but also to get your product team focused. When you are considering a new feature or new path to pursue, think about if it helps your target audience and the problem you are solving. If it doesn’t, bookmark it for later and get back to work.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” — Steve Jobs
Your problem definition, your mission statement, your value proposition, they all are important things that keep your team focused. So don’t fall into the trap of building a feature because your competitor is or an investor wants it or even scarier, a customer asks for it. You want to listen to your customers, but don’t do something just because they ask for it — instead dig deeper on why they want that feature. Sometimes they may be the wrong customer for you. And that is okay. It takes discipline to turn a customer away because what he or she wants doesn’t relate to the current problem you are solving.
You can’t be all things for all people
When starting a company and building a product, you can’t be all things to all people. Building feature after feature, thinking it will expand the number of users your product will have, ultimately leads to a mediocre product. Instead, focus on one specific niche of people and solve their problem extraordinarily well.
“Better to make a few users love you than a lot ambivalent” — Paul Graham
The great products don’t come out of the box with all the bells and whistles and a potential audience of 7 billion people. They started with one core focus and then transformed over time. Facebook didn’t start out as a comprehensive social network for middle schoolers, grandmas, and everyone in between. The first version of Facebook was solely for Harvard students.
And that version of Facebook didn’t have the ability to chat, play games, view a personalized timeline, run ad campaigns, and add filters to your profile picture to support compelling causes. It was focused on doing a couple of things extraordinarily well for those Harvard kids like letting them search for other people’s profiles. No status updates about how your friend got engaged last night. No pictures of your sister’s vacation. No Farmville invites from your Aunt Susan.
Being focused doesn’t mean being limited
Just because your product is starting with one audience and one problem, that doesn’t mean you have to throw your grand vision out the window. You will get to that grand vision one day, but only by focusing on one thing at a time. When adding a new feature that will open up another door for your company, only do so when the previous problem is solved and those first niche users are delighted. Rome wasn’t built in a day. So take it one problem at a time, and you’ll get there. I promise!