How might we define “product”?

Simple questions are the most difficult to answer, especially in the jargon-loving, self-propagating, information economy. This is an attempt to simplify elements of product thinking and intelligence into the fundamentals that, ironically, exist in the information economy.

No! No deep learning here! No Blockchain! No Product-Market Fit! No MVP or MVE! No Jargon, No Fluff! Well, that can’t be true or no one would want to read this! This journal is not aimed at pleasing the consensus. Truth, a vital superset of Knowledge, is often convicting and offensive.

Why should you care about products?

One surface-level reason could be that this is a significant professional opportunity! Over the past several years of corporate operations, the respect for product related job functions has grown across industries. A detailed analysis of historical reasoning for this growth is not what I am intending to get into this conversation. I will say this, we have enough data-informed, verifiable proof of the differences between failures and successes of businesses:

There is a strong and glowing correlation of well implemented product functions and the success of businesses.

A deeper more purposeful reason for myself is: We have come through 1000’s of years of discovery and innovation. Yet, “We create our tools and then our tools create us”! This tough conceptual learning has been presented in a very lucid manner by Michael Wesch in his book “The Art of Being Human”. It is difficult to embrace the challenge of detachment from our tools which we are so used to, even though we have created them. We can’t really be in control of the products we create or use unless we learn more about them.

Then there are the starkly contrasting phrases:

Necessity is the mother of invention

Yesterday‘s inventions are tomorrows problems

The reality is that the universe exists at the convergence of childish simplicity and outstanding complexity. Social media proclaims to be the bridge connecting people to build a global society while being correlated with an increase in mental health concerns of its users. Therefore it is important for us to understand who we are, what our needs are and how certain products meet (or not) our needs (including potential side effects).

We know that the human measure of time is inflexible and every choice to engage in any activity will come with the exchange of time as a minimum fixed cost. There are additional trade-offs of the many other activities which are competing for our attention!

As a father of a soon to be a 5-year-old son and a 7-month-old daughter, and a husband of a soon to be 33-year-old wife(My wife does not mind me revealing her age, I am 33 as well); I have prioritized to work on this text processing software on my laptop, which I took out of my backpack, while I have plugged in Beats wired headset connected to my iPhone XS, listening to focus music on Brain.fm; while sipping warm black coffee which I made at home from packaged ground coffee, made using a coffee drip and water heated in a microwave, poured using a pour-over kettle and stored in a thermal flask, and finally at some point publishing the article on this publication within this popular internet-based blogging platform. This choice at this very moment is filled with products and trade-offs.

What is the trade-off? A whole list of other tasks and actions that I could perform, time that I could spend with my family or friends or self while consuming other products like lying on a bed, consume content from Netflix or YouTube. Every moment we are alive we make decisions that involve us spending time and money while using products. Likewise, I am spending both time and money to conjure up this article to hopefully provoke some thoughts.

I usually commute to work on a 2-hour long train ride or a 115 kilometres long drive from the west end to the east end of the Greater Toronto Area, which limits the number of things I can do, and that is a good thing. And now we are all under house arrest to flatten the curve of infection of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anytime the search space (technical jargon for the number of choices or options available to choose from when searching for some value) is reduced, the choices are easier to make (technically)! This is conceptually related to the following ideas and many more with products:

  • Lean: Less is More
  • Zen
  • Pareto distribution: 80:20 rule

How do we try to reduce the search space for ourselves?

We try to learn about products. We learn about ourselves and our needs and find the best alignment. Ideally, it starts by being self-aware and self-conscious. It is not mandatory to start with introspection though. Iterative experimentation in constrained environments is the most important method to embrace, followed by empirical evaluation methods. 

Awareness and consciousness is a byproduct of intentional unbiased and thoughtful curiosity.

How might we define product?

I define product as — Packaged solution(s) to meet human need(s) in exchange of unit(s) of value

To be honest this is my 7th version of this definition, likely the most elegant one; in my opinion anyway! This is also aligned with my way of pursuing product thinking and elaborating on concepts more than process.

Let’s unpack this a bit. It may seem very simple, yet in the 7 words of the definition, there is a lot of important and complex elements involved.

It is necessary to start with human needs. Any solution no matter how well designed, engineered, packaged, marketed is useless if it is not aligned to a human need. We need to look at human need from a primal perspective and refer to the different theories in psychology which look at human needs.

Human needs can be broadly categorized as survival in a naturally hostile environment, and desires in progressions of life in different contexts and circumstances, and the needs may vary based on background, personalities and preferences.

This leads to a lot of combinations and clarifies the need for a solution to focus on a narrow subset of human needs; it’s not possible for a solution to deal with the needs of all combinations.

Most actions performed by humans outside of breathing require effort and since the dawn of mankind, we have been fighting for our survival. By trying, failing, learning, and improving in a dynamic process; we come up with ideas of solutions that might help us. Subsequently, some of us can solve a problem for a larger group of people similar to us and want to share the new improved upgrade to life! This is how solutions are packaged and become products. It is a dynamic mechanism that goes through a lot of experimentation, of finding the key principles driving the human need and maximizing the utility of the solution.

“Solutions” might be obscure. Let’s clear it up by talking about the different products that exist. There are different products based on their form, state, utility, etc. We could start by classifying products into physical products which are tangible and intangible products which may be digital or packaged professional services.

Physical or tangible product is the easiest to define — Physical products are a set of assembled components with physical properties and take up actual shelf space is retail real estate. For example, consumer goods that we use every day like a toothbrush, toothpaste and soap in the morning, hardware like shower-heads, shower curtains, buckets and many more. Physical products have a clear form at the time of consumption and even though physical products can be sold digitally through websites they require manufacturing, warehousing and delivery logistics.

Intangible product is more diverse — From software applications to consulting hours, intangible products are often traded using time-value calculations or digital information exchange mediums like computers, phones and the internet.

Voila! So now we understand what a product is. Now we can talk about the need to productize, the different roles around a business relevant to products, and other relevant concepts. Onward…

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