Great product is rare. Unlike most things in business, it’s nearly impossible to rationalize. This is because us humans are emotional beings. We usually make purchases with our heart and rationalize them once the store clerk asks for the credit card. Because of this, it’s difficult to pinpoint why a product is great even when you know that it is.
I’ve spent the better part of my life refining this sense. It has definitely gotten better, but it’s still pretty lousy numbers-wise. If I design five different products maybe one prototype of the bunch feels “right” (and “right” is still a long ways off from “great”). Modern masters of product design like Jony Ive and Yves Behar shoot 50/50 on a good day. If an entrepreneur is lucky, she’ll get to develop one great product in her lifetime. I’ve worked on a bunch of products, some of them were lousy failures and a good portion were big successes, but I wouldn’t put any in the “great” category. This is hard to admit, but continually helps me to refine that sense.
Despite how difficult it is, some companies almost miraculously churn out great product. It has always puzzled me why this can happen, so I started spending a lot of time on trying to figure out how they do it. I’ve come to the conclusion that building great product requires two essential raw ingredients:
A lot of people have it, they just don’t know how to listen to it. I would actually argue that we’re all born with this instinct, but it get’s lost in our left-brain dominated culture. I’ve gotten very sensitive to subtle hints of a product or feature that signal it’s exceptional: wanting to continually play with it, the kinds of words I use to describe it to someone else, taking it apart to find out how it was made to look so damn good, sheer delight when I discover it does more than I thought, and watching other people smile when they pick it up for the first time.
This is the kicker. Ruthlessness is not a quality we want to put on display, but building great product is impossible without it. Having great instinct is worthless if we’re afraid to fight for it. When there are looming deadlines, money being burned, company politics, manufacturing constraints and a million other things, fighting for a soft goal like “great product” usually feels impossibly difficult. It’s why ruthlessness needs to be sewn into the DNA of the company. There have to be a few people towards the top of the payroll that possess great product instinct and ready to wield influence to fight for it.
I’ve learned to get good at telling people that a product or feature sucks. After the inevitable deflation, a great team is ready to admit it to themselves and get the whiteboard markers out. Don’t take it personally when a mentor or employee or customer tells you something isn’t as good as you think it is. In fact, if your opinion is more positive than anyone else’s, chance are you’re wrong. Listen to feedback carefully, it helps build great product. If you figure out how to do it perfectly, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.