Starting your product development project with a "Product Requirements Document" or PRD, is not the best approach for creating truly innovative products. We have a better way.
This article was originally published in 2010. The following article has been updated and refined.
Crafting product development strategies that result in truly innovative products and services demands non-traditional methods. The process requires a more creative and iterative design approach, which is optimized toward identifying real human needs and addressing them with meaningful solutions and experiences. That being said, if you have created a product requirements document (PRD), without an in-depth understanding of the who and what you are creating a solution for, you should toss the thing out and consider a different approach. Because at the end of the day, your product can’t be all things to all people.
Understanding this concept — truly implementing it — means making your product development strategy as much (if not more) about saying “no” as it is about everything else you’re prioritizing in the process. To achieve a unique and valuable market position, clear tradeoffs need to be made. And that means making it more than just a collection of features.
Typically the product development process begins with the creation of a product requirements document: an exhaustive list of “must have” features dimensions and specifications. The assumptions used to generate this document are generally informed solely by market research data and (hopefully) voice of customer (VOC) information.
Information garnered through market research tends to be based on what has sold in the past, providing only a rearview mirror perspective of your market. Typically, VOC information consists of survey-generated data and anecdotal stories from ad hoc customer groups.
While this data can be helpful, creating a PRD founded solely on those inputs tends to limit product development to being just incremental improvements to products that are currently on the market. A PRD created this way does not provide the foundation of knowledge necessary to enable large leaps forward into under-served, differentiated, or “blue ocean” spaces (as described in the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” by Kim and Mauborgne).
Many user needs are latent – so it is extremely unlikely that you could uncover any game-changing insights through customer interviews alone. It is unreasonable to expect that typical customers will have the imagination necessary to describe a future that is much different from today’s reality. The classic description of this phenomenon was immortalized by Henry Ford, who said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”
Many organizations spend enormous effort analyzing and refining the wording of their PRD based on customers’ preconceptions of what they want. The result of following this process is that you miss what is of fundamental importance to your customers. Products resulting from this error-riddled order of operations may be highly polished but also deeply flawed.
Uncovering latent and unmet user needs demands the use of contextual and generative design research techniques. This is incredibly helpful for discovering valuable insights that drive innovation and create great brand experiences that delight your customers. Techniques such as as user observation, empathetic immersion and participatory design serve to provide a deeper understanding of what is truly important to customers. This knowledge provides the background needed to create product experiences that are authentic, meaningful and engaging. Providing your customers with these types of compelling experiences results in increased customer loyalty and superior long-term business results.
With that in mind, here are the five critical keys to uncovering those true success drivers:
The insights garnered from the holistic approach outlined here serve as a strong foundation to validate, complement, and challenge existing market research and VOC information.
Synthesize the insights you discover so that needs are described rather than solutions. View these as a flexible set of product guidelines that becomes more definitive as the design process progresses. As conceptual solutions are created based on this flexible “insight-based” framework, validate them with customers. Use this feedback to refine the product guidelines.
The value you provide your customers lives in the quality of the experience you create for them – much more so than in your products and services themselves.
The graphic below pokes fun at how a technology company might promote the features of an old-school Mp3 player – rather than considering its “stats,” consider the experience this will add to your everyday life:
Understanding context is imperative when considering user experience. Observe the moment of use from a range of perspectives with the human experience as your central focus.
An example of one such perspective is the environment in which a product or service is used. Think about who is using your products and services and what physical abilities or limitations they may have. For instance, a product designed for hazardous areas would need to allow for an operator to interact with the device while wearing protective clothing and gloves.
Cultural background also shapes how people perceive their environment and the products and services they interact with. Factors such as the emotional, cultural, social, and physical aspects of the experience are often over-looked but are crucial inputs
Examine the user experience before, during, and after the moment of use. Think about how your customers research, purchase, set up, learn to use, and maintain your products and services. Ask yourself: “What is the environmental impact of my product or service? What happens at the end of its service life?”
It’s not enough to just consider the product during usage. You must also think about the system that surrounds it. Identify the range of customer interactions with your brand (products, services, out-of-box experience, purchasing experience, user interface, customer service, web and app portals, etc.), and consider how they can be coordinated as a single brand ecosystem. Each interaction provides an opportunity to positively impact the overall brand experience.
A holistic view of the entire product experience, including the product’s benefits to each stakeholder, offers valuable insight that may lead to new business opportunities and improve the overall experience.
An effective product development strategy requires consideration of the motivations and aspirations of a range of stakeholders. On the customer side, the stakeholders are those who interact with the product, such as end users and less obvious groups like purchasing influencers and maintenance providers.
Internal stakeholders, such as executives, engineers, supply chain management, regulatory, sales, and marketing teams, all have different and sometimes conflicting requirements for future development programs. These needs must be understood and correctly weighted against each other, always based on what is most important to your customers. For more guidance on how to tackle this check out our 5 step guide on how to tackle product development with a “stakeholder centered” approach.
Constructing product development guidelines based on deep insights into customer needs is the most vital step toward creating compelling product experiences and greater brand loyalty. Get these guidelines wrong and you risk creating products and services that are highly polished but deeply flawed.
Unfortunately, many organizations fail to correctly prioritize stakeholder desires. These companies end up with inconsistent products and services that are muddled by a lack of coherent vision. In contrast, the few organizations who get it right successfully create a direct and honest statement that differentiates them from competitors.
Throw out your PRD!