The most misunderstood axiom about technology among management is that building a successful digital product begins with the utility value. It doesn’t require impressive branding, exquisite design, or a polished user experience, so those things should be left for last. Start with utility value and proceed from there.
As Jon Lax, cofounder of the digital agency Teehan+Lax told me: "Think about how many apps you download. You use them for two or three times and believe that they are really beautiful and well-designed. Next, you never use them again."
Utility value answers the question: What does your product offer? Defining your utility value is not usually straightforward. Lax points me to the "Jobs to be Done" framework by Harvard Business School’s Clay Christensen.
Christensen focuses on the principle that we "hire" certain products and services to solve our problems. That’s a great perspective to define the utility value of a digital product: Look for the same qualities in that product that you’d look for in a human being doing the same job.
"Very often clients come in saying they know their problem and they know their solution," says Lax. This is rarely the case, however. As you work on the problem you’re attempting to solve, often your perspective changes. You learn to understand what the problem encompasses, including related or ancillary problems. This is called the "scope" of the problem, and it’s often larger than you think.
Clarifying the scope of the problem is a matter of questioning clients and the audience that experiences the problem. By having a lengthy conversation about why it is experienced as a problem you learn that a user has certain needs you need to fulfill. Successful digital products dive deeper into the problem and discover needs which aren’t necessarily obvious when you first encounter what frustrates people.
Lax says once you’ve defined the scope of the problem, you can move onto core functionality. This involves reducing the purpose of the app to just one or two "main tasks."
"First we try to understand what job this product will be doing and what the core features are. That’s your minimum viable product," he says.
Rather than be restrictive during the MVP process, be expansive—then whittle down your ideas to the absolute necessities.
"What are the 500 features that we potentially see a product [having]?" says Lax. "Of course, that’s unreasonable as you could be working on a product for five years. What are the 10-15 that are the most important and solve the problem?"
This doesn’t necessarily mean limiting the ambition of your app. "There are products which I wouldn’t call simple but they do what they do very well. Look at Google Analytics," says Lax.
And forget about being a knee-jerk minimalist, too. "There’s too much emphasis on that something which is gorgeous and simple will win. That’s not true. That’s not winning at all. I believe that you win when you create something that is valuable enough for a large enough market that uses your product on a regular basis and gives you the opportunity to build a business around it. Everything else is just noise," says Lax.
Besides defining the utility value, usability also comes into play when creating digital products. Utility is what you offer, usability is how you offer it. In usability, there are three major principles to make sure your value offering is optimal.
- Frequency: Prioritize what appears in your interfaces. Think about what users need frequently, then make those tasks easily accessible and blatantly visible on the page.
- Sequence: Your UI needs a sensible order of actions. For example, you enter your credit card information at the end of an e-commerce flow, not when you initially land on the website.
- Importance: What tasks or controls in the interface offer the most value? Design the UI around those tasks.
This is like socializing your app, says Lax. "Essentially, raise the product like a child."
All of this makes a lot of sense for new products as you have the advantage of a clean slate, which has its pros and cons. What about old products or projects?
"Legacy is harder to deal with—you have to take more things into consideration. You have a lot more data to operate on, but that data might become limiting because you have all that legacy you need to continue to support," says Lax.
An example could be trying to make a product more accessible for a larger market. "Which users are we helping at the cost of other ones? There will be training wheels in the product. It’s like switching from Final Cut Pro to iMovie. You can’t make something work for everyone."
As you work on existing products, there’s always an ongoing struggle. "You don’t want to alienate the core audience. It requires discipline and bravery to take that risk." It’s always a matter of making intelligent compromises to improve a product.
In conclusion, utility value is a useful starting point to get yourself on the right track. It’s not necessarily about having a good idea, but rather about solving the right problem.
"I look at a lot of work in the digital channel as being work which has the purpose of creating demand. Their job is trying to engage you long enough to sell something," says Lax.
"On the other hand, there are products you hire to do something for you. It’s the utilitarian value. Our tolerance for products simply selling something will become less and less. We want to give our attention only to products which will be solving problems in our lives," he says.
[Image: Flickr user Jacob Bøtter]