Ryan Leatherbury

Business. Tech. Life


5 Must-Read Books on Building Great Products

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Product development is 1 part learning good habits and 1 part breaking bad ones. I cringe thinking back to the days of writing a 100-page product requirements document and throwing it over the wall to the development team.

Long business plan documents based on rosy assumptions. Thick product specs. No customer demos until the product is finished.

It was the false promise of Kevin Cosner’s Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.

But what if they don’t?

The technology graveyard is littered with companies and products that took that path. Here are 5 books that have helped many product teams avoid that perilous route and build products people actually want.

InspiredMartyCaganInspired, How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. Inspired sets the groundwork for building great products. It’s also a great outline of how to work with people inside and outside your organization to do just that. The goal is to identify the minimal possible product that meets the objectives, minimizing time to market and user complexity. Discovering a product that is valuable, usable and feasible requires that you test product ideas with actual users early and often.

The book describes two key tools for product discovery: An Opportunity Assessment, which is a much lighter weight version of a Market Requirements Document based on 10 key questions. It also describes how to build a high fidelity prototype which allows you to validate product ideas before you spend a lot of time and money in development. Cagan points out that some of the most fertile ground for innovation comes from emotional frustrations of users.

Lean_StartupEricRiesThe Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The Lean Startup approach was inspired by lessons learned from lean manufacturing. It is a systems approach that shortens the development cycle and is more focused on building the right thing at the right time than optimizing each part of the production line (e.g. Development, QA) to run full capacity. The idea is to continuously innovate as you cycle through a Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.

While there are plenty of definitions of Minimal Viable Product (MVP), in practice an MVP  is an experiment that allows for a full turn of the BML cycle. An MVP could be a prototype or even a video which demonstrates future product capabilities.

Ries poses 4 key questions at the onset of any project: Do people recognize they have the problem you’re trying to solve? If they did, would they buy it? Would they buy it from us? Can we build it?

In the end, success is not delivering a feature. It’s learning how to solve the customer’s problem.

9780470876411.pdfBusiness Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder & Yves Pigneur. A business model shouldn’t be a thing of mystery or too complex for mere mortals. You should be able to explain it to a 5-year old. And The Business Model Canvas, a simple 1-page visual, makes it easy.

The canvas is based on 9 building blocks: Key Activities, Partners, Resources, Cost Structure, Customer Relationships, Customer Segments, Value Proposition, Channels and Revenue Streams. The book covers several methods for designing the business model including prototyping, storytelling and customer insights.

AshMauryaRunningLeanBookRunning Lean by Ash Maurya. Running Lean picks up where Lean Startup leaves off. Maurya’s book gives clear guidance on how to actually implement Lean principles. The overall process looks like this: Document your Plan A. Figure out the product, market and customer risks. Test your plan.

Maurya breaks the process into 3 phases: Problem-Solution fit, Product-Market Fit and Scale. Sketch out an initial Lean Canvas business model in 15 minutes. Start with the problem and customer segment. Think about how they are solving their problem today.

Before the Problem-Solution fit, the goal is to validate parts of the business hypothesis. The falsifiable hypothesis is based on specific repeatable action resulting in an expected measurable outcome. Maurya makes the key point of validating qualitatively and verifying quantitatively.

There are 3 phases of customer interviews. In the first set, you’re structuring a conversation to discover the customer problem and define the unique value proposition (UVP). In the second, interview you’re honing in on the solution, defining the key features, discovering price and recruiting early adopters. In the third interview, the goal is to sell the MVP to friendly early adopters.

JeffPatton_UserStoryMappingUser Story Mapping by Jeff Patton. User story mapping is a way to collaboratively visualize the things people do with your product. It’s a great method to avoid falling into the trap of writing a set of disjoint user stories that result in a patchwork product. One of the key points is that user stories are not end-all/be-all requirements in themselves, but the means to enabling conversations resulting in a shared understanding.

The overall process goes like this: You start by writing user activities on Index cards or post-it. Group similar activities together and chain the cards together horizontally forming a primary story line. Break-out each user activity into related tasks on different index cards, and stack-rank  them vertically. Draw a line under the most important tasks needed to prove basic end-to-end capability. This is your first release or “walking skeleton”. Draw additional horizontal lines to include more advanced tasks in subsequent releases. You now have the basic forms of a product roadmap that goes from good to better to best.

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Ryan Leatherbury • February 10, 2015

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  1. Business August 19, 2015 - 8:36 pm Reply

    I really like your ideas that everybody can relate to.

  2. The Digital Bridges August 25, 2015 - 11:36 am Reply

    I have a solid respect for your writing and advice.

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