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Product Thinking: Q&A with Jeff Patton

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Product thinking focuses on outcomes to maximize the success of your customers, argued Jeff Patton in the closing keynote at the Agile Greece Summit 2019. The things that make a product good are results of customers seeing, trying and using your product; they happen after you ship it. Product delivery is the beginning, not the end.

Patton explained that there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing someone use and love something that you worked hard to build:

The most satisfied developers I know feel like what they’re doing is meaningful. And, it’s always been my experience that the fastest way to motivate a team member is to get them in front of the people actually using what they’re building. It feels better than building stuff that meets requirements, or earns cash. Even though it may do both those things too.

If you’re a product thinker you’ll need to know who your customers are and how they’ll use your product, said Patton. Everything we do revolves around maximizing their success - the outcomes. Patton mentioned that the business leader bringing you requirements isn’t likely the one who will see, try, buy or use your product. We often get bound up trying to please the business stakeholder or the product owner who wants that output delivered on time, he said.

In the InfoQ article Becoming Outcomes Focused, Patton stated that we need to become focused on outcomes and adapt our way of thinking and our processes to continuously release small changes to our products and services. He suggested to talk more about outcomes and remember that ideally we want a product that’s built to last for as long as possible

InfoQ spoke with Jeff Patton, product design consultant and author of User Story Mapping, about product thinking after his talk at the Agile Greece Summit 2019.

InfoQ: How do you define product thinking?

Jeff Patton: Product thinking focuses on outcomes.

I’ll often start talks by asking people, "What are the characteristics of a good product?" You can predict the responses. Things like: easy to use, solves a problem, and makes us money. I’ll point out to people that no one said: delivered on time, or under budget. Everyone knows those aren’t product things - those are project things.

All the things that make a product good are the things that happen after the product ships. And they’re things that are results of customers seeing, trying and using your product. It’s up to them to tell you it solved a problem or that it’s easy to use. It’s only after enough of them buy and use your product and service that you’ll make lots of money. Those are the outcomes.

I’m not saying you don’t need to deliver something predictably and at high quality, but that that’s the beginning of your process, not the end.

InfoQ: What are the benefits from applying product thinking?

Patton: Your business will be more successful. And you’ll feel better about yourself.

You shouldn’t believe anything I say because I’m just a consultant. Instead, I’ll quote the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos: "Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing." Bezos didn’t say product thinking - he said we’re focused on serving the customers. Everyone at Amazon knows he means Amazon customers; not Jeff Bezos, not executives, not their immediate bosses.

And before you start thinking that Bezos is a wonderful guy who only cares about people, remember Bezos knows that he’s converting that customer delight into money his company spends - and he spends too, I’d imagine. It may not surprise you to learn that Bezos and Amazon don’t spend tons of time and money worrying about customers who they can’t earn money from. They understand the customer value converts to dollars. That’s the way product thinking works.

InfoQ: If using a product-centric approach is so beneficial, why don’t companies naturally do this?

Patton: Oddly, our natural desire to do a good job for our customers is what gets in the way.

Imagine going to a restaurant and having a really good waiter. The waiter gives you advice on what to order, and encourages you to order the things you love, and lots of them. The waiter is attentive and provides great service to you, his customer.

In business, and often in our processes, we work hard to provide good service to our customers the same way. Sometimes we see our customers as business stakeholders, sometimes as the users of our product. And we strive to give them what they ask for. But, go back to the waiter in the restaurant. The waiter isn’t the product owner, the waiter didn’t make the choices about the restaurant location, decor, or what’s on the menu. The waiter didn’t set the pricing for things on the menu. And the waiter doesn’t need to worry about the viability of the restaurant. The waiter isn’t the product owner - he’s actually part of the restaurant product.

In business, sometimes well-intentioned people switch into the good waiter posture and try to do their best for the people who are asking them for product features. And, even worse, sometimes business leaders switch into a demanding customer mode and treat their people like waiters. Sometimes we all lose sight of the business we’re trying to grow and move our focus to how fast we deliver on the promises we make to each other. Doing that is important - but isn’t necessarily what earns money for the organization.

Taking on a product-centric posture means you’re always balancing individual customer desires with the needs of a broad class of customers - most of which you’ll never meet. You’re balancing customer needs with the needs of your organization to serve customers who pay for its services, because your company likely thrives on the money your customers pay for those services. Sometimes the right answer is ignoring the needs of small groups of customers who don’t represent much benefit to your organization. This can feel wrong. Sometimes the right answer is questioning what a stakeholder asks for in order to better understand how it moves the organization forward. Not only can this feel wrong - it can feel a bit "career limiting."

So who you treat as your customer, and how you choose to make them happy, can get in the way. Think more like the restaurant owner, and less like the waiter.

InfoQ: What can we do to test or validate a product hypothesis?

Patton: There are already heaps of stuff written on this. Look at books like Lean Startup and Lean UX, books on design sprints, books like Lean Product Playbook. By the time you read this, my friend David Bland will have released his new book Testing Business Ideas, containing 300+ pages and scores of ways to test ideas. This is the area where process and practice are evolving fast. We’re going way beyond "build a prototype" here.

It all starts with exposing your risks and assumptions, then making room in your process to test those. Those sorts of books will give you ideas on how to do that, and using a dual-track style process where learning carries equal weight with development will help.

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