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How to develop a focused product strategy to back up your UI/UX decisions

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Editor’s note: This is a chapter from Jane Portman’s new book, The UI Audit.

How can you design a successful product without knowing what exactly it should do and what audience it should target? I know, “the persona” drill is the number one textbook activity for UX designers. But remember your last project. Did you have clear answers to all your “persona” questions? Or did you simply nod to the vague description written by your client?

Your key to professional success: Be focused, purposeful, and adamant when it comes to product strategy. It should be your number one tool to justify UI/UX decisions. After all, you’re in the business to ensure your client’s success! By helping them build something vague, you’re rendering them a terrible long-term disservice. Their product might never hit that sweet spot of product-market fit, and never make them real money.

“Be focused, purposeful, and adamant when it comes to product strategy.”

Today I’ll show you how to define a strong, focused product strategy: audience, goals, tasks, and objects. You can use this method for your own products, or apply it in your client work.

Why product-market fit is important

Before we get started with product strategy, let’s look at a different key term from the world of entrepreneurs—product-market fit.

This term was first coined by Marc Andreessen in 2007: “Product-market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”

Product-market fit is the key thing SaaS founders should care about. Here’s what you get when you nail it:

  • You stop worrying whether people actually need your product
  • Your sales are great
  • You have enough confidence to niche down more on a certain type of audience (which makes your message more powerful and further accelerates customer acquisition)
  • Customers are highly satisfied with a product that fits their needs so well, which results in the most effective “word-of-mouth” marketing
“Words you use to describe your product strategy are as important as the strategy itself.”

In his story of building Drip, Rob Walling describes the period of searching for the product-market fit as the most painful and frustrating step. Their big hit was nailing the precise formula for “email marketing automation” (both words and functionality). Then they added features (like their famous rule engine, for example) to match this new value proposition. This reduced churn dramatically and caused nearly hockey-stick growth.

Here’s what Rob said in his interview for this book:

“We didn’t just want to build features—that doesn’t help. You have to have some type of vision for where you’re headed. And when we made the decision we were going to become like a lower-cost, high-value marketing automation platform, then we instantly knew what to build and what not to build. You’re not going to build shopping cart software onto it, which some people are requesting. You’re not going to build an affiliate management program; you’re not going to build landing pages probably. You’re not going to build that CRM upfront. There’s a bunch of things that you don’t need, and then we can really focus on exactly what we needed to build.

As we started deploying the automation engine over the course of several months, it was obvious that our churn was dropping and our trial-to-paid conversion rate was going up, and that was what was getting us towards product-market fit.”

Product-market fit versus product strategy

In UI/UX terms, product-market fit means implementing all the promised functionality well, and streamlining the UI to meet customer needs and expectations. That is, getting out of their way while they accomplish their goals using your software.

Imagine you make an irresistible value proposition. Your customers respond well to your marketing page and sign up for the product. What they see inside your product does or does not match their needs and expectations.

From there, we have 2 possible scenarios: If the users fail to accomplish their goal with your software, they churn, which means your marketing money is wasted. If they succeed at their goal, they become your customers, make you money, and bring in new customers by word of mouth.

UI/UX absolutely depends on the variables in this formula: who your customers are, and what they came here to do. By tweaking these variables, you define your product strategy.

A certain product strategy may (or may not) lead to the product-market fit. To test your strategy in real life, you need to fix these variables—at least for a given period of time—and build a solution based on them.

In this chapter, you’ll determine your product strategy by answering the following questions:

  1. Who are your ideal users?
  2. What big goal do they have in mind when they sign up?
  3. What tasks do they perform daily when they log into your web app?
  4. What objects do the users handle while performing these tasks?

Question 1: Who is your ideal user (paying customer)?

In the ideal world, you first define an audience, then research their pains, and finally build a product that solves that pain. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t have a solid understanding of your audience yet. This is a very common mistake. There’s a plethora of products out there (built and launched) that are now “looking for an audience.”

So it always helps to repeat the basic drill. Take a sheet of paper and write down what audience you’re targeting.

The criteria you can use:

  • Basic social criteria: age/gender
  • Professional skill set (designer, developer, copywriter)
  • A certain stage of professional/personal development (student, employee, freelancer, consultant, product owner, business owner)
  • A certain stage of business development (getting ready to launch, gaining initial traction, scaling)
  • A certain function they perform within their business (email marketing, sales, social media marketing, user onboarding)
  • Certain software products they’re already using
  • Certain places they hang out online
  • Certain books/blogs/websites/forums they read or participate in
  • Certain events/conferences/meetups they attend
“Take a sheet of paper and write down what audience you’re targeting.”

Samuel Hulick has selected a spectacular niche for his training materials and consulting services: user onboarding. However, he doesn’t qualify his audience by skillset or occupation. Instead, he uses a purely functional qualification: people who are responsible for user onboarding.

Anchoring to a software product is also super effective. You gain a whole set of proven data (much better than vague customer interviews): what work users perform, how much they pay, what language they use. You can explore their support forums, listen to customers, and identify existing problems. Your own value proposition might be solving these exact problems!

Here’s how Ankur Nagpal, the founder of Teachable, talks about approaching their huge audience of people who make money with online courses:

“We don’t think of a photography teacher different from a programming teacher, or a dance teacher. We’re thinking what these people were doing before. Ultimately, most people we focus on are people with an audience. So we think where do they have their audience from: do they have a large podcast, a large blog, large social media? And that’s how we group them and build marketing funnels towards them.

We can build marketing materials, training materials specifically to people that write books. In the next phase, we can build marketing specifically to people that make YouTube videos. And that’s how we think about the market—not by what people are teaching, but where they built their audience from and how they spend their online time.”

Here are a few more qualifying questions to make sure you’re making a wise choice with your audience:

  • Do you know them well? Knowing a certain ecosystem is a splendid competitive advantage, so you’d better capitalize on your previous experience. While not knowing your customer ecosystem can ruin your business!
  • Do you like them? As Amy Hoy says, “If you don’t like drunk frat boys, don’t open an Irish pub.” Serving people you don’t like/respect can be rather excruciating.
  • Can they pay you? Are they used to pulling out their credit card online? Do they have a habit of paying for SaaS products?
  • Do you know how to reach them? Do you know what forums/sites they go to? Some customer categories are extremely “physical” and hard to find online. In such cases, plan for real-life events or locations instead.

Question 2: What big goal is the user trying to achieve with your web app?

Your product solves a pain. What does the user try to do when they encounter that pain? What’s their big goal?

Always keep this goal in mind and cultivate the success related to it. Your stats and metrics should display the progress towards that goal.

Good examples:

  • Write a book
  • Publish a podcast
  • Acquire new SaaS customers

There’s more to this question. In fact, this goal isn’t really “big” in the user’s own world. It’s just prominent enough for you to build a product around it. Beneath this “big” goal always lies a sequence of other more important goals.

This whole system of goals doesn’t directly dictate UI decisions, but it definitely helps when you evaluate potential new features or write sales copy for your product.

Here’s a very basic example to give you an idea of scale:

  • (I want to) write a book
  • (because then I can) build authority
  • (because then I can) have better clients
  • (because then I can) make more money
  • (because then I can) travel more

That’s a linear sequence, but in real life it’s a huge network of interrelated goals and aspirations. There can easily be another branch for the same person:

  • (I want to) write a book
  • (because then I can) have passive income
  • (because then I can) work less
  • (because then I can) spend more time with my kids

Look how these goals range from simple facts towards big lifestyle changes! The goal related to your product (“write a book”) is merely a small step in a huge life picture of your customers. But if your product does its job well, then they’ll be able to focus on their bigger goals and achieve more down the road.

“The goal related to your product is a small step in a huge life picture of your customers.”

That’s why they’re paying you, not because your app has pretty design. Not because it’s cheap or expensive. Not because you’re awesome. Realizing that will make you a humble product owner with a small ego, able to build a useful product without falling in love with it.

That’s your recipe for printing money.

Question 3: What primary tasks does the user perform on a daily basis when they log into your web app?

What is the user’s daily routine on the way to their goal? What do the users do when they log into your app? List the actual creative processes, procedures, etc.

A polished, streamlined execution of a few key tasks often makes a difference between good and bad software. You’ll need to move heaven and earth to make these tasks obvious and easy to handle.

Here’s what Ankur Nagpal of Teachable says about it:

“When it comes to building a product, there’s 2 things you can do. One is you can take the things people don’t like and make them better, so they like your product overall. But what I personally like to do is find out what people like about the product, and make your strengths stronger. Because that’s what makes people love a product—rather than a product that’s just okay in every regard.”

Tasks can be classified in 3 groups: analytical, proactive, and reactive. Each group is handled in a different way.

Analytical tasks mean monitoring the current state of things or analyzing performance. To do so, the user looks at the dashboard or digs into reports.

Proactive tasks mean creating new objects and editing existing ones. That’s what we usually call “work.” Some proactive tasks might require a comfortable workspace environment, some can be handled with simple forms. In any case, proactive tasks revolve around object lists. Where do all my objects live, so that I can review them and add more if necessary?

Reactive tasks mean handling incoming items: replying to messages, handling bugs/issues, approving reports, etc. Reactive tasks require a separate system:

  • Notification area (a message/bell icon somewhere in the top navigation bar)
  • Instant notification mechanism (pop-up notifications and such)
  • A certain location in the app where all incoming and outgoing items are permanently stored (inbox or similar)

Email by itself should never be a single way for the user to hear about any updates, even if it seems to work. The user should be able to comfortably work without leaving the comfort of your web application. Switching between the email client and the working environment can be detrimental to productivity.

“Email by itself should never be a single way for the user to hear about any updates.”

Usually all 3 task types (analytical, proactive, reactive) co-exist within a single web app. If a certain type of task clearly prevails, this can affect the way customers use your software. Your web app can be forgotten or abandoned in the following cases:

  • There are no reactive tasks for the user to act upon (no new messages, issues, etc.)
  • There’s no external reason for the user to do proactive work with the help of your application (this often happens to freelance tools when the client work runs out)
  • Your web application is purely analytical (then you’d better send out some positive email reports)

That’s the worst situation to be in with your SaaS product: these users only remember your app once a month when their card is charged. That doesn’t evoke any positive emotions—just the urge to cancel the irritating monthly charge.

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Question 4: What objects does the user work with?

What objects does the user work with? What entities do they create and manage while performing their tasks?

To answer this question, try this: crawl your list of tasks and list all nouns from there. Most likely, that will be the core of your list.

Good example: “subscribers, email campaigns, automation rules.”

Why is this list of objects so important to be a part of the product strategy?

  • Every UI in the world facilitates tasks, but it doesn’t display them—it displays content (a set of objects)
  • Objects help to limit the scope of your functionality and responsibility—what your application does manage and what it doesn’t
  • Objects dictate the data structure in the development process
  • The primary purpose of navigation is to clearly classify and locate all objects
  • The primary purpose of onboarding is to tell the user what objects they’ll be managing and how the objects are named (while their location should be naturally obvious from the navigation system)

Important: Use your customer’s vocabulary

The exact words you use to describe your product strategy are equally important as the strategy itself. Customers know what they want to do and have their own words for that—your job as a founder is to decode this language and build a web app that’s easy to understand.

There’s a common term for small, instructional bits of copy within a UI: microcopy. It’s a very important subject, but we’re not talking about microcopy here. We’re talking about the words from the product knowledge domain that are used inside your web app.

“Use your customer’s vocabulary.”

The exact words—your product vocabulary—should possess the following qualities:

  • be familiar to the users and belong to their knowledge domain
  • be consistent across the web app and marketing materials
  • make general common sense

Names for the same things can vary greatly from one product to another. Let’s look at the vocabulary of 3 popular email marketing tools:

  • One-off email: campaign (MailChimp), broadcast (Drip, ConvertKit)
  • Email sequence: automation workflow (MailChimp), campaign (Drip), course (ConvertKit)

Vocabulary depends on your positioning, too. ConvertKit, for example, was originally created for content marketing, so email sequences are historically called courses. Drip is a more versatile piece of software that targets many customer groups, so they use a neutral word campaign.

It helps to borrow terms from established software products that your users know well. Drip and ConvertKit successfully use the term broadcast for one-off emails, so this term is already well-coined for the audience. If you were building a similar tool, it would make sense to use the same language.

“Borrow terms from established software products that your users know well.”

It’s a great practice to write down your vocabulary (with explanations) in a single document, and use it for reference. You can later use this exact document for your support knowledge base.

How do you build a vocabulary that makes sense to your users? Don’t write it from the top of your head. Instead, research and reuse the existing language of your audience!

Here’s what you can do for your research:

Usually these activities take place during the product research stage, but you can jump in again while defining the vocabulary. This time you already know what you’re building exactly, so the purpose will be a bit different: figure out what exact words customers use while speaking about their goals, tasks, and objects.

Practicum

Take a sheet of paper and answer these 4 questions.

  1. Who are your ideal users?
  2. What big goal do they have in mind when they sign up?
  3. What tasks do they perform daily when they log into your web app?
  4. What objects do the users handle while performing these tasks?

Congratulations—you’ve now defined your strategy! It should be a strong, focused vertical: audience—goal—tasks—objects.

Whenever you’re working on your product—building the prototype, doing the UI audit, adding new features—make sure you make all decisions with this strategy in mind.

Final words

If you enjoyed this article, head over to The UI Audit page and download the free worksheets on products strategy to accompany today’s exercise. If you’re interested in getting the book to learn more, use the promocode INVISION30 to get 30% off any book package.

I know it’s tough to transition from merely design to product strategy! I know it’s tough to interact with the awesome founders who are so in love with their first product version. But without this brevity you won’t make any progress towards your dream design career.

Applied skillfully, this knowledge can make you a true UI/UX rockstar, so go for it—and good luck!

More posts like this
Author

Jane Portman, UI/UX Consultant
Jane is an independent UI/UX consultant from Russia who helps SaaS founders build focused, profitable products. Previously a creative director at a large agency, Jane went solo after having two boys. While running a successful productized consulting service, she recently published her third book, The UI Audit. Jane enjoys writing and speaking at events, but most of all she likes to solve real-life business problems through smart UI design. Get her free course on managing designers here.

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