What is "digital product strategy"?

Creating products (not just digital ones) that really work for customers isn't luck. The innovation required occurs at the intersection of seven different domains. If you want to build product teams that can innovate, you need to make sure that you have all seven domains at the table or success will be fleeting, if at all. These domains apply not just to products you might release to external customers; they equally apply to internal products such as intranets and knowledge-sharing systems.



The First Domain: Market Expertise

Innovation doesn't happen unless you understand the domain you are entering.What is the problem space? What are its dynamics? Who are the buyers? What are the common problems organizations face? What is the regulatory environment that might limit possible solutions? The questions could go on a long time.

The point is that innovation is specific to a market, and without a thorough understanding of how that market works, you can't identify opportunities. While this might seem obvious, it's amazing how frequently companies look to others (namely their agencies) to provide this information. And it's equally amazing how little attention some agencies pay to thoroughly understanding the markets they serve.

The Second Domain: Competitor Expertise

Of course understanding the competition is key to good product strategy. But how companies undertake competitive analysis is often flawed and doesn't serve the larger goal of product strategy and innovation. Too often competitive analysis is undertaken through the lens of "parity" -- what features do "they" have that "we" don't? Often these devolve into punch lists of features and release cycles that sacrifice innovation for playing catchup and achieving parity.

Good competitive analysis from a product strategist's point of view means looking for threats as much as opportunities. Who could move into our space and undermine our initiative with little effort? Do we have legitimate differentiators that are sustainable? Are current competitors potential partners if we change our focus?

The Third Domain: Knowing Your Users

What makes your target users tick? What motivates them to use your product? What do they get excited about? What are they ho-hum about? Understanding users is often the gateway to understanding the first two domains. You can gather a lot of information about the market and competitors by talking to users. But this isn't the only reason to talk to users. Mainly, you are trying to understand your personas and usage scenarios. A good understanding of users should make the opportunities clear.

I'm not talking about asking them what they want and assuming they're right about what they want. You have to look below the surface. You have to understand what gets them excited and what doesn't. This takes special listening skills, and you'll need to investigate competitors to validate what you hear. For instance, I recently conducted some user interviews where the respondents were consistent about what they wanted. The problem was that we could see competitors who were providing something very close. So the users weren't asking us to provide it (though literally they were), they were really articulating that they hadn't yet found what already exists. That's not a good basis on which to build a product.

The Fourth Domain: Related Industry Expertise

You can learn a lot about your own industry by looking at others that are similar. Similar how? I was working for an education institution at one point, and we were trying to figure out how to better convert website visitors into applicants. We looked at all the usual suspects -- University of Phoenix, DeVry, Kaplan. Clearly they had all looked at each other (see the discussion of "parity" above) and copied each other accordingly. We decided to look at how Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig drove conversion on their sites. The similarity is that you have a prospect who is looking to make a life change. Part of turning the prospect into a lead involves showing them that there is a community of similar people who took that big step and made the change successfully. Those sites  don't convert using a "Get more info" call to action. Rather, their calls to action are much more positive -- join in! We used the lessons from that industry to help a related one.

The Fifth Domain: Technical Expertise

This is the realm of the emerging Chief Technical Officer. His or her job is to know what is technically feasible and what is coming down the road. This is not just a reactive position -- "give me the product roadmap and I'll figure out the technology." Rather, it involves proactively understanding what is possible today and what might be possible tomorrow and letting that knowledge inform product direction. Now that smart phones are maturing, we can think about a lot of solutions that weren't possible when the PC was the only conceivable delivery vehicle.

The Sixth Domain: Design Expertise

This is closely related to technical expertise, but the emphasis is on new ways people interact with technology. How to make something fun and interesting to use is a product strategy skill -- not just a tactical one. How to incorporate game concepts ("gamification") into the user experience is equally strategic. You need a person at the table who understands how to make a digital product engaging. You also often get a 2 for 1 here: the designer frequently knows how to interview customers and get the right kind of knowledge about users.

The Seventh Domain: Knowing Your Own Business

What skills does your company have? What is its financial situation? What technical constraints do you have to live with? If it's a startup, what is the exit strategy? All these and more are relevant questions in setting product strategy. I worked with a national company at one point to understand whether or not there was an opportunity to provide content specific to local communities. While we determined that there was an opportunity, it was clear that it wasn't their opportunity. They didn't have the desire to invest in the technology necessary to deliver content on a community-specific basis. They decided to focus on their core -- entertainment content at the national level.

An Example: myStrength.com

I work with myStrength.com, which provides daily online assistance for people struggling with Depression and Anxiety. The product is a great example of how the seven domains come together. The initial idea came from the belief that eLearning (design domain) over the web (technology domain) could be used to help people suffering from depression and anxiety (market domain).

To increase market expertise, the management team assembled (early on) a "clinical board" to help them translate clinical content (books, exercises, inspirational content) into self-paced eLearning programs. They also translated the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (a clinical assessment tool called the DASS) into an online assessment tool that selects the right eLearning program for the user.

They brought in my company (Industrial Wisdom) to lead the design effort. We needed to make sure that the site was set up appropriately to drive conversions and that the eLearning modules could be easily navigated. The "my home" page is a complex arrangement of eLearning modules, to-do items, tools, and personalized content that had to be easy to scan. The system also includes a "mood tracker" so users can get direct and immediate feedback on their progress, as well as a personal profile that is used, in part, to personalize the presentation of content. All of this had to be brought together into a coherent, easy-to-use system.

The company went through a "minimum viable product" (MVP) process to get its first release out the door, and we are actively working on innovations. This involves increasing our knowledge of how actual customers are using and benefiting (or not) from the system via interviews, journaling, and surveys (knowing our users).It also involves looking at related industries (like gaming) for ideas on how to improve the user experience and the outcomes.

It is a great example of how the different domains all need to be combined and different perspectives brought to the table to yield an effective product -- digital or otherwise.

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