Using discipline in product development

Feb 01 2017

Thanks to UNC’s Minor in Entrepreneurship, we had a chance to visit last week with Shiva Rajaraman, who has been a leader of product teams at YouTube, Google and Spotify.

When I think about Shiva's visit I keep coming back to one word: discipline.

Too often, I think we wrongly see discipline as the enemy of creativity. It’s not. If done well, discipline can give us the courage to overcome self-censorship and self-doubt that impedes creative problem solving.

Discipline came up in several ways during our meeting with Shiva, but it all comes back to something he said right at the beginning: We are not interested in an idea, we are interested in an outcome.

That simple sentence adds an important ingredient that ensures our discipline is focused on something other than our own ego. We are focused on an outcome, but if we’re building a viable business, then that outcome has to be in service of the customer. Our ego-driven outcome may be fame and fortune. But the outcome that Shiva was talking about was a customer-focused outcome.

There are a lot of tools that entrepreneurs have developed to ensure they are maintain a disciplined focus on customer outcomes. One of our Reese News Lab interns, Carina McDermed, noted that Shiva’s was a simple sentence or “problem statement” — “When I am (in) [situation], I want to [motivation], so I can [outcome].”

Thanks for keeping us healthy, Spotify.

The example that stuck out to Reese News Lab intern Kelly Jasiura was Spotify’s running tool. The problem statement for the running tool was “When I am running, I want to keep in my optimum heart rate without having to stop to check my device, so that I can be healthier and feel better.”

Spotify looked around its workshop to see if it might have the tools and material needed to solve that problem for its users. It came up with a way to choose music that would play at a certain tempo to allow runners to keep their pace. It was disciplined about solving a problem for a very particular user, so Spotify can now say: “Spotify helps you maintain your health and feel better.” That’s WAY more compelling than “Spotify plays songs you like.”

Another way of enforcing discipline on the outcome is to start your product development by writing the headlines you’d like to see when your product is working like it should. For example the headline for Spotify’s running product might be “By keeping step with the beat, a nation’s stress level plummets.”

This is similar to the idea of writing a press release for your product, but press releases are too often written for internal constituents. Headlines on news stories have to tell the audience (potential customers) what’s in it for them. Nobody cares how many songs Spotify has in its library (press release), do they? Or the technical prowess it took to customize playlists to running pace (press release). They care about having fun while staying healthy (headline).

To come up with this problem statement, Spotify had to have the discipline of focusing on a very particular use-case. It wasn’t designed for “people who exercise.” It was designed to help a very particular person achieve a very particular outcome.

This is what Shiva called “designing for the constraint.”

Of course, a product that only achieves one outcome for a very small set of customers probably isn’t going to scale the way that most investors want to see. The key to the success of Spotify’s running tool was audience retention. The tool was used to acquire new customers, but the outcomes that cause someone to become a customer are not the same outcomes that retain them as customers.

Shiva talked about how critical the first week of use of a new product is. As Reese News Lab intern Gabby Micchia remembered him saying, “You live and die by week one.” That first week of user experience is where the design of the product comes in. How do you tell the story of your product through the navigation?

Now we’re hungry.

The act of getting a customer to stick around is called “retention,” and the best anecdote I’ve heard of it comes from fast-food: You came for the burgers, you stayed for the shake.

The Thrillist is another good example of designing for one particular constraint and slowly unveiling value over time. Thrillist customers come in for a particular reason, then over time they’re converted by adjacent features that help them achieve other outcomes.

This semester my goal is to build a product that serves ONE information need for people that work, live and play in Chatham County. If we do a great job serving one information need in the community, our next challenge will be to continue developing solutions that keep the audience coming back.

Back in the old days, newspaper counted on people who came for the coupons and comics to stay for the news (or vice versa). But in today’s era of media disaggregation, developing a product that is all things to all people is the sure way to never get off the launch pad. 


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