The secret of success in the multi-device age?

Product thinking is broken. Devices are proliferating all around us, and treating our apps on every one as a separate product is impossible. So, what's the answer?

And so, the tech world sits on edge again, waiting for this evening’s pronouncements from Cupertino. It’s Apple announcement day.

People who favour products from other companies might be a little annoyed about this – but Apple has done more to bring us into a truly multi-device age than any other in recent years, and so it still bears watching. But while we wait, it’s worth thinking about what it actually means to live in such an age, especially if you’re trying to build digital products.

History shows that people struggle to build two separate iterations of the same product – how does a TV news service and an online one work together seamlessly, for example? Publishers have taken over a decade to get the hang of putting out a print product and a web one.

Think that was bad? Try building for desktop, phone, tablet and maybe even phablet. Or maybe smart watch. Or Google Glass…

You used to have a product. You now have four. Or five. Or seven…

That’s a pretty big challenge. Do you need multiple teams, and multiple product managers? Can you sustain those costs? Where’s the revenue? How much code can you reuse? What platforms do you chose within those categories?

This is what looking at digital products with “product thinking” is so dangerous – it becomes overwhelming very fast. You get trapped in the thought process of deciding if you need to port your product to another platform.

If you think of your business as a service, though, you can start to take a different approach: you can ask “can my service be usefully delivered through this platform”? If the answer’s “yes”, you can then ask yourself what elements of the service make sense on that platform. Do you need to shove everything in there? Can you pick and choose the relevant element – or add a completely different approach to the user interface to take advantage of the specific characteristics of the platform.

Instead of multiple products, you have a single one, that finds expression in multiple forms, and through multiple touchpoints. You no longer have a product management challenge – you have a service design one. And, once you have a service design problem, you can bring design thinking to bear on the decision-making process you need to go through.

Whatever Apple announces later on today, the range of devices we will be using is only going to proliferate. The traditional product-led approach to digital business cannot and will not hold. We need a new approach, for a new era. Let the hardware companies worry about the products. Let’s concentrate on making really great services to push through them.

(Of course, you could brush up on your service design skills by attending NEXT Service Design in Berlin on the 16th of September…)

Photo by Aaron Parecki and used under a Creative Commons licence