As the owner of a digital product, you know that the requirements for your product will evolve over time. This creates a challenge in how to build a product platform that can scale over time to accommodate new features, different user loads, and changing technology standards. Frequently, this challenge is not addressed appropriately. Without a long-term product platform strategy, platforms will either need to be rebuilt from scratch prematurely, or they become stagnant and ultimately relegated to legacy products. This is often further driven by the pace of business transformation, accumulation of technical debt, and shortcuts taken during the original inception of the product.
Another common quandary today is the speed at which supported devices and peripheral applications (commonly referred to as application endpoints) must change. Traditional product design is device-centric, but today’s marketplace requires companies to be device agnostic. In the age of omnichannel engagement, a single platform may have to accommodate a myriad of endpoints, including responsive desktop websites, progressive web applications, native mobile apps, React Native apps, and smartwatch applications. This is equally true when we think about internal facing endpoints, such as CRMs and other business systems, extending across the entire value chain. It is critical that a modern product platform is built in an adaptable and scalable way to allow for any new devices and clients that will be introduced in the future.
I will outline three key paradigms that may be utilized when planning your product platform strategy for scale. Implementing these paradigms may increase your competitive advantage, business resilience, improve risk management, and increase your capital for growth.
1. Understanding the Lifecycle of the User Experience, Application, and Data Layers
When planning for the long-term, product teams need to consider that their applications are typically built in a way that allows separating them into discrete components, each with its own purpose and lifecycle:
- User Experience Layer
The user experience layer of an application entails all the display logic as well as any endpoint/client-side application functionality. This is the part the end-user sees. It must adapt to the rapidly evolving browsers, devices, and UX paradigms. In the example of a ridesharing platform, this would be the driver and rider mobile apps, as well as any account management or administrative web interfaces. The life cycle of this layer is 1 – 3 years.
- Application Layer
The application layer typically contains all business rules and logic, ideally embedded within an API-first architecture. This codebase will primarily live server-side. In the ride sharing example, this would be the logic that handles user authentication, assigns riders to drivers, calculates travel costs and durations, and handles the data transfer to all endpoints. The life cycle of this layer is 3 – 5 years.
- Data Layer
The data layer contains the application’s data, which typically resides within a database or other data storage system. In the case of the ridesharing platform, this would entail all rider and driver data, ride history, and payment information. The data layer’s life cycle coincides with the business that it serves; as long as the data is relevant to the business, the data layer will need to be maintained and supported. Consequently, the life cycle of the data layer is often 5+ years. The most adept enterprises take the approach of data-as-a-service, consolidating and organizing their data in one place, then making it available to serve new and existing digital initiatives. This unlocks data from legacy systems to drive new applications and digital platforms, without the need to disrupt existing backends.
By looking at your applications from this angle the door to modularizing your scaling requirements opens. For example, having the foresight that the user experience layer will likely be replaced within a couple of years, you wouldn’t want to expend comparable resources establishing your user experience layer for scalability as you would for the other layers. Conversely, the selection of the data layer must allow for substantial growth and change in content, laying the foundation for your platform to scale.
2. API-first approach
One of the most useful developments in modern software design is the emergence of API-first software architecture. Historically APIs were created as an afterthought to existing products that were tightly interwoven jumbles of front- and back-end systems. An API-first architecture strategically decouples them from the onset. This allows teams to quickly create experiences and products which work across a multitude of devices and other end-points.
In API-first methodology, all components of the platform are primarily connected via APIs, using API calls for data transfer. Designing an API involves consulting with stakeholders to collaboratively design the API specification before determining and developing the various applications that will consume the API. A major benefit to this approach is that organizations obtain valuable feedback in the preliminary stages of the platform’s design. This is beneficial in developing a service that delivers value to all of the API’s eventual consumers across the platform. Further, it ensures that consistency is administered across the platform, which is crucial considering the variety of clients/devices that will potentially connect to the API.
There are two ways to approach API service design, each with its unique implications on application scalability:
- A single generic API
A generic API is written in a way that provides access to the most data possible without imposing specific business rules on data access. This provides long-term flexibility by covering the data needs for as many business use-cases as possible. Typically, it is also easy to build, and in some cases may even be automatically generated depending on your data entity model. The downside is that a significant part of business logic is shifted to the client/device, making it more difficult to maintain consistency of that business logic across clients. The client essentially embeds business logic in the user experience layer.
- Specific APIs (microservices)
By writing an API that covers specific business rules the application logic can be embedded in the API. This allows the client/device to primarily handle the user experience layer and remain a de facto “dumb” client/device. The drawback with this approach is that different clients might require the API to be modified to meet their specific needs, or new APIs to be created for new endpoints.
Ultimately, either approach may facilitate a successful migration to an API-first platform. But, keep in mind that it is advisable to dialogue with your team at the onset to determine which API-first platform option best aligns with the projected long-term requirements of your platform.
3. Five Pillars of Product Platform Strategy
When planning for a new digital product platform there are many technologies to consider. To ensure a solid foundation for your platform to scale from, we evaluate them in five categories:
Depending on your platform requirements, the platform’s systems should have high availability while being cost effective and resource efficient. Modern cloud hosting environments offer a variety of solutions that work better for some cases than for others. Find the right combination, and you can achieve exceptional performance at a relatively low cost.
Is there variability in your expected user load? If so, how well can the systems adapt to the changing user load? If you have a customer-facing application that will encounter heavier demand over time, this will be of more concern than if you are serving an internal, predictable user base. When you do need to scale the platform’s systems, you want to ensure this can be performed with minimal downtime.
Over time, your systems need to be maintained to remain competitive with technology standards and security needs. Depending on the system operations (SysOps) and development operations (DevOps) capabilities of your team, you will want to carefully consider if managing the platform systems yourself is the right choice. You may determine that relying on a Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) provider is a sage decision.
As your platform grows how easy is it to add new applications and components? Adopting an API-first software architecture will further ensure modularity. In particular, a microservices approach lends itself well to adding future application functionality without the need to edit the core application code. This means new functionality can be added without the risk of introducing bugs into the existing application.
Following security best practices, such as the OWASP Top Ten, should be requisite, yet there are a multitude of factors that come into play when approaching security for scale. For example, maintaining your own authentication system may make sense if you are starting out, but in the long run, do you want to be responsible for the personally identifiable information (PII) of all your users? Outsourcing such important responsibilities to a company specializing in authentication security, such as Auth0, could be a better choice for future scalability. When protecting against DDoS attempts and other hacking threats, a service such as Cloudflare can offload responsibilities from your team and future proof your products are they grow in popularity.
The approaches outlined in this article provides an overview of how our team at Emerge helps ensure our clients’ product platforms are designed and developed in a way that allows for future scalability. You can see an example of our product platform strategy at work in our case study for the Mercedes-Benz CLA Instagram Campaign. If you find yourself needing a hand with your digital product platform strategy, feel free to reach out. We’d love to talk.
When done right a strategy articulates the vision, defines the overarching goals you are aiming to achieve, and provides the understanding of the critical outcomes necessary. It provides a collective purpose, acts as the product’s true north, and facilitates effective collaboration across the entire product development lifecycle.
Using this tool you’ll learn:
- What are the 9 elements of a digital product strategy
- Prioritizing your chosen opportunities to maximize value
- Assess what it will take to accomplish your strategic plan
Discover the best course of action for creating a well-defined strategic foundation.
Complete the form below to download the Digital Product Strategy tool:
Digital products and services are increasingly becoming a competitive necessity. However, a significant number of businesses today are faced with an unanticipated and very costly challenge.
Evaluating product ownership is a crucial component of your digital product strategy, and many companies don’t own their product at all. You might find this statement provocative or utterly ridiculous. Let me explain the hard reality behind this, and how it impacts organizations attempting to deliver innovative customer experiences, empower their employees and automate processes through the use of technology.
Digital Product Strategy: Defining Ownership
The first question we need to address is what owning your digital product or service means? And secondly, what are the characteristics of ownership?
Wikipedia defines ownership as: “The state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property, which may be an object, land/real estate or intellectual property. Ownership involves multiple rights, collectively referred to as title, which may be separated and held by different parties.”
By legal definition, most organizations would be able to confidently say that they legally own their digital product or service. However, we have to rethink what ownership means in practice, day-to-day in the context of digital products. The difference between the perception of ownership and reality within our organizations is more often than not very different. The following delineation provides a clear illustration of what this looks like.
Ownership is typically seen in terms of control. As the owner you have control of:
- The direction of the digital product or service, its features, and benefits.
- How it integrates into the business offering.
- Designing a best-in-class user experience.
- The business rules that govern the product.
- How data will flow in and out of the product.
- The source-code of the product.
- Third-party systems we will integrate with to enable our product and the business.
These examples of control assume that you are working in a best-case scenario. While we hope for the best it is rarely a true representation of what is really going on within our organizations or the marketplace. It is important to recognize there is already an abundance of factors that live outside of our control.
When building today’s leading products (platforms) it is imperative to ask yourself questions such as:
- What does control look like in a rapidly changing environment?
- How will the business be impacted when you have a change?
- What happens when there is a change in your team members?
- Will a third-party provider influence your ability to adapt or even deliver your product?
- What happens if you need to rapidly scale up?
Each of these examples can have a cascading effect.
Digital Product Strategy: Ramping Up and Moving Forward Quickly
One of many possible situations that exemplifies this cascading dynamic is customer enrollment into a monthly subscription service, providing access to a digital product. Your enrollment immediately grants personalized access, allowing the subscriber to begin using your online services. As part of this, you have carefully designed an onboarding process to ensure your customer has an optimal experience. It also introduces the customer care team that will provide outstanding, ongoing support.
Let’s expand on this scenario. You are the product manager assigned to a new product team and need to quickly get up to speed. Leadership has critical business goals that are dependent upon key milestones being achieved with your product and you need to get to work right away. You immerse yourself immediately into the work. Diving in to learn everything about the product, you request access to all available documentation. You are informed that the team follows an agile approach, and everything has been documented pursuant to best practices inline within the codebase.
Red flag! Who has control? Does everyone across the team and each function of the business have access to the necessary information to achieve the company’s goals? No. It’s locked in a format that is controlled by development. Is this their fault? No.
Next, you decide to schedule meetings with each person who has been working on the product to learn about their insights. Everyone has been working diligently, but you quickly realize that people have a different understanding of the goals and priorities. Consequently, your concerns grow. You know success is rooted in effectively moving forward quickly as one cohesive team.
In this common scenario critical institutional knowledge is locked away with key people, previous decisions are unclear and need to be revisited. In an extreme situation, let’s assume you need to scale the product, but in order to do so you will need to increase the size of your team internally, or with an external partner. The question of ownership begins to proliferate, becoming more complex and further potential complications and impacts begin to accumulate. The business owns the exclusive legal rights but the implications of losing control are escalating quickly.
The costs of losing control of your digital product
In today’s environment, industries are moving rapidly, business models are more complex, technology-driven shifts are common, and competition is getting tougher. And with soaring customer expectations, the impact of losing control needs to not only be understood, but managed as part of your digital product strategy. The impact of losing control can take several forms.
So what is the impact of a situation like the one above? You might find your team:
- Unable to take advantage of a new business opportunity.
- Incurring unintended design or technical debt as the team is working with an incomplete picture of the critical information necessary to do their best work.
- Performance (velocity) is significantly impacted as they spend more time in meetings, starting and stopping work, re-validating user and business requirements, leading to additional rework deliverables.
- Is over budget, unable to meet timelines with the resources that are available, and unable to manage expectations.
- Being confronted with completely re-platforming the product to regain control, and reach key goals that the business is dependent upon achieving.
Many organizations are taking this hit whether they can afford to take it or not. While in the short-term, it may appear as though there are efficiencies being gained. Possibly, reduced timelines for delivery, or the advantages of a larger feature set. Unfortunately, an expedited upcoming release with skipped steps has the potential of reducing the return on investment to zero.
Taking control back and owning your digital product
To regain control, or to never lose it in the first place, we must shift our thinking to embrace end-to-end knowledge management. Established in the ’90s, knowledge management is the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organization in the most effective manner to empower its people, processes, and support decision making.
There are several formats this may take. Each discipline on the product team needs to understand their integral role in ensuring this happens effectively. In many cases, the deliverables need to be an integrated part of a more complete and holistic picture. There may be a story you have to build. That story, and the resulting clarity that is generated from articulating it, can come in a multitude of forms. At a minimum, that story should address:
- The context for what the product is and the problem it solves
- The intended outcome(s) for its users.
- The business rules and why.
- The user flows and stories.
- The technology ecosystem.
- The business interdependencies.
- The functional requirements.
Ask yourself this question. Could I rebuild my product or service with the information I have? How much would it cost? How long would it take to do it again?
A company-wide mindset towards truly owning your digital products and services from the top down, empowers your team, permits you to stay focused on solving problems, and facilitates unearthing new insights and delivery of crucial new solutions. Organizations that are embracing this are more adept at being flexible, can move faster, are able to operate at greater scale, and increase their competitive edge.
Inquiring as to whether or not you genuinely own your product can be an invaluable exercise. It helps you look at your product and your service in a different way. It facilitates changes in the conversation around quality and roles. More importantly, understanding the importance of knowledge management and how it empowers people across the team and the organization should be seen as building strategic advantage for the business. It continues to promote sustainable performance. When we look at it from this perspective we are able to create alignment from leadership through to the product team. We are able to de-risk the business and continue to accelerate consistent improvements. Once this has been established, you can affirm that re-creating the product and service are attainable, then you truly do own it.
Clarity has never been more imperative than it is today. With the impact of digital transformation on your organization’s people, processes, products, and services, clarity is not only essential, but mission critical.
More often than I would like to admit, I meet people with a great idea for a new web, mobile or IoT product but there is a lack of clarity to move forward successfully. Frequently, product teams are tasked with challenges that intersect all functions of an organization without the necessary foundation for success. Consequently, thousands, or even millions of dollars in resources are required for successful delivery.
One primary area of clarity is understanding ‘the job to be done’ and how your digital product or service meets that need. Clay Christensen a professor at Harvard Business School, introduced the concept of Job Theory in the book Competing Against Luck – The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice. The book is focused on successful company practices and their subsequent growth.
Lack of clarity impacts the entire organization
Without clarity, the scope of potential success narrows and our understanding of what is required to reach our goals is compromised. Ultimately, it presents further challenges in assessing how expediently the objectives can be achieved. The lack of clarity impacts individuals, teams, and the organization.
How much time is being spent articulating the vision or value of the digital product or service initiative to people across the organization? Is it being articulated the same way each time or does it change depending on who it’s being presenting to? Is the audience being educated not just about the aspirations, but about the importance of the opportunity or problem working to solve? Are the right people onboard? Can the expectations be managed across the organization, from the C-suit down to the product and supporting teams?
It is essential when creating new and innovative customer experiences (CX) and more refined tools for employee’s, to have clarity. This enables you to make better decisions and navigate the unknown as you proceed from an idea to a strategy, and ultimately, to an effective execution.
It’s a very intriguing question. What is the job to be done by your product or service offering? In my opinion, everyone in an organization; from the CEO to the Product Team needs to be able to answer this question and understand its impact.
What is Jobs Theory and why does it matter?
Job Theory is another case for the importance of taking a customer-centric (aka user-centric or human centered design) approach to your product or service. At the most basic level it’s about understanding the choice your customers make to hire or fire a product. We can then look at why do customers hire your product over another and vise versa. Why are they making that choice? If they choose to fire our product and hire someone else’s product, what are they telling us? Is our product deficient? Is there a better product substitute?
Here’s how Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon & David S. Duncan. describe it in their book “Competing Against Luck – The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice.”
“It’s not just another framework or marketing approach, but a powerful lens that has driven breakthrough innovation and transformational growth in some of the world’s most successful organizations—in wildly diverse arenas. Jobs Theory transforms how you define the business you’re in, the size and shape of the market in which you compete, and who your competitors are.”
3 Benefits of Understanding the Job of Your Digital Product
Here are three ways understanding the job of your digital product or service can help you create the clarity and strategic advantage that will lead to greater success.
1) Identify how your product creates value and can be differentiated in the market.
Once you understand the job of a product you can look at the experiences – online and offline – that need to be created to support that product, tackling the job to be done better than anyone else.
This approach can have a profound impact on your work. Let’s assume that you have been asked to lead the redesign of your website as part of your company’s ongoing investment into its digital transformation. You understand that the website needs to be something much more than a brochure; more than just a resource for the different departments, partners, and customers.
The website needs to be a platform, an integrated product that can effectively serve the needs across multiple user journeys. You may have over 80+ stakeholders and 200+ contributors (We’ve actually experienced this). You need to find a shared purpose and vision going forward. The first task is to evaluate the current ecosystem, to understand the current state of things. You need to take inventory, and map people’s needs across the organization. It’s easy to see there are many essential jobs. But are they the job(s) to be done? Or are they the things that have to be done to address the one “job to be done”?
Fast forward, between your stakeholder meetings and the ongoing research being conducted to inform the new strategy and direction of the website, you realize that you’re missing vital insight. You are unable to answer the question “what is the job to be done?”
The insight needs to come from having a deeper understanding of the customer. Engaging them to discuss their challenges, needs and the value drivers of their business. As you get a deeper understanding the job of the website becomes clear.
There is one job to be done by the website; be the companion guide to the customer journey. You present this clarity and are able to quickly tie it back to the businesses vision and key performance indicators. This new shared understanding by your stakeholders and contributors aligns the efforts to focus on the right things and deliver better than anyone else.
This clarity completely changes the conversation and trajectory around customer experience innovation and improving operational performance. You can look at how you engage customers, from the introduction, product customization, onboarding, navigating use, and the necessary support levels in an entirely unique and innovative way. We can look at the interdependencies of delivering on those experiences considering the people, processes, and systems. This allows you to not only focus on the highest level of value creation but to further differentiate.
2) Avoid the Feature Trap
It is easy to understand why product teams get stuck in the “feature trap”. Some organizations measure performance by delivery, as opposed to the value created. Others may be missing key processes or access to customer insight. Often, an organization may not have internal cross-functional teams to evaluate the impact a feature will have on users and the business. There may be scenarios where stakeholders stipulate a hard delivery-date or the product is being overextended to do too many jobs.
This is common when developing and evaluating strategic plans, product roadmaps, helping to prioritize features, and grooming the product backlog. Imagine an advanced manufacturing company that has been stagnant. They have been shifting from feature to feature and struggling to balance priorities with limited resources. The competing priorities and the broad range of value varying stakeholders placed on individual features stretched the product team too thin. With the team being pulled in a multitude of different directions, the team’s time to make progress is depleted, slowing down delivery, and ultimately burning out the product team. By understanding the job to be done for the product your team can find a new way to approach prioritization, permitting the team to focus on continuous improvement and delivery. With a shared understanding you can help to ensure the right capabilities, resources and technologies are implemented in alignment with and to fulfill the strategic priorities.
When we understand the vision and job of our digital product or service we can help to avoid the ‘feature trap’. This allows us to maintain clarity and focus on continuous improvement and delivery that can successfully move the needle.
3) Leverage BIG Data and the shift from transactional to consumption analysis.
Not long ago, BIG Data was the only thing being discussed. It hasn’t gone anywhere but how we think about it has evolved significantly. The focus has shifted from the collection of data to the analysis of data. So how does BIG data inform the job to be done of our product? The focus on analysis has fueled the development of advanced business intelligence that enables better decision making, personalization, and automation. Today the major technology themes continuing to drive this forward momentum are mobility, cloud, and machine learning.
As you work to create better digital products and services there are two types of data we are evaluating; transactional and consumption.
Let me give you a very brief definition of the two types. Functionally, transactional data includes financial and logistical information related to customer inquiry, conversion rate, on-boarding time, number of active users, number hour worked, and application availability (Uptime), etc. Consumption data is focused on behavior, examining how the product or service is being used, identifying patterns, and contextually related outcomes based dimensions of time, location, attitude, etc.
When you understand the job to be done you’ll have a lens to analyze the data to give you invaluable context and deeper insights into the people, and processes that will inform the continued evolution of your product.
Can you think of something similar you have experienced, when a deeper level of clarity could have transformed your work? I’m sure you can. Can you imagine the power of having that clarity and the impact? How the perspective transforms the way you work, your processes and the delivery of more impactful products and services. That is the power of understanding the job of your digital product. It pushes to develop a deeper understanding of our customers.