A house with four rooms

A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me of a model for great products that I have used for a while, but not actually seen written anywhere.

My hopes are that this model illustrates the tensions between having a great value prop, feature cohesiveness and product character.

This is the story of a remote house in Italy that had four rooms.

The first room was an empty room. Nothing to it but white walls. It was a somewhat big room, with lots of light, no apparent problems.

The second room was a room with 3 pieces of very high end furniture. It had this ultra elegant chair right in the middle of the room. Next to the chair was a state-of-the-art mirror, one of those that you can actually speak to and check the weather. Next to the mirror, a lamp – you guessed it, no ordinary lamp either, this one was bathed in gold. The room itself was poorly lit, as the only source of light was the after mentioned lamp.

The third room was a room in where all furniture seemed to come from IKEA. Picture a hotel room, and you pretty much got it. It had a comfortable looking king-size bed, was overall well lit and was well round in every aspect possible.

The fourth room is your childhood room. It has your bed in it, all those posters you had glued to the wall, your term papers shuffled around in a corner, corny pictures of you with weird hair and your wardrobe with all those weird clothes you used to wear (you know the ones i’m talking about!).

Room #1 – Minimum viable product and foundational assets

Using a minimum viable product can sometimes feel like walking in room #1. The world is filled with possibility with what you could do with that room. The challenge with room #1 is that the open-ended nature of the room lends itself to different interpretations of value for different people. Maybe John is thinking the room would do a great studio, but Mary is thinking it would make an amazing walk-in closet.

The key lesson of this room is:

No matter what you do, you’ll disappoint someone.

The key point is to make a room that matches a need a good enough number of people have.

The corollary:

Leverage the structure you’re building on

Room one is also a great opportunity to assess the foundations you’ll be building upon. This is a room with plenty of light, plenty of space and good electrical structure. This means what you can do with the room can choose to leverage those assets. But if the room had neither of these, the chances of building something great are decreased.

These foundations represent the structure you’ll be building your product on. Examples of structure include your existing user base, intellectual property, “real estate” in users computers/phones, marketing dollars, sales structure, and so on. Do you have a good user base you can test your ideas on, or good real estate in your users phones, computers or servers, or even do you have a good slot of time you can re-use/use in their daily schedules. What about intellectual property as a foundational asset, is there something unique about what you’ve been doing/acquiring that you can re-purpose. Great foundational assets smooth the way to great value propositions. Not having these is not a blocker, but the road to success is much steeper.

Room #2 – have a unique value proposition

Let’s start with an idea: great products excel at doing one thing very well.

Using a product that doesn’t, can feel like walking into the second room. Even though some aspects of it are very well put together, somehow the whole of it does not serve any function.

The key lesson of the second room is:

If there is no unique value proposition, it doesn’t matter how good the individual components are

And the corollary:

Given a unique value proposition there is a level of tolerance for missing features

Take from this tolerance budget if you’re just starting your application, but be aware of not going into overdraft. “How much to take” you only know by learning which you get by shipping. Assuming the tolerance budget is zero, likely will result in not-shipping-soon-or-often-enough syndrome. Are you hearing “we can’t ship without that feature!” when it’s time to ship? Understand that “Cutting is shipping” (S. Sinofsky) and as long as you’re not cutting in your unique value proposition, and your tolerance budget isn’t zero you’ll likely be ok.

So… you add a bed to this room. It’s now a bedroom.

The thing is it’s really really hard to differentiate. Maybe you add a bed, but so what, any other room in the world has a bed. Given that the bed quality is the same, what is unique about this room that makes people stay here and sleep? Are you providing a faster, better or cheaper bed? In itself this is not a new idea, but this next thought might very well be: The answer again is not in the quality of the individual components, but in their arrangement to support the unique value proposition (eg maybe the mirror is a very cool one, but there’s a different aspect to this room if you put this mirror lying around in a corner, or if you put it on the ceiling right on top of the bed).

One last thing about room number 2: If a room is for sleeping, poor light doesn’t matter. But take away the lamp and people won’t even consider sleeping there. You need a lamp, but having a good-looking lamp is not what makes or breaks the room. This relates to those features of a product that are basic user needs. Sometimes this is security, auditability, reporting, etc. Take them away and that’s all users can think about. These features need to be executed well, but mostly at supporting the value proposition of the product, ie they don’t need to be great at doing everything (eg do you really need a captcha for an in-house business app?)

Some business use those (“basic user needs”) as their unique value proposition, which is great. It’s also true that they are reproducible given enough man days (ie they are not “new” problems). If you are in a business that sells these as your unique asset, good for you – but look at the timeframe those are a relevant asset and ask yourself what will you do to stay relevant at the end of it.

A great focus on having a unique value proposition is key for great products.

So, the executive bullet point summary for room #2 is:

  • Have a unique value proposition (UVP) and excel at doing that first
  • Once you have your UVP, and you get access to a missing-feature tolerance budget that is different from zero
  • Focus on the U of your UVP
  • For all the other components of the app, make sure they become supporting components of the UVP
  • Some features work just like oxygen. Given that it exists, people don’t even think about it, take it for granted and move on. But if it doesn’t exist, that’s all they can think about. Oh… and it’s hard to find people that would pay more for “better” oxygen.

Room #3, #4 – What stories are you facilitating for your users

This brings us to room number 3, and there is no way you can talk about this room without comparing it to room number 4.

Room 3 is an interesting one because it indeed serves a purpose. It has a bed that’s quite comfortable, it’s well-lit and has all the amenities you could expect. The challenge with room number three is that it lacks soul, it lacks character. For the purposes of our discussion, character is “the stories you’ve shared with it or because of it”.

Compare room three with room four: even though the furniture in your childhood’s room might not have been state of the art, or that it might have been a tad smaller than you’d like, room number four is FULL of stories and my bet is that just thinking about it causes a smile in your face.

That very same reaction is what I believe great products should strive for. Doing so mostly has to do with two things: 1) great product design 2) do no evil.

There are plenty of things you can do with product design to facilitate character. Start with the flow of actions, think how can you get out-of-the-way, try to set a more friendly tone in your messaging, and many many more.

But more than facilitating character by using any of these “tactics”, make sure to build your product so that it creates opportunities for users to share a story with. Here’s an example: do you have a transport app? build a feature that helps users get home on new years, specially tailored for that day.

On the other hand, resisting the temptation to “do evil” can be quite substantial, especially in a business that’s growing. But every time it happens, it takes a huge chunk away from the “love capital” you’ve worked so hard to collect.

Good product design helps here too: e.g. are you sending your users too much e-mail, too many push notifications? Convert those into helpful scenarios (eg easyjet spams their users quite often, but they missed the opportunity to actually alert me when i flew into london with them and the gatwick express was not working).

So they key lesson of room #4:

Great products cause that same smile on your face you get from thinking about room #4 and you get that from creating opportunities to share a story that would not exist without your product

And here you have it, the 4 room model for building great products.

So, what would the world lose if your product didn’t exist? What is the last story you remember your product helped any of your users create? Did it put a smile on their faces?


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