Our ultimate goal as product people is to achieve sustained product success: to ensure that our products do a great job for their users and customers and that they generate value for our businesses on a continued basis. While achieving product success cannot be reduced to a simple formula, there are four factors that have a profound impact on it, as I discuss in this article.
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The Four Factors Explained
To achieve lasting success, a product must fulfil the following four conditions. First, it has to address a specific need that a group of people have. Second, it has to be feasible to develop it. Third, it has to generate sufficient business benefits to justify developing it. Fourth, it must not cause any harm to its users, the wider society, and the planet. In other words, desirability, feasibility, viability, and ethicality have to be met. They truly are the cornerstones of product success, as the picture below illustrates.
Let’s look at the four success factors in more detail.
Desirability is probably the most important factor. If people don’t need or want to use a product, it will fail. To be desirable, a product has to solve a specific problem or offer a tangible benefit. Take the example of Sonos, a wireless hi-fi system that allows people to enjoy music by providing easy access to a range of streaming services. It’s simple and convenient to use, and it offers a decent sound quality. Products like the Sonos system are sometimes called vitamins, as they provide a nice-to-have benefit, similar to vitamin supplements. Compare this to a product like Apple’s AirTags, which address the issue of finding keys and other misplaced items. Such a product is also referred to as a painkiller, as it addresses a problem or pain point. But no matter how a product is classified, it must create value for its users—or it is doomed.
Feasibility implies that it is possible to design and build the product: the technologies required exist or can be developed. Additionally, enough people with the right skills are available or can be recruited. If, for example, developing the product requires the application of advanced machine learning algorithms, then you’d have to explore if appropriate machine-learning frameworks exist, or if it’s possible to develop the algorithms in house.
Viability means that developing and providing the product is viable from a business perspective. The product therefore has to create enough business benefits to justify spending money on it. These may include generating revenue, reducing cost, increasing productivity, and strengthening the brand. Examples of revenue-generating products are Google Search, which generates money through ads, and Microsoft Word, which is monetised through subscriptions (as part of the Office suite). Contrast them with products like the Google Chrome browser and Microsoft Edge, which offer different business benefits: they allow the companies to control how users access the Internet, tie them to their respective ecosystems, and make it more likely that they interact with revenue-generating offerings.
Ethicality, finally, states that a product must not cause any harm to people and planet: It must not reduce people’s mental wellbeing, for example, by getting them hooked or by offering content that promotes misinformation, self-harm, or violence. Additionally, an ethical product does not contribute to climate change and does not damage the environment by how it is developed, provided, and—if it includes hardware and plastics—manufactured, delivered, and disposed of. To achieve this, you will benefit from a business model that is fair to all parties and from making ethically sound design and programming decisions, for instance, by avoiding the use of dark patterns and mitigating machine learning biases.
The first three factors were—as far as I know—originally suggested by Tim Brown in his book Change by Design. He describes them as competing constraints that must be balanced to innovate successfully. But as Brown notes, this could result in “dreaming up alluring but essentially meaningless products destined for the local landfill—persuading people … ‘to buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress neighbours who don’t care.’” What’s more, the impact digital products can have on people’s mental health makes it compulsory in my mind to add ethicality as a fourth success factor. On the positive side, an ethical product increases the chances of achieving lasting product success, and it reduces the risk that the reputation of the company suffers, as some tech companies have had to experience in recent years.
Applying the Success Factors
Knowing which factors influence product success is helpful. But it’s even better to use them when you make strategic product decisions. To see how this can be done, let’s explore how the success factors can be applied to the product vision board.
The board captures the vision and strategy of a product, and it consist of five sections: vision, which describes the ultimate reason for developing and providing the product; target group, which captures the users and customers; needs, which states why people would want to use and possibly pay for the offering; product, which describes what kind of product it is, what its standout features are, and if it is feasible to develop it; and finally, business goals, which lists the business benefits the product should generate.
The following picture visualises the recommendations above and shows how the factors map onto the five sections of the product vision board. (You can download the template by clicking on the image below or this link.)
Desirability applies to the target group and needs sections. It encourages you to choose a market or market segment that is large enough and to find a need that is strong enough so that people are likely to use the product.
Ethicality affects the vision, needs, product, and business goal sections. You should therefore select a vision that describes a positive change, a change that does negatively impact people and planet. Ensure that addressing the needs is truly beneficial for the users. Pick standout features that don’t hook people or harm them in any other way and make ethical design and technology decisions. Finally, choose business goals that encourage a fair business model as mentioned above.
Viability impacts the product and business goal sections. You should ensure that the product generates tangible business benefits so it’s justifiable to develop it. Check that the benefits are achievable and that you have identified the right business model to generate them. Additionally, select standout features that set your product apart from competing offerings and that make it clear to prospective users and customers why they should choose your product.
Feasibility applies to the product section. It encourages you to check if it is technically feasible to develop the product, if the people and technologies required are available or that they can be hired and acquired, respectively.
Applying the four factors along the lines described above can help you discover assumptions and risks in your product strategy. For example, you can use ethicality to ask yourself if addressing a need carries the risk of negatively impacting the users’ mental health; and you can use feasibility to explore if you are in position to develop a new or updated product within a realistic time frame and budget. In other words, the factors can guide the strategy validation work, which I explain in more detail in my book Strategize.
 Sabine Canditt has suggested adding an additional column to the product vision board to make ethicality more prominent. If this suggestion resonates with you, then I recommend that you try it out.