Building products – Things I wish I knew earlier when I started building products.

Nov 7, 2020, 21:00

It's not a step by step guide but rather an attempt to synthesize my thinking about what it really matters to build great products.

I've been building products for the last 12 years. On this journey, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to wear a lot of different hats in the making of a digital product. 

I've worked as Interface designer, Front-end developer, UX Designer, Product Designer and lastly, as a Product Manager. All along the way, I've always had a close relationship with engineers, learning everything I could about development and understanding all the effort and creativity necessary to bring products to life.

To keep this valuable for a wider audience and range of professionals, I've tried to extract the essence of I believe to be essential to keep in mind when building products.

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Purpose

Everything starts with a clear purpose.

When building products, you have to be an eternal optimist about your mission  –  to help you get through the rough times, and very pessimist about execution  –  it always takes way more time and effort to nail it.

Build great products takes time; it's a long-term commitment. It's almost impossible (in my experience) to immerse yourself in a work whose purpose isn't aligned with your beliefs.

Without a clear purpose for you (and your team), it's tough to find an intrinsic motivation to keep iterating your product on a problem space.

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Constraints

"...Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: the ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list."

Charles & Ray Eames

I love this excerpt from an interview with Charles and Ray Eames in 1972 about Design. This quote stayed on my mind since the first time I've read it.

Embracing constraints is essential to creativity. The primary fuel to your problem-solving is to identify what restrictions you're dealing with.

Your purpose is what drives your "willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints." Once you have a clear purpose and goal in mind, you have to "identify as many constraints as possible" to have a clear problem space to tackle, and sometimes you need to enforce additional constraints.

I like to think about constraints in two spectrums:

  • From hard constraints to self-imposed constraints;
  • From under constraint to over constraint;

Hard & Self-imposed constraints

Hard constraints are the ones that you have little to no influence under it. It's time, resources, team, skills, funding, knowledge, market conditions, laws, available technology, and so on. It's the constraints that you'll have to work within, no matter what.

Self-imposed constraints are the ones you set to have a clear problem space and increase your focus. It could come in different shapes. It could be your values, product principles, strategy, and everything else you and your team agree on that helps you stay on the right path. It's your conscious trade-offs.

Under & Over Constraints

An under constrained problem space will be too broad and challenging to narrow down what really matters. You'll see yourself drowned in the endless possibilities to solve problems. When you find yourself in this scenario, it's better to enforce new constraints and make trade-offs to eliminate noise.

On the other hand, when you over constrain it, you won't leave room for improvisation, innovation, and adaption when it's needed. You have to find a sweet spot on this spectrum to have the freedom to experiment.

Identifying the right constraints and balancing them is an ongoing challenge. Your team will grow, new technologies will enable new solutions, markets, and users will continuously evolve.

You have to keep your eyes open to see what stays true and what helps you stay focused on what matters.

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Shaping friction

Your goal when designing a product is to shape friction. You'll have to shape as many frictions as possible from your user's journey to achieve the desired outcome. Here are some examples:

  • Optimize your user acquisition  – remove friction from each step of the funnel;
  • Improve engagement  – remove friction to make core actions more intuitive and accessible;
  • Reduce churn  –  remove friction that is keeping users away from their goals;
  • Avoid unintended behaviors  –  Instagram adding features to avoid users (adding friction) to pos offensive content;
  • You got the point…

To identify which friction worth solving/shaping, you have to have a deep understating of your product and the people using it. You'll have to know product goals and the user's job-to-be-done (context, objectives, functional and emotional needs).

In essence, your job is to continuously iterate, shape, and balance the right amount of friction on each part of the product.

Prioritization & Judgment

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Prioritization is one of the most essential subjects in building products.

There are endless techniques, frameworks, mental models, and tools to help you make the right decisions when prioritizing your next move.

The truth is that it's tough to make the "best" decisions, even when you have lots of qualitative and quantitative insights (not the case for early-stage products) to inform your prioritization.

Confident decision making takes time. When working on a high-growth startup, you'll have to be comfortable with the uncertainty, lack of time, data, and resources to make the right call.

Another critical factor to keep in mind is your (and your team's) biases. Even when you have plenty of data at your disposal, you and your team are always influenced by some bias (confirmation bias and others).

There will be times when you won't have enough data, other times you won't have enough time, and most of the time, you won't be aware of your biases.

That leads me to my last point, judgment. Good judgment is extremely underrated these days, but I find it one of the most valuable traits.

"Good Judgment depends mostly on experience, and experience usually comes from poor judgment."

Old saying

Good judgment is also impossible to measure upfront, but it will be your judgment to assess the risk and time needed to make each decisionthat will lead you towards the best possible outcomes in times of uncertainty.