How to make a glowing product strategy

AKA How to make your product shine brighter

glowing lamp

Photo by Gursharndeep Singh

A great product strategy is defined by its outcome, not its promises. In order to deliver successful results, they must follow two guidelines 1) The idea(s) for your product needs to be reasonable. A big part of having realistic outcomes is making sure your strategy is grounded in, drumroll please, reality. This is accomplished through step 2), finding your product’s North Star. 

1. What is a product’s North Star?

pinocchio wishing on a star

Your North Star is a specific action that you would like your customers to complete. This specific action helps both adoption and revenue. On the surface, it may just seem like what you are wishing your users and customers will do. It’s much deeper than that. It’s a choice to pursue and nurture key user and customer actions. If you don’t have a North Star, you have a constellation of choices before you and very little direction.

This process is defined in two phases. 

  1. Identifying a user interaction that a) is positive b) drives revenue c) drives product adoption
  2. Dissecting the positive user action with the following questions.
  • How many active/returning users are taking this action? 
  • What’s the depth of engagement?
  • How often does each user engage?
  • How fast do they succeed? 

Note: this framework is best used with an existing product that is looking to pivot their product direction. If there is no product yet, market research and validation is your first and utmost priority. 

2. The groundwork

Let’s indulge in a little thought experiment with a hypothetical product strategy. 

Let’s say you had a successful delivery app named Vroom (apologies if that name is already taken). The application helps deliver everything from late-night takeout to moving furniture. Part of vroom’s appeal is 1) pricing related to the task 2) the ease of the interface and 3) the selection process they use for their drivers. The brand is built around trust and ease of use. 

Vroom’s North Star is defined by “2 happy deliveries for users.” 

Let’s walk through how we got to this North Star.

3. How many active/returning users are taking this action?

This is a simple but needed question. This establishes your active user base and how many of them are meeting this criteria. 

For Vroom, there are 3.2 million Daily Active Users (out of its 5.5 million registered users).

4. What’s the depth of engagement?

Quality effort gif

Depth of engagement is asking how much effort the user needs to put into the primary action (2 happy deliveries in this example). 

Note that Vroom’s North Star emphasized happy deliveries. Not every delivery goes smoothly so the odds of two consecutive deliveries isn’t 100%.  A happy delivery is one that goes without any issues and is delivered within a 10 minute window of the estimated drop off time.

5. How often does each user engage?

There are three different types of users within Vroom. 

  • Predominantly food deliveries 
  • Miscellaneous deliveries
  • A hybrid of the two needs for busy users

The most active type of user is the food delivery user. This user predominantly orders food near the 5pm mark on Mondays, Wednesdays and usually Fridays as well. So their engagement is at least 8 times per month. 

6. How fast do they succeed?

This is where things get interesting. In this example, the success of the application is predominantly determined by a combination of things outside of our control and the service of the drivers. The success is outside of the user’s hand once they correctly give the delivery instructions. So, in this hypothetical, success is determined by the delivery going smoothly.

I want to emphasize that these actions are not just about the user’s needs in the app nor just the business needs for revenue. It’s a balancing act between the two. 

7. Who decides the North Star?

At the end of the day a product North Star lives between the day-to-day product metrics and the business goals. This means that a North Star’s bearings need to come from those who lead product interests and business interests within the organization. This also means involvement from the founders in the organization as well.  North Star that actually guides the product and the company is built, and maintained, with focus. This process is carried out with coordinated actions amongst product teams and active management. Not micro management, active management. 

However, what typically happens with these product strategies is trying to turn the product into a “feature farm.” (AKA feature bloating

So… what happens if a leadership chases features rather than focus? Let’s talk about Pandora and how they opened the box of too many choices. They went in the direction of giving stakeholders the option to “buy” a feature with fictional dollars. Now on one level this is a great collaborative moment that assigns value to people’s decisions. On all the other levels it was actually a terrible idea. The exercise became more about having everyone’s voice heard rather than having the features that users wanted. The result? 

Pandora created a product people didn’t want to use and eventually got bought by SiriusXM way below their initial IPO evaluation.  One of the best ways to help prevent this is having great user research (and following through on it). 

8. The right type of research to find your North Star

Great user research is a multidimensional process. It looks to examine what problem the user really wants solved, not just how your product solves their problem. To help dig deeper into what your users and customers need for a product’s North Star, it’s important to approach your research from three angles.

  1. Why people do and don’t use your product 
  2. Which customer pain points come up all the time
  3. User segmentation needs

The beauty of this approach is that every angle gets stronger collectively. Understanding why some people don’t use your products will help reveal a deeper understanding of a specific user’s pain points. Understanding certain user pain points can help create stronger user segmentation for improved personalized experiences.

Each of these angles needs to collect quantitative data and qualitative data. AKA Numbers and the story behind the numbers. This not only helps paint a better picture of your product’s problem solving but, when synthesized properly, it delivers a more nuanced product North Star.

9. Conclusion

Finding your product’s North Star is critical to guiding your product to success. It helps keep the company on track rather than having a reactive response to what’s new on the market. A product strategy framework is only as strong as the leadership’s trust in the process and its people. Anyone can apply this framework but without collaboration and research, all you have is a house of cards. 

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