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Chasing Two Rabbits

A Swiss Army Knife is undoubtedly a useful tool, so much so that it has become the “go-to” item when referring to a product that can “do anything” or solve many needs. However, when we closely examine a Swiss Army Knife, it also becomes clear that none of the included items are a “best in class” for the intended purpose.

The classic Swiss Army Knife comes with 7 functions: Blade (small), Scissors, Key Ring, Tweezers, Toothpick, Nail File, Screwdriver (2.5mm).

It’s certainly something that is worth throwing on your keys or into a pocket or bag if you want a light general use tool “just in case,” but depending on the use-case or need, are the tradeoffs worth it? If you need a larger knife are you at a disadvantage because you chose this product? The screwdriver likely works in a pinch, but it’s an arduous task that is clearly better completed by another option.

When we’re developing products it’s easy to fall into a pattern of Swiss Army Knife style decisions. It’s likely that a smart person will come along with a smart idea for our products. It’s easy to say “Yes!” when smart people bring smart ideas. The problem is that we also likely work with multiple smart people, who each may have their own ideas; eventually a consistent pattern of “Yes!” answers will mean that we wake up one day having no idea what our product does or who it’s for.

Do More by Doing Less

As counter-intuitive as it might seem up front, I have found that it’s often much easier to do more when doing less. Instead of agreeing to every smart idea or adopting each new proposal that comes our way, we need to maintain a steady focus on our product and teams mission and goals, even when that means not pursuing an interesting or exciting new idea or technology.

Many newer fitness trackers have been ditching their screens. The Whoop tracker has an entire page on their site dedicated to what makes it different. The CEO even did an interview discussing why they intentionally chose not to pursue a screen. “Once you have a screen you tell the time, once you tell the time you’re a watch.” Regardless of your feelings on the device or their philosophy, by ditching the screen and focusing on the actual health monitoring aspects of the device they have been able to intensely dedicate all of their resources to their goal to be a “best-in-class” health monitoring device.

When working on a product, the best thing I think a team can do is to really understand and continually reinforce themselves towards their goals, towards their desired outcomes. Whenever a new idea comes up, or someone suggests a new feature or function, bring the team together and evaluate that idea against your outcomes. Is it going to help achieve the outcome? Is it going to help move the needle for your users and your business? If you can’t confidently answer yes to those questions you can’t say yes to the idea. This is not an indication of a bad idea, but rather a reaffirmation and rededication to and from your team, that in order to provide the best product to your users and the business you need to stay focused on what you’re doing now.

Good Product, Great Product

There are a lot of good products in the world, I’d even be willing to generously claim most products are good. Good products don’t win customers for life, good products don’t pull customers away from other good (or great) products. Adding more good features to a good product does not make it great, and often times can end up having a net negative effect if the feature is more additive than improvement.

The “AI” boom of the last year or so is the perfect example of this concept. There are a multitude of companies and product slapping “AI” onto the product whether it needs to be there or not. I don’t need ChatGPT on a bicycle for example. Other products might make more sense, a device for cooking that uses “AI” or machine learning to adapt and learn how I like to cook is a more logical and deeply integrated solution to a potential problem. Similarly, something like a recipe book application that can learn what recipes I like and recommend similar items or a weekly menu based on my catalog sounds fantastic.

The main difference between between these ideas is how they consider and integrate the new technology into their mission and goals. An “AI” bicycle screams “we added AI for VC money,” there is not a clear advantage over any other bicycle when the goal of a bike is to exercise or commute. Meanwhile my fictional recipe book proposes a real solution to a common user need within the same space. It involves the product team knowing what the goal of their customers is, and creating a feature that adds meaningful value to them. This is what makes a great product.

If you want to create lasting meaningful products, dig in and dedicate your time, energy, and focus to a narrow set of goals. Clearly identify what is most important to your users and relentlessly filter out anything that does not move you towards those goals. As the proverb goes: “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”

Adam Sedwick

I work on Design systems and Advocate for Accessibility on the web.



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