What makes a thing good. I asked around.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 23.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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There’s a saying around my house about this, mostly used to poke fun at me. It started years ago. Upon encountering some product or service that showed virtue, I would proclaim it a “good product.” Obviously my kids picked up on it and would throw it back to me on various occasions like when riding our electric bike. “This is a good product, isn't it Dad.” A deconstruction of the thing’s virtues would follow.
Yes, I do love a good product and admire the people that make them. This week I had a couple of meetings that got me thinking more about what it takes to make something special. I reached out to a few smart people to help me understand it better.
You know it when you feel it
Good products are not software or technical things, they are all manner of things. They are restaurants and carrot peelers, stereos, face creams, bikes and coffee machines. Good products are definitely good hotels and good restaurants. I was at the Brooklyn DMV this week. It is certainly not a great product but it is better than it used to be. I used to think Netflix was a good product. I no longer do, not part of some bandwagonism, but simply because a good product needs a better signal to noise ratio.
A couple of years ago, AirPods were the good product of the year in my house. I remember the first time I bought a pair, pulling them out of the thoughtful little box and opening the case, at which point my iPhone instantly recognized the connection with the care and helpfulness of a good friend. Perfect product. Thank you little friend.
I was grateful for comforting Covid furry Birkenstocks last year. That’s a good product with a bit of vibe, also at a respectable price point.
It is pretty much unanimous among my people that soup dumplings are a great product. Singular, understandable, always so satisfying. While much can be said about the quality of a dumpling in Taipei, there’s something to be said for the girth and juiciness of the American made variety at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown.
Cosmetics are an interesting category for good products given their ability to combine functional and emotional benefits. My mother thinks La Mer is a good product with transformative powers. She also refuses to buy it because it is ridiculously expensive.
I love products that offer delight and value. I hesitate to share this, but I ordered a pair of All Terrain Crocs (pictured below) from Huckberry this week (a very good ecommerce product, btw). They are a great product at $55. Simple, comfortable, breathable. A thoughtful strap, used at your discretion, enables more aggressive pursuits. A statement of something — of giving up or not caring or second-chance timing — but a nice little statement nonetheless and, again, very good price point.
While the very best products are wholly authentic, this is not a requirement. Many, many things knock off other things and are still good products. But authenticity always holds a special designation. So does familiarity and its cousin nostalgia.
The utility promise of a good product falls across a spectrum of functional to emotional — air fryers to Air Jordans. The best deliver utility with delight — a surprise or twist or something unexpected. Delight is a key notion. So is taste. While both are subjective, this will never excuse a product from not delivering on them.
The “product guy”
In professional circles, we talk alot about “product” and “product people” now, terms that would have been much more common in industrial design than the broader, “everything we make including software and experiences” way that I use them. Silicon Valley popularized the language and it spread as software became fundamental to all industries and consumer experiences.
Product leadership has become something of a badge of honor inside of modern organizations where you will often hear someone proudly proclaim, “Ya, I am a product guy.” Which usually means you are separated from just regular project managers, technical people or executives because you hold a magic spark of insight. You see what others do not. You possess a rare empathetic ability to channel the unmet needs of the users into software. BTW, I do acknowledge the sexist connotations of the term which surely has bro-ey startup culture origins.
Being a “product guy” is now a designation on par with graduating from Harvard or passing the bar, but there is no real official professional designation that makes it official. Product bonafides must come from a proven history of making good stuff and informal agreement that you are worthy of the title. The designation has surpassed the lowly MBA as a badge of honor. MBA’s serve product lords and hope to become them. Lawyers protect them. Engineers power them to greatness.
I was sitting with a product team this week thinking about this stuff. We have a complex problem to solve, essentially building a system to connect creators with audiences using Web3, which is tough given that everybody already uses Web2 social tools to communicate right now. It felt like we were reaching the limits of the requirements gathering, that no amount of additional analysis was going to reveal some essential truth. We were stuck defining a list of features to address needs, not imagining a real product that looked at a problem in a new way. At some point the process would have to depart from deductive rationality and tap a deeper intuition. Like it's just you and a mound of clay asking to be shaped into something original and singular. It’s that creative pressure that is so rewarding, and often terrifying.
Read to the end for a Good Job Alert from Forbes Advisor.
There’s a big difference between evolving an existing product and creating a new one. The former comes with data, usage patterns and customer feedback and competitive data points. Your job is to analyze a system and make it incrementally better. Greenfield design is different because you have to make something you’ve never seen before. There is much to be said for a well articulated creative process orchestrated by a competent product leader, there is no substitute for intuition inside of the lonely pursuit of creation.
I texted one of my other favorite product people, someone who has led the creative function of a very successful unicorn and he had a bunch of smart things to say about this: “Everyone is trading in numbers and not ideas because it's the common language. There is no difference between art and design. Just a different intention.” He went on to emphasize the connections at the heart of the craft: “A great product designer understands the value of their intuition. He or she needs business acumen. And is curious enough about technology to have an opinion about how things are built. Or what can be built. It’s feeling matched with the skill to realize it. Like all creative works. And in this case it’s deployed technically. You can’t make a marble statue without understanding marble.”
The product CEO
I’ve always thought that the head of any great company must have a strong product inclinations. So I reached out to a CEO of a large media company, someone whose product brain I admire. We spoke about the role of CEO in product. His perspective, informed by many years inside of product-driven media companies, made a lot of sense to me: “There are lots of types of CEOs and a CEO has to do a lot of other things but every CEO must be a product person or have a deep trusting relationship with someone who is. The alternative is to try to manage consensus around everything and if you do this you are obviously screwed.”
He added that job one when joining a company is to dissect it from a product POV. You must dig deep into the customer's behavior. Understand why they are there, what they are doing and how you are helping them achieve what they want to do. He cautions teams: “Stop thinking so hard. Find the best product in the category and copy it, then add flourishes,” adding, “Taste is important, but the key is understanding how the thing works. The entire value chain inside of a company is a product. Product managers are the hub of a company, everything else is a spoke.”
Jack Dorsey would surely agree. He is the poster child for the cult of product person as CEO, post Steve Jobs. In 2015 he returned triumphantly to liberate Twitter, for a very long time seemingly ascribing to the philosophy that good product design is not doing anything rash to undermine the essence of the product.
Sometimes, if you are lucky, as in the case of Twitter, the initial thing you create gets shaped by a user community to become something unexpected. The early knock was nobody needed to hear you broadcast what you had for lunch. Then it became a real-time global media channel. The lesson here. Find that one central thing, then follow the community.
Steve Jobs is obviously the Tom Brady of good product. Or, better perhaps, Brady is the Jobs of good quarterbacking. Either way, both GOATS. There are a lot of things I put in the good product category but if i am being honest, in my lifetime, Apple will definitely hold the lifetime achievement award. No other brand comes close to the amount of time and joy I have received from Apple products. It’s pretty safe to say, starting with a Mac Plus over 30 years ago, I have spent more time with Apple products than anything else in my life. There has been a couple of duds through the years, the closest probably being the Newton, but even that I cherished briefly, a sign of evolutionary ambition. It should come as no surprise that the most valuable company in the world is the world's greatest product company.
A product is a promise
Not satisfied with my understanding, I turned to the Queen of Product, an accomplished creative person whose good taste is matched with an unending desire to scratch the good product itch. Her response was simple. A good product “articulates a need and delivers against it.” I wondered why it needed to articulate the need. She explained: “The why. The thing I hadn’t seen before. Apple did that. No one woke up saying ‘fuck me I need a personal computer rfn.’ Nike did that too. ‘If you have a body you are an athlete.’ Running shoes. Literal mass market running shoes for actual running. Not a thing before. Didn’t know we needed them.”
This was important. How we position and communicate the product can be as important as the thing itself.
I finally got to the good product master, a person that has dedicated his professional life to product connoisseurship. Good product to him embodies the Japanese art of Kaizen:
Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning "change for the better" or "continuous improvement." It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process.
The Ford F150 is Kaizen. So is the iPhone (Apple is so good at persistence), the Airstream trailer, the Porsche 911.
He added unlikely perspective that sometimes flawed products are good products. It is their flaws that endear us to them. The Saab 900 came to mind, a glorious specimen that could have been nominated for best supporting actor in Japanese Oscar winner “Drive My Car.”
Or the first iMac, the horrible multi-colored blob with a goofy cd rom tray and shitty monitor that ushered in Apple’s rebirth.
Now, this is a good theory, and at the extreme it propels a product into some hall of fame of disasters that give it deep cultural resonance. Like the AMC Gremlin or more recently, the Pontiac Aztek, which is the greatest SUV thing because it is also the worst product design known to humankind. For the record, I would love to have one, with or without the dog door option.
Or, the Eames Lounger, the ultimate in dude decor, that doesn’t actually recline, and instead insists that a fixed 15% angle is the “correct” position. Which is, perhaps, less a flaw than a case study in doing less. Afterall, he insisted, good product is about restraint.
Making people better
We continued to trade examples. I insisted the humble oyster was a great product that only nature could make. He countered with CVS Extracare Card because he liked the discounts. I offered Nicorette 2mg Mini Mints because they are tiny and prevent me from smoking. He surprised me with Roku and the Delta One business class seat, the Apple Notes app and the Patagonia Nano Puff, “The perfect jacket,” he said. I was stuck on food: the banana, a christmas orange (easy peeling), Tabasco, a good omelet or warm carbonara. A lemon. Tylenol.
We finished by agreeing on Helvetica, a most perfect and enduring of typefaces.
But he added one more point, perhaps the most important of our discussion: “Good products propel people. They make people better. Or they make them feel better about something.” That feels about right.
Which reminded me of another friend who thinks Napoleon's hat (like a real collectible one) is a good product, both for its potential to appreciate, and, I am assuming, what it says about its owner. I am sure it started life by offering solid sun and rain protection. Afterall, every good product begins with a simple promise.
So you want to be a product person too? I encourage it. Beware of the endless mumbo jumbo about its pursuit. Google (still a good product) “how to make a good product” and you will find endless frameworks on how you must channel empathy, bridge utility and ease of use, ultimately pleasure, and, atop of the pyramid, make something that facilitates human connection. Many of these charts are thoughtfully designed in colorful, easy to read diagrams because they were designed by people who think about this stuff alot and are, afterall, product people themselves. How could a self-respecting product person make a shitty chart? Leave that to bankers.
The simplest advice is from the designer above: “Never forget that this is about turning intuition into something real. That intuition comes from observation and courage.”
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
Good job alert
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PS: I am out of town this week so the links are sparse. I will leave you with this. Severance is my favorite show of the year. Last week’s episode featured this wonderful Paul Anka song and it was perfect. Fun fact, it’s an very early example of branded content, originating in an ad for Kodak. Both videos below…