Product Developers, We’re Asking the Wrong Questions


I don't know if you were around back in the 80's when the commercial came out with the line, “Paul Masson will sell no wine before its time,” but I've been reminded of that line over and over when it comes to products, product development and product launches. The line makes sense.

Who would, after all, want to release any product until it was ready for release?

It turns out many of us…

I can guess where you think I'm going with this but I want you to hear me out. Because I'm not going to tell you that the issue is that we release products too quickly. I know there are guys out there telling you to just “ship it.” So maybe you thought I was going to say it's important to slow down. But I'm not.

And I'm not going to tell you that we're releasing products too slowly—even though there's that other camp that regularly reminds you that the best way to find a product market fit is to release and release often. Not going there either.

We release products before we should because of a completely different dynamic I want to spend a bit of time on. And it's a particular issue for product developers…

We're often asking the wrong questions

Rather than tell you how we fall into this trap, I want you to try it for yourself. Imagine this simple scenario:

A client tells you about a rather complex solution they're excited about. It's a site where users can upload their own mp3 audio files and then hold them in a protected area where they can sell memberships so that others can have access to just their “library” of files. They want you to develop it.

Now, think about the first questions that comes to mind. What were they?

  • Have I built that before?
  • Do I know how to build that?
  • How hard is it to build it?
  • How much time would it take to build it?
  • What would I charge to build it?

Did you ask yourself these questions? Because if you did, you have fallen into the trap that I know a lot of us do.

We launch when we're done

We're asking about the possibility of creating a product. Logically, once it's complete, we'll think about launching it. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. It's a natural dynamic – build, then launch. But did you notice that in that process, we forget to ask a critical question?

Should instead of could

When you and I hear the product idea, we jump to the “could” questions. Could it be built? Could we build it? And from there, it's easy to start asking the rest of the questions above. And then it's easy to build the product. And then it's easy to launch it.

But we never asked the “should” questions.

  • Should it be built?
  • Should it be built now?
  • Should we be the ones who build it?
  • Should we build it now?

When we forget to ask the “should” questions and move straight to the “could” questions, we end up building (and often releasing) a product that could be before it's time.

Trust me, I know

To be clear, I've launched almost 100 products and I still make the mistake – regularly. It's my very nature to think of all the could questions. Should questions take discipline – of our minds, of our processes, and of our management. Trust me, I know. Today I spent a lot of time talking about an upcoming launch of a product that finally makes sense to release. The issue? We built it three years ago. Because we asked “could” instead of “should.”