Three rules for building successful technology products

Omar Sabil

    Whichever way you look at it, the increasing speed of technological advancement makes for a shift not only in how we think about technology but also everything else around us; effectively shifting markets, cultures, and that little space in our head dictating how we interact with the world.

    It is fascinating to look at kids nowadays reaching for a TV and trying to swipe content away or press buttons on it; that seems to be what a screen interaction is for a toddler these days. For once we may say in certainty that it is never about what technology actually does; it is about how we think about it relative to the world we experience and live in; and if there was one thing to keep in mind when building a tech product, it would probably be that.

    Rule 1: It is less about the product itself and more about how the users think about the world they live in, and interact with.

    The purpose of a technology is to facilitate our interaction with the world, it is obvious then that what matters is how we want to interact with this world, and obviously, that depends on how we've interacted with it so far.

    Let’s take Yahoo and Google as an example. Obviously, we are talking about the second half of the 90s; the web was much more different that it is today.

    Still in its infancy, the web was a new shared space where content could be put for everyone to access. The problem, not much was available in the way of discoverability.

    Yahoo saw an opportunity in creating a human curated directory, akin to a phone book, that allowed people to explore and find what they were looking for. This was a gamechanger for the Web; content was more visible to users.

    Unsurprisingly, an explosion in content creation ensued. Looking back at it now, It is no overstatement to stop at how this had changed the still novel medium of information exchange we call the Web in unprecedented ways; probably in ways that would eventually make Yahoo’s way of doing things itself obsolete.

    With a Web becoming increasingly dense, and content becoming increasingly diverse, categorization presented obvious limitations. The way Yahoo indexed the web was no longer viable: How would anyone be able to scale curation along an exploding network of information? How would you search for content that spanned multiple categories? But moreover than not, looking through a phone book made sense if you knew who you were looking for; looking through a directory for information you did not even know existed did not make as much sense.

    Keyword search, the solution Google came up with, offered more of a granular way to explore the web. The point is not to go over the whole history of the web here, just to exemplify how one technology builds on another, displaces another, or just is facilitated by another.

    The search engine product would not have made sense without an explosion of content; an explosion of content would probably not have happened without an initial way to make them discoverable; making content discoverable would have probably been much harder had it not been for Yahoo’s categorization. So in a nutshell, Yahoo created a product that changed the web in a way that made Yahoo’s way of doing things obsolete.

    Ponder this question as well, would Google’s search engine have been successful if it launched alongside Yahoo? In an initial context where the web was not as dense as the subsequent years? Well, it is hard to answer that one, but a stab at that question would be: We would have probably called it AltaVista.

    Other examples one can think about beyond this are the Texting vs. Internet Messaging; Phone vs. Camera; iPod Touch vs. iPhone, and the list goes on.

    To summarise:

    1. Good technology is built in response to the state of the world it is operating in;
    2. Good technology changes the world it is operating in, its culture, and the way societies experience it;
    3. New requirements, problems, and tendencies emerge out of this world, technical, societal, or simply economic;
    4. New technology is required.

    It is a closed circle that integrates the better, efficient, and familiar, and rules out the worse, inefficient or just alien. Building a successful technology product hinges therefore on understanding how your product can integrate this closed loop.

    Diagram showing the interaction between technology and our world
    Interaction between technology and our world

    Rule 2: Understanding where your product fits into the loop of technology production, adoption, and reaction, and how you may give it momentum to thrive.

    So effectively, how does that relate to building a technology product? Well it is both the overarching rule that defines how the product should fit in our world, but also the basic principle guiding the development process of a successful technology product. I think it is important though, for the sake of our sanity, to distinguish between the vision of a product (let's call this product definition) and the process of getting there (let's call this one product execution).

    From prior experience; however, these often tend to get confused, and I am sure most of you can relate; for good reason I believe. Product definition and product execution are, for lack of a better word, abstractly the same mapped onto different timeframes. What I mean by that is that both adhere to the same principles of appraisal, testing, and reiteration; but whereas product definition is thought of in terms of social adoption and business coherence (the big long-term loop), product execution is a smaller loop, dealing with technology appraisal, features ranking, and MVP development.

    So if we kind of understand that both product definition and product execution revolve around the same conceptual process, albeit with different purposes and timeframes. It becomes easier to iron out the source of confusion and distinguish where one stops and the other starts.

    Rule 3: Product Definition and Product Execution are co-constitutive processes that may overlap in abstract thinking but should be differentiated in process.

    While it may seem apparent on paper, both product definition and product execution are never-ending circular processes. To avoid confusing the two, product execution should be understood as an iterative step within the overarching product definition process.

    Where does one start in the whole process? Well, most of what you read online is a simple problem-solution driven thinking. But I believe the process of Product Development is much more intricate; it is not about finding a solution to a problem, but about finding a better way to interact with the world around us (At the core, that is what technology is about; we just have a tendency of forgetting the obvious).

    The process of product development starts with an existing technology product, one that is the defacto way with which we interact with the world. Once that is established, understanding where said technology sits in the loop cited prior defines the next step for any product development:

    • if cryptocurrency products are still in the adoption phase, your product using blockchain technology need to comprehend this adoption and build around its momentum;
    • if snapchat has popularized a new social interaction, your social media product might benefit from development that feels at home with your user base;
    • if technology expectations push for an online world, why not be able to buy anything online, pay taxes online, manage bank accounts online;
    • if security becomes a concern for exactly the prior (online presence), then payment solutions, identity protection and so on are very attractive technology products;

    My point is that a technology product is not necessarily a solution to a problem and should not be understood that way, it is an alternative way to interact with the world, better, cheaper, faster…

    Summing up

    Beyond our three rules of thumb, any product development should have a starting point: the user space that existing technologies occupy.

    1. Identity your user space and which technologies currently serve that space.
    2. Identify where said technology lives on the diagram above.
    3. How would your product benefit from the existing User-Technology Interaction?
      • Piggyback on an ongoing adoption trend of another technology?
      • Benefit from a novel way users are interacting with the world given a novel technology?
      • Resolving emerging problems, meeting new requirements or adhering to trends brought about by the existing technology?
      • Fitting already defined technical requirements of other technologies?
      • Learning from existing market data on your technology?
    4. Define a technology product that builds up from insight in step 3.
    5. Execute on building the minimum (feature wise), viable (technology wise), product (market wise) to test your product definition.
    6. Rinse and repeat as appropriate.