This first article of our series Getting Your Product Out the Door: Product Development Basicsoffers a look at the history of subscription product development, defines the role of product owner and its importance to the organization and details the elements of new product development.
The products we build are our reason for being. We build them to offer subscribers something they need or want, that we love to provide. But while the inspiration for creating a new product is all around us, the mechanics of defining, developing and launching that product are both complex and daunting. And if you’re new to product development, either as a result of just beginning in the profession or being a startup where you’re doing it all, it’s hard to know where to begin! Except to know that you’d better, or your competitors will.
Getting Your Product Out the Door: What is Product Development? is our first in a six-part series of articles compiled by product owners with decades of experience in creating and launching successful subscription products. The series is full of specific tips, examples, and tools as well as best practices and foundational knowledge that will help you kickstart your new product development process, and provide you with a solid grounding in the fundamentals of the craft.
Getting Your Product Out the Door: Product Development Basics
Part 1: What is Product Development?
How Subscription Product Development Has Evolved
Magazine and newspaper publication has its roots in the pamphlets, broadsides, and almanacs that “mass” printing technology made possible in the 17th and 18th centuries, with The Boston News-Letter being the first official newspaper published in the U.S., in 1704. Both advertising and subscription revenue were part of these enterprises from their earliest inception.
Print media products proliferated throughout the 19th century, and the subscription model more formally splintered into three sub-models: paid (those who received the periodical paid for it), unpaid (distributed for free) and controlled (free distribution to a select audience, such as doctors or lawyers).
It was just 30 years ago, in 1986, that the Academic American Encyclopedia was published on CD-ROM; the first reference publication to be so. It’s hard to imagine; the CD-ROM was new technology in many of our lifetimes! And yet, this technology – and others following quickly on its heels – began blurring the line between publication dates and backlists, throwing the expected norms of “subscription” into turmoil. Instead of reports, magazines or newspapers, many subscription-business product owners began to think in terms of databases, custom compilations and tiered content access.
By the 1990’s, major newspapers were experimenting with online versions on the World Wide Web and, a decade after that, “born-digital” news such as TechCrunch, Huffington Post, and Mashable began to compete with those same traditional news sources and product decisions around what would sit in front of or behind the paywall were make-or-break for product owners, the question of “freemium” content was pervasive as was the question of how to handle user-generated content.
Publications were no longer primarily, or sometimes even secondarily, paper-based products. While there have been technical aspects to publishing since the printing press was invented, they were largely handled by the production shop, and the “product” team was represented by the Editorial and Business, or Advertising Sales, teams. The “product manager” didn’t exist. But as technology increasingly defined not just the delivery mechanism of the product (print, CD, computer terminal, online or in-app) but became the product itself, the need for product management grew, and the process of new product development changed radically in just a few years.
“A CBS News poll found that Product Management is now considered the fourth most important profession in Corporate America, behind only CEOs, General Managers, and Senior Executives.”
Today, subscription businesses are being challenged to expand product lines to actively engage subscribers through real-time surveys and comment capabilities, to maintain and offer not only data-based content but distillations in the form of raw data -and even the metadata about authors, readership and positive and negative response to articles. The ability to easily share works has challenged copyright and trademark boundaries and the concept of a periodical – versus real-time, 24-hour a day, multi-media, dynamic content streams – is being challenged and changed.
A far cry from the CD-ROM era, much less Gutenberg’s printing press.
And what’s next? Book Soundtracks? A shift from copyright to economic rights enforcement? Or possibly a more aggressive face-off between publishers and their subscribers on ad blocking? Each of these is rising in urgency now, so it’s likely that the answer is “all three.” Add to that the explosion of innovations in the subscription-box business, and the subscription space is dynamic indeed.
Whether your product is the abstracting of scientific research, a periodical for astronomy buffs, or a science experiment-of-the-month box, the content you deliver is often only as good as the user experience through which you deliver it.
What did this evolution do to give rise to the need for Product Development in the subscription industry? While the goal of this handbook isn’t to offer product ideas for you to develop, the changes wrought by recent history are the foundations of today’s modern product development, and the expansion beyond editorial, business and production teams to a hybrid including data analysts, technology engineers and “the product owner.” As we move ahead, it will be on these aspects of product development that we’ll focus.
Who is Responsible for Product Development?
Product development is a fairly straightforward activity. For the purposes of this handbook, “product development” is defined as the process of responding to a lucrative market need by delineating, building and launching into the marketplace a solution to meet that need. Deceptively simple, the successful performance of this activity will make or break your business.
While the definition of product development is simple, determining who’s responsible for making it happen can be answered in many different ways, depending on the size and structure, experience, products offered and culture of an organization. While there is no right or wrong answer, the answer itself should be clear, with responsibilities clearly defined throughout your organization.
So, who actually leads product development?
The Product Owner
While product decisions are sometimes made directly by the CEO or shared between sales, technical engineers, and editorial or operations teams, most high-growth organizations increase effectiveness by establishing a function specifically responsible for it – a product management team.
Sometimes this role is split between a product marketing manager (who assesses the market need through interaction with customers, sales, and other outward-facing stakeholders) and a product owner (who takes the broad market mandate and works with the technical engineers to deliver a product that meets the need). Even when the role is performed by a single person, you may hear “product manager,” “product leader” or other title used to describe the role. For the purposes of this handbook, the term “product owner” will be used.
The product owner is often responsible for analyzing market conditions and defining features or functions of a product in response to those conditions. The role of product management spans many activities from strategic to tactical and varies based on the organizational structure of the company. To maximize the impact and benefits to an organization, Product management must be an independent function, separate from sales, editorial or IT.
“You should be able to articulate the highest level strategy behind a product but also be ready to explain why a particular UI element is placed the way it is.” Todd Jackson, VP Product, Dropbox
Product management is, in many ways, an inter-disciplinary role, bridging gaps within the company between teams of different expertise, especially between engineering/IT teams and Sales and Marketing. Sometimes it’s even called the “mini-CEO role,” as successful product owners must listen carefully to many constituencies, leverage what they learn to create a clear vision of the future product, and effectively lead a team to deliver it.
Why Is Product Ownership Important?
Your organization may have never had product owners as such. You may have had Publishers, or Editorial Directors focused on your subscription content, leaving the “technical stuff” to the IT team. If you’re a newer business, your entire org structure may still be evolving, or you may have been small enough that you didn’t need a product owner – everyone worked on everything together.
However, as a business grows, functional units are formed and the company is just too big for every good mind to be involved in making every business decision. You will find that a group dedicated to gathering the input of experts inside and outside your business, synthesizing it into a clear set of product requirements and working with the functional teams to deliver it will create efficiencies as well as market expertise that will allow your business to keep up with your opportunities.
“[Product development] doesn’t just ‘happen.’ Your stakeholders require a shared understanding of their roles, lest you wind up with a non-cohesive team where no one will take ownership of a project, make a decision, or know how much autonomy and judgment they should exercise.” Intuit, 2015
Why Is Product Development So Challenging?
Clarifying roles in the product development process is a critical step to eliminate roadblocks to success. But it’s only a first step. Because product development is not only a company-wide effort but also a company-wide dependency, the stakes are high. The good news is that most product development pitfalls are widely recognized, and can be mitigated with awareness and planning.
“The only way to guarantee bad decisions is to make all of them yourself.” Agile Process Proverbs
Stages of Product Development and the Tools Used to Succeed
There is no right way to organize the work and create the documentation necessary to deliver a good product. Some organizations opt for very detailed business requirements, others have done away with them altogether in favor of user stories and wireframes. The critical point is to have a process and use it so that you and your teams aren’t bogged down by confusion over who does what, and what it is that’s supposed to actually be done.
The customer persona is a generalized description of your ideal customer. It brings your market research and customer knowledge to life in the form of a story that includes all the meaningful information about the overall market and why they want your product.
Ideally, you’ve already created a set of customer personas from which you can choose to illustrate the overall motivations of the market you’re building this product for.
The project plan is what keeps your project on schedule, and makes sure everyone knows who is responsible for what, and when it’s due. It can take the form of a Gantt chart and task list built with the help of an app such as Zoho (which has a free, one-project option I would recommend to anyone who wants an easy tool to manage a project), or as simple as an Excel spreadsheet (here is a template you can use or even a paper list. Whatever form it takes, it should include milestones (when the technical programming should be complete, when content for the first issue must be finished, when the direct marketing campaign will begin, etc).
Statement of Strategic Fit
A statement of strategic fit is a short explanation of how this product fits into the overall vision of your company. Short and to the point, this statement provides context to the team so they understand how the work they’re embarking on fits into the greater direction of the business.
User Themes, Epics, and Stories
While this part of the product owner’s job can seem daunting, it’s really about writing down what the customer wants, from the customer’s point of view. Themes, epics, and stories are very similar to the building blocks of any article – they represent the subject, the lead and the details. All three are usually referred to as “User Stories.”
“Writing something in the form of a user story when it’s not about users of the system misses the point.” Bill Wake, Agile expert
Use Cases and Business Requirements
Use cases are similar to user stories, in that they describe a process that a subscriber does. Business requirements may take use cases a step further by providing a specific workflow solution or functional direction for the engineering team.
Wireframes are a representation of what you want the product to look like, from the perspective of the customer – similar to storyboards used in movie production. While most closely associated with website creation, wireframes are useful in any type of technical product development.
If you’re developing a completely new product, it’s good to determine what the least amount of features you can put into the product in order to launch it and make it attractive enough that you can learn how to continue forward. This “bare bones” scenario is called the “minimum viable product.”
Product Testing/Acceptance Testing
In many technical product development methods, testing happens throughout the process, and is performed by many different people to ensure all facets of the product are working as they should.
68% product development executives indicate they have too many projects for their resources. Product Development and Management Association
This is the step all your hard work has been leading up to, putting the product in your customer’s hands. The launch plan is your roadmap to building market awareness of your new product while also making sure your organization is ready to promote, sell and support the product. The launch plan will detail the steps of your public relations, marketing, training efforts, and should begin almost as soon as your product development initiative gets approved.
Product development is a relatively new organizational function and profession, yet it has risen to mission-critical status in its few decades of existence. While the elements of the development process can be tailored to meet your organization’s unique needs and strengths, incorporating the function and process is foundational to future success.
Next in our series, the answer the question of “who does what” in the product development process.