Reviewed by Christopher Richards
The Lean Product Playbook: How to innovate with Minimum Viable Products and Rapid Customer Feedback, by Dan Olsen, is aimed at software developer teams. But it has much to say to anyone building and marketing a product or service. Mr. Olsen brings engineering precision and thoroughness to this step-by-step guide to building innovative products. He began his career designing nuclear-powered submarines.
Products fail, says Mr. Olsen, because they don’t meet customer needs. This point is central to a focus on the “product-market fit.” A cool product that no one wants is a waste of resources.
Part I is conceptual. It makes a business case for developing an innovative product. Part II explains the Lean Product Process. Part III is a technical explanation of agile development and measurement.
In Part I, developers learn basic business concepts. Anyone in business-to-business marketing can find value in this section. Developers can understand the business reason for what they’re doing. They see how their particular contributions integrate with team effort: a good reason for managers to distribute the book.
Part II is the Lean Product Process. This section goes into detail on minimum viable product (MVP) feature sets, prototyping, testing, and user experience (UX) design.
The Lean Product Process is composed of six steps.
- Determine your target customers
- Identify underserved customer needs
- Define your value proposition
- Specify your MVP
- Create your MVP prototype
- Test your MVP with customers
When teams picture their ideal target customer by creating personas, they can ask relevant questions. What do customers do? How do they behave? What are their preferences? What do they value?
Scott Cook, Intuit’s founder, once asked a group of product managers who is TurboTax’s biggest competitor? Managers called out names of other solution providers. Yet Mr. Cook pointed out that the biggest competitor to his company’s tax-filing software was paper and pencil. Most people still filed taxes manually—that was the underserved market. A “problem space” and a “solution space” are two distinct domains. Companies miss opportunities to locate underserved needs. Problems, not solutions, define markets.
If a job description of “problem finder” doesn’t exist, it should.
Once developers identify their target customers and their unmet needs, then they can create a value-proposition hypothesis. The book comes with templates to help organize features based on must-haves, performance benefits, and “delighters” (unexpected benefits.)
At technology’s rapidly evolving frontier, customer needs change often. For a child thrilled by opening presents at a birthday party, delight doesn’t last long. What was a delighter yesterday is today’s must-have. MVP anticipates change. One example Mr. Olsen cites is the Flip Video Camera that had a short life because video became ubiquitous in smart phones.
A user story is a method of developing product features. A story answers the question, what benefit will a particular feature have to users and why should they care? This is a classic marketing approach, and essential for creating any product or service.
But user stories can be quantified. The book lists examples and guidelines for creating functional user stories. These can later be scored and prioritized to estimate return on investment (ROI). The whole development process is an iterative hypothesize-design-test-learn loop. As the process unfolds, developers may discover reasons for abandoning the current project, or find new opportunities.
Developers understand how valuable a product will be to their customers by testing prototypes for product-market fit. This is not to be confused with UX design testing, which is aimed at how easy the product is to use.
Part III goes into detail on project-management frameworks, quality assurance, methods of testing, measuring what matters. And that includes profit.
Although squarely aimed at software project managers and their development teams, the first part of this book is applicable to general business. The Lean Product Playbook is well-written in plain English that’s easy to understand. This book isn’t a quick read, but it is crammed with practical and valuable information. My guess is that the principles applied to product development and UX design informed the creation of this book.
Disclaimer: Christopher Richards is a business book ghostwriter and has no affiliation with the author of this book.