Product teams make dozens of decisions each day in their quest to create great products. But each decision isn’t made in a vacuum. Instead, the details of the particular situation are considered within the larger context of how it fits into the product’s big picture.
That big picture is shaped by a few things: corporate strategy, market dynamics, and product principles. While the first two factors are often determined by outside forces, defined product principles are driven by the team itself.
What is a Product Principle?
Product principles are the core DNA of the product. They’re the fundamental values that underly every action, decision, or move the product team makes.
Much like a North Star metric, every choice can be checked against the product principles. This ensures it stays in line with the values the product team is trying to embrace and maintain.
Who is it for?
Product principles are for product teams. They’re the guideposts that ensure that they stay true to the ideals the team has set out for themselves.
It’s likely that the motivation or rationale for decisions will be questioned or need further clarification. Product teams should always be able to point back to a particular product principle (or two) justifying the move. If they can’t then there’s a valid reason to reconsider whether it’s the right call.
What is it not?
A common mistake is conflating the company’s mission, product vision, and goals with product principles. While some product-centric companies may incorporate product principles into their mission statement, they aren’t the same thing.
Product principles also aren’t metrics, KPIs, or targets. Those measurements may ensure products fulfill the goals of those principles, but they’re too granular and transitory.
A product principle is never “reached.” It’s always there as an ever-present beacon.
Product requirements are not the same as principles, either. You don’t build principles, they guide what you decide to build and how to build it. They also aren’t design principles. Using bold colors and navigational cues and the like are great things to define and follow but are again too specific and much more about implementation.
Why are Product Principles Useful?
Product principles offer product teams plenty of benefits.
Things are always changing. Companies scale. Employees come and go. Features evolve or get shelved. But product principles make sure the same core values remain intact regardless of the situation or personnel involved.
Getting everyone on the same page isn’t easy, especially when things are moving fast and growing. However, if everyone follows the same product principles, then there’s less chance of someone going rogue unintentionally. They’re also a great way to quash squabbles and arguments within the team. If written well, the principles should settle any disputes with no hurt feelings.
Product principles should guide everything the product team does. If the team finds themselves lost in the details or wondering why they’re doing something irrelevant or out of the ordinary, they can look to the product principles for direction and validation. And if this detour doesn’t match up with the principles, they can evaluate whether they should be doing it at all.
What are the Major Components of a Product Principle?
Every product principle requires some of these ingredients for it to be functional and useful:
There’s no room for vague statements and ambiguous platitudes in product principles. When someone refers to a principle in the context of making a particular decision, they need to be able to quickly determine if their decision is in line with the principle.
Principles open to interpretation don’t help anyone. People need rules and guard rails, not another excuse for debate and equivocation.
Everyone knows some of the famous mantras from leading companies, such as “don’t be evil” and “think different.” While revolutionary, they’re also very generic and applicable to many products or organizations. Helpful product principles shed the generic tag lines and embrace the particulars of their product. This makes them relatable and actionable, even if they don’t make a great bumper sticker.
Product teams prioritize all the time, and a product principle should aid in that endeavor. The principles should clearly state what is most important. With this spelled out, options can be ranked accordingly. Items that don’t aid the advancement of one of the key product priorities can be tabled for those that do.
Product principles shouldn’t be so long that they require their own manual. Their power is serving as a continual quick reference and level set (not a detailed philosophical treatise). They should consist of simple words and short sentences, and there shouldn’t be more than a handful. Anything more, and they become unwieldy and impractical for their intended purpose.
Product teams don’t exist in a static environment, so you should revisit and revise product principles as needed. These changes may arise due to product maturity and shift in corporate goals or new insights from customers and competitors. At the same time, these principles shouldn’t fluctuate so often that they lose their value. An update should be an unusual and well-considered event, not a regular occurrence.
Product principles should connect with employees at an emotional level. It should get them motivated, excited, and committed to the mission and goals of the organization. When done well, these principles transform work from a job to a calling and take a product from “that thing I work on every day” to “that thing that I’m passionate about.”
Examples of Product Principles
Gusto is a platform for small businesses to manage their payroll and employee benefits. To devise their product principles, they held a company retreat and solicited ideas from employees. At the end of the day, they narrowed it down to the five things they would want to tell a new employee on their first day:
- Show users how much we love them.
- Be opinionated. Build the future you strongly believe in.
- Only do things that are worth doing really, really well.
- We are sherpas. Make sure the team gets to where they want to go.
- Listen. Great ideas can come from anywhere.
This e-wallet company settled on three product principles to guide their decision-making:
- We are not a bank. We disrupt banking.
- A sense of security and privacy is key.
- Merchants are the gateways to our customers, so our products must “wow” the merchant.
They put their principles into action. At one point, they had to decide whether to make it easier for users to see their CVC number or require an extra step to reveal it. With their second principle in mind, they opted for the latter option. They prioritized security over simplicity since that’s a guiding principle of the product.
Intercom stuck to its core values while growing the team by relying on product principles. They are similar to those you might find in The Agile Manifesto, such as “we optimize for face-to-face collaboration” and “many small steps are better than bigger launches.”
“We have three principles that are the foundation on which everything else that we do is built. The first principle is that we think big but start small,” says Intercom’s Paul Adams. “This means thinking about a big vision and then ruthlessly cutting the scope so we can ship. Because our next principle is ship to learn, which means shipping as fast as possible so we can learn as fast as possible. The third principle is to design from first principles—to start with a blank sheet of paper instead of copying a competitor or assuming the best solution exists in the world already.”
Touch Surgery is a mobile, digital healthcare product. In an industry that hasn’t always adopted the latest trends in technology, the product had to push boundaries and resonate with customers without going too fast and losing them. They’ve adopted six product principles:
- Be secure by design
- Solve known — and unknown — user problems, seamlessly
- Be self-explanatory
- Integrate and interoperate
- Engage and inspire users
How to Start Building Your Own Product Principles
Defining product principles should begin with the company’s mission. The product should be to advance and echo that mission, so it’s a good place to start.
Next, it’s time to find the “big things” that matter. Ignore the details and concentrate on what’s most important (which is something you can borrow from project management principles). Principles shouldn’t be down in the details. If you don’t have the fundamentals nailed down, everything else could take the product in the wrong direction.
The team can then brainstorm about all the tough decisions they had to make where the right answer wasn’t obvious from the mission statement alone. This is where the principles come from and fill in the gaps between the 10,000-foot vision and the day-to-day guide for everyone in the trenches.
Now comes the distillation into a single, short sentence. For example, at Patientco, one of their product principles is “We execute on quality opportunities with a global view.” This is a boiled-down encapsulation of the fact that they take input from lots of places (internal, customers, prospects, and the market) and validate them quickly without forsaking deep analysis of the opportunity.
After coming up with a list of principles, they can then be whittled down until there are just three to five left. If possible/necessary, some with overlap can be combined to get things down to a handful of memorable, meaningful principles.
Product principles also play a significant role in creating a Product or Agile Manifesto if that’s another organizational goal.
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