Recipe for Success

using success drivers to make the best decisions
by John Bernero
May 2011

When choosing between product directions, should you choose the simplest, the cheapest, the most reliable, or the one the CEO likes the best? If you picked any of these you might as well have chosen blindfolded.

Let’s face it, meeting requirements is important, but does not ensure market success by itself. What happens when multiple concepts or product architectures all meet the product requirements? How should you choose between them?
The problem with deciding based purely on product requirements is that, while you have the list of ingredients for the product, you’re missing the recipe for how they should be used. It’s like giving a 6-year-old flour, water, cheese and tomatoes and saying “make a pizza”. While it’s possible you’ll get the desired result, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll get something edible unless you provide a bit of additional guidance, otherwise known as “the recipe”.

So why is it that creating a product solution uses a systematic process, yet choosing a product direction is often based on personal bias and guesswork? How can the subjective aspects of our decision making process be minimized? Fortunately, there is a solution to making objective and unbiased product direction decisions. We call it the “success drivers” approach.

Success Drivers to the Rescue

The idea of “success drivers” is to establish a small number (five or so) of high-level principles that determine product success in the chosen market. These principles must account for the needs of both internal and external stakeholders along with technical, regulatory and other constraints. Once you identify the “success drivers”, prioritize them. In the M3 Design Journal article “Throw out your PRD“, Paul Noble-Campbell describes the power of divorcing oneself from the product requirements document. Success drivers do just that.

Establishing success drivers and agreeing on their priority is critical. Furthermore, this must be done before concepts are generated so that the success drivers can inform concept direction. Success drivers also serve as an alignment tool for stakeholders by establishing agreement on what the product will address and embody. Each success driver is paired with a given stakeholder or set of stakeholders to aid in prioritizing what is important to whom, and how that success driver should be taken into consideration.

The definition of each success driver may also differ between stakeholders. Knowing this allows you to align stakeholder needs to ensure the product delights its intended users. Let’s take a success driver of “reliability” as an example. For a stakeholder who is a professional user, reliability may embody a digital SLR. Professionals know what settings they want and need the ability to adjust them all. When they use the product it will perform based upon those adjustments. However for the novice user, reliability may be more like a “point and shoot” camera. When they engage with the product, it automatically adjusts itself with minimal interaction. This user doesn’t want or need fine adjustability and becomes frustrated when messages appear for things they don’t understand or care about. Reliability means it just works.

Once a set of success drivers are in place, all you need to do to is to rate your concepts against each one. It doesn’t get much simpler.


Let’s make up a company. Call it “MicroApple”. MicroApple is trying to decide between two media player concepts, code-named “zPod” and “aPod”. These concepts both meet the product requirements. As you can tell from the table below, the difference between these concepts is not how they play music, battery life, price, or any other functionality. From a requirements perspective, they are essentially identical. In fact, the fundamental difference between these two concepts is that the zPod approach saves some R&D investment by using a supplier’s user interface and sourcing media content from your PC’s USB port. The aPod, on the other hand, proposes an approach that creates an ecosystem which includes MicroApple as the main content provider along with a very customized, optimized, device user interface.

Success Driver Approach

Prior to making their concept decision, MicroApple identified five key success drivers from their user research data. The development teams agree that they embody the high-level product needs and prioritized them as follows:

MicroApple Media Player Prioritized Success Drivers

  1. 1. User Experience
  2. 2. Ease of Use
  3. 3. Performance
  4. 4. Compatibility
  5. 5. Cost

A meeting was then held with the two concept teams to make a “success-drivers” decision. After a bit of discussion, the following winners for each success-driver emerged and were plotted on a radar chart for review:

MicroApple Media Player Success-Driver Comparison

  • User Experience: aPod
    – A much more seamless way to get content to the users
  • Ease of Use: aPod
    – The customized user interface was much easier to use
  • Performance: zPod
    – Longer battery life, bigger screen, costs less, weighs less
  • Compatibility: Tie
    – They both work with just about any service
  • Cost: zPod
    – Both use mostly the same components, however aPod has larger software component

Success Drivers

So armed with this information, which concept would you choose? Well, it’s pretty obvious from the radar chart that the success driver approach would select the aPod. Success is close to guaranteed, since the decision was made based on what was important to the people who will buy and use the product.

Product Requirements Approach

However without success drivers, choosing between concepts is not as easy. We are forced to choose based upon our past experience and knowledge. Even then, when two concepts look equivalent in function, we will most likely choose the one whose overall project cost will be less, or will be faster to market or some other hot-button factor. With the “Product Requirements” mind-set, the company would have chosen the zPod, but wouldn’t have realized their mistake until the product flopped in the market because MicroApple missed the key user needs.

The Recipe for Success!

“Success drivers” is an objective, data-driven decision-making process. It enables you to systematically identify and select the best product concept from a group of acceptable product concepts based on what’s important to your product stakeholders. Product requirements, while important and necessary, are really no more than a list of features that may or may not be important to your users. Just meeting product requirements will not guarantee success.

For a great product, you need both the best ingredients (the product requirements) and a superb recipe (success drivers). If your goal is to cook dinner for the boss, do you want to wing it with the correct ingredients and hope you produce something edible, or follow a proven recipe that is likely to have him or her asking for more?


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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