What Does Product Development Mean To You?

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Slow parents understand that childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product-development. It is not a project; it’s a journey. Slow parenting is about giving kids lots of love and attention with no conditions attached. – Carl Honore

One of the best images I’ve seen about product design is the one about the skateboard, created by Henrik Kniberg. It’s a simple picture that gets across the idea of a minimum viable product really rather clearly. In essence, the idea is that a product is not about delivering a wheel or a chassis but delivering an experience to your customer. I’m not sure I agree entirely with Kniberg’s use of the metaphor but rather than critique his description I think I’ll focus on the what I take away from it, which really is about the idea of the whole.

The “whole” is a concept from systems thinking which relates to the idea of emergence. If you have a wheel, you can’t do very much. If you have four wheels attached to a board then you’ve created a skateboard and you can do something that you can’t do with just any one of those elements. You can stand on it and travel. That’s a product right there and it makes people who like skateboarding quite happy and you can develop it and make it better and faster. I had a classmate at university who built longboards and ordered light kits and had a nice business going. Then, if you add elements, like steering or an engine, or a chassis and seats you end up with different products that help you travel when you’re younger, travel faster, safer and so on.

This idea of product design as something more than a thing is really quite important to internalise. Your product is ready when someone finds that they can do something useful with it – the useful bit emerges as a result of the product existing but it’s not found in it. And sometimes people don’t really get this. They see their job as doing one bit and doing that really well. But what matters is getting the whole thing done and that is where customers find that they get let down. Everyone you talk to probably has stories of poor products and service – from hassles with building an extension to returning items ordered from a website. At the same time, people are getting much better at doing this well, and many market sectors will be changed by entrants and incumbents who change with the process.

I remember the first time we needed professional carpet cleaners. One was in the Yellow pages and I rang up, got through to his wife and was told he would ring back. The other had a website with prices on there and you could book it in then and there. Who do you think got the work? And these days, with the pandemic, who gets your business? Probably Amazon.

When I think about this in the context of writing I am constantly reminded just how efficient a product writing is. It’s easy to create and fast to read. But a word isn’t enough to create a product, and a sentence usually isn’t enough either. You need enough sentences to capture an idea, an idea that you can then send on to someone else. But just because a medium is efficient that doesn’t mean it’s used efficiently. Many books, for example, are really one idea stretched out as far as it can go and then some – but it’s something you can summarise in a few words. On the other hand, some academic papers pack in so many ideas that you could spend an age unpacking them.

As you try and increase the number of elements in your product you run across the challenge of creating useful wholes. Take cartooning, for example. I draw simple images for my blog posts and for the last few years it’s something that’s done in a few minutes – a few lines that help to add some colour to the post. But when you try and create a cartoon you realize just how complicated a task it is to marry ink and paper when you’re trying to create more than words. What professional cartoonists do is make their lives easy – they create a few characters that live out a story. The characters often wear the same clothes and there are a limited number of backgrounds that are used again and again. Then again, you have cartoonists that create stunningly complex pieces like the work of graphic novelist Lars Martinson. It really depends on what you want to emerge from your creation.

What I’ve found challenging is finding a form of creation that words within the time that I have to work on stuff like this. Like most people that have a blog project this is not about followers or money or fame. It’s a place to practice an art – and for me that’s the art of letters and the art of sense-making with pictures. There are lots of things that I am naturally not – I’m not a natural artist or a writer or funny or insightful. What I’m good at is working on something day after day for a set amount of time and doing it without really caring too much about getting anything as a result of the doing. But there isn’t enough time so anything that uses the time better is helpful. With drawings, the fewer lines you need the better – and so cartoon like images are more achievable that realistic scenes. But cartoons are much harder to do than diagrams – which only need labels and not characters and dialogue and pacing.

And I’m not sure you start by knowing the shape and size of these pieces. You kind of have to start and then things start to make sense as you go about working on them. Going back to Kniberg’s skateboard – the point of his metaphor is to say that if you want to build a car you start with a skateboard as a minimum viable product and then you iterate towards the car. But the flaw is that quite often no one knows they need a car. When you had horse-drawn carriages, for example, do you think there were customers out there that knew they wanted an automobile? No, and they still don’t. Car, as you clearly know, is short for carriage and for a passenger it really doesn’t enter their heads that the horse in front could be replaced with a gas engine or a electric motor or a pack of huskies. It carries them and that’s the outcome. But, you build the horse-drawn one and then worry about the amount of dung and discover oil and things change. It’s the designer that makes the change possible.

Anyway, I do find cartooning hard and that’s why I think I’ll keep trying my hand at it and hopefully you will bear with me. Maybe we’ll both learn something.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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