Product Thinking: Why you should think in products

For a long time, the digital world has thought in terms of processes and projects. Not anymore! From now on, we think in products.

A warning: There is no master plan, or definitive process, for developing successful products. The product is more important than the process. When we talk about processes, we should always keep this in mind. Thinking in products, not in processes, is crucial.

Product Thinking is a holistic approach in several ways. First of all, the term product covers both physical goods and digital services. In addition, the term focuses on the needs of the user, the user experience and the results for the user. Product Thinking always considers the product in the context of its use.

Product Thinking also includes Product People. These are people who are concerned primarily with the products – not with the processes. Product people know the right processes. But they also know that processes need some slack. They must not be applied too rigidly, and must be subordinate to the product – and thus, ultimately, the user. The product and the user should always come first, not the process. Finally, the customer pays for the product and the user uses it. No customer pays for the process – unless the process is part of the product.

Product thinking is fundamentally different from thinking in projects

Project Thinking focuses on (project) processes, on timing and on resources. Project management becomes a key discipline. While it is true that without good processes hardly any good results can be achieved, the resulting product is much more important than the process. And while projects have an end point, successful products often survive their makers, be they those of Steve Jobs, Walt Disney or the pyramids of the Egyptian pharaohs.

Product Thinking directs the focus away from methods and processes towards concrete results.

Product Thinking directs the focus away from methods and processes towards concrete results. The customer pays for the result, not for the process. Product Thinking leads to key questions: What is the product? How much will it cost? How will it be sold? Who needs the product? How can it evolve? The answer is to think product first, process second, not vice versa.

Frequently, existing processes set the stage for new products. But this limits the possibilities of those products. In addition, while products are always clearly defined, processes and projects can continue without result and remain unclear in their outcome. A product either exists or does not exist. If the goal is a product, the journey on the way to that goal can be easily identified.

Sometimes a good result is achieved not because of, but in spite of, the process. This is partly due to the nature of creative processes. There is a danger of making the quality of the process a criterion of success – instead of the quality of the product. Focus on the former and, if everything’s in the best order, it may appear that all’s going well. Meanwhile the real goal, the quality of the product, has long disappeared from sight.

Begin with the user and the problem

Product Thinking helps one determine the problem that the product is designed to solve for the user. That is why he or she will buy the product – provided that it solves the problem. If there is no problem, or the product does not solve the problem, then it is worthless for the user. If only the solution is wrong, this can be remedied. But if the problem does not exist, there’s no requirement for a solution. In many cases it is not easy to find real problems.

Putting oneself into the shoes of the user (empathy) is one of the most important prerequisites. Talking to the user is important and correct, but it is not enough. “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want,” Steve Jobs famously said. Product thinking begins with the user, with the problem to be solved and with the target group. This helps to formulate the vision (why?) and the strategy (how?) as well as the objectives and finally the features of the solution.

Nikkel Blaase is establishing Product Thinking at the intersection between UX Design and Product Management. This shows three things:

  1. Product Thinking is, when rightly understood, a discipline of design. Tailor made, good design does nothing else: It identifies user problems and designs solutions.
  2. Product management is part of design. Good design thinks in products and solutions.
  3. Conversely, design also belongs to product management. In the classic marketing mix, the product stood behind the other three Ps (Place, Price, Promotion). Now it moves into the centre, together with design and engineering.

Thus, Product Thinking is the expression of a trend that puts together what belongs together: product management, design and engineering.

German version at Photo by Balázs Kétyi on Unsplash