· Simon I'Anson
▲ Photo credit Karla Hernandez on Unsplash
In academia, as you progress through A-levels, degree, post-graduate and a doctorate you learn more and more about less and less. Until you reach the point where you become a world leader in an incredibly focussed niche of your particular area of study.
There are similarities when defining a new digital product.
To create a product that stands a chance of getting off the ground, you have to understand and define the audience for whom you are designing. And the particular problem you are solving for them. This is product focus.
A passing understanding, or vague arm-wave in the direction of a general audience, is insufficient. I’ve been pitched products with an audience of “anyone with a smartphone”, “people who shop online” and “people who are into photography”. These audiences are so wide it could be anyone. And when you design for anyone, you design for no-one.
Better to launch to a small audience who are fanatically keen and will part with their cash than to a huge amorphous one that doesn’t care.
What does focussing in on a niche look like?
Let’s take the ‘people who are into photography’ audience. Can we identify a sub-set of photographers? Newbies, keen amateurs or maybe experienced professionals? Take professionals, then go deeper. What type of professionals? Wildlife or wedding or studio? When will they use this? Out in the field or during editing? Or is it about archiving and mass storage?
When we start to identify a group it gives us cues for how to design for them. The language we might use in the product. How and where it will be marketed. What type of conditions the product might be used in. But importantly, it helps us understand the context of what we are building.
While getting to know the audience we should be able to identify their pain points. Gaps in their current workflow or where existing software is failing them. To design an effective product you need to focus right in on that niche. How might that individual be solving their problem right now? Do they have an Excel spreadsheet hack or some elaborate email tagging system? Is there already a solution but it’s outdated and not up to scratch? Is it a problem that they almost don’t know they have but if you presented your idea they’d nod in recognition? If so, let’s test that. Keep drilling down until someone with no prior knowledge of the problem or industry can understand it straight away when you explain it.
Take a position
To help, you could create an early positioning statement like this:
For [target customer] who [need/ pain point] the [product name] is a [product category] that [main benefits/ pain reduction]. Unlike [competitor/ status quo] our product [statement of differentiation]
If you’re struggling with writing this, you need to keep digging.
During the early stages of product design and build we’ll keep coming back to this. Testing assumptions, ensuring we’re on track. And when prioritising features to build it’ll help us cut the superfluous and focus on the necessary. It’ll be our north star and guide the process to launch. It’ll keep your aspirations honest, your budget in check and your focus clear.
This may all seem like a lot of effort. I’ll tell you what’s more effort. Refining product features when you have a team of designers and engineers sat around waiting for you to define exactly how something is supposed to work that only exists in your head. Which may lead to you having to tell your angel investors why you’ve burned through your initial seed funding and launched a product that isn’t finished, doesn’t work and no-one wants.
Alternatively, you can launch a product with a clear, tightly controlled feature set, for a well-defined audience group that launched on budget. Ready to grow into its market.