Product insights
Posted on Oct 26th, 2021

There are certain patterns I have been noticing in successful software products. The ideas I am going to share are not new and some are applicable beyond the software world. The list below is not a list of best practices, but rather some observations put together to inspire product thinkers.

Products implementing a method

Some products are built on top of some methodology. To benefit from them users need to adopt a certain way of doing things. When we think about Jira, we think about Scrum. If you are active Roam Research user, most likely you are following the Zettelkasten system. There is a large number of products aiming to help getting OKRs right.

Many product landing pages proudly mention their method. This is the case with Linear and Know Your Team. In these cases products and their respective methodologies are coming from the same organisation.

There are also products that don't refer to any method explicitly, however they represent a step-by-step predefined workflow that gets you to your desired goal if you diligently follow each instruction. Apps like this will coach you through activities that can otherwise be quite confusing. You will find many examples of this in legal, travel, planning and other domains.

Having a method at the core of a product has significant implications from marketing and sales, to design and engineering.

Products based on data structures

"The great horizontal killer applications are actually just fancy data structures". This is a quote from an article entitled "How Trello is different" published by Joel Spolsky in 2012. It is followed by examples that highlight how most common day-to-day products that we use represent well-known data structures. Excel - based on tables, Word - list of lines organised in pages, Power Point - an array of full-screen images, and Trello is ultimately a list of lists.

Joel says that even though some people see Trello as a tool for Kanban boards, it's not only that - "but it’s also for planning a wedding, for making a list of potential vacation spots to share with your family, for keeping track of applicants to open job positions, and for a billion other things. In fact Trello is for anything where you want to maintain a list of lists with a group of people".

Trello is not completely focused on a methodology (in this case it would be Kanban), but rather it gives us a structure that we can use in unlimited ways. Another popular product that is doing this is Airtable. There's no methodology that Airtable is pushing forward. In Airtable you are free to work with tables, records and views in a completely open setting - using them as building blocks for your own needs.

Products delivering content

These products are the ones that provide us with content. It's not only the content itself that defines them but the way they deliver it. Take Netflix or Spotify – the reason we value these services is not only the content but also the convenient access to it.

We can view marketplaces through this lens as well. Other than focusing on the products or services they sell many successful marketplaces focus on providing the best interfaces for discovering their offerings.

Some products can deliver content and help following a methodology at the same time. For example, Officevibe is providing a team engagement solution alongside with their templates for 1:1 meetings. Websites with online courses often provide a path for learning a topic alongside with the educational content.

Products that just do it for us

And finally, there are some products that help us by just solving our specific problems. It can be an automated or computer-aided (semi-automated) system. It can be an AI solution that runs on top of complicated models and provides us with useful predictions. It can be an antivirus software running in background or Dropbox client that keeps our files in sync.

Whatever it is, for us it appears as a black box. It just works and sometimes feels like magic. For these products, we are not aware of a methodology or a data structure, and we are not using them for content. We use them to get desired results without doing much ourselves.

 

These four types of products are not representing a complete categorisation. These are just some species that I have spotted. Thinking about essence of various products we encounter everyday helps us to look at our own products from new perspectives and understand them much better.

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