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Amazon, arguably the biggest success story of the internet age, just surged past a membership of 50 million Prime subscribers. The e-retailer not only survived the dot-com crash, making it one of the few online properties to do so, but it has only grown stronger since, becoming one of the world’s largest retailers, online or off. That’s not to say, however, that Amazon’s journey has been without turbulence.
Once the ecommerce juggernaut came to dominate retail, it set its sights on consumer tech. First off the line was Amazon’s Kindle ereader — a smash hit — closely followed by Kindle Fire, which amazingly put Amazon in second place for Android web traffic. For a while, it seemed Amazon could do no wrong.
Then came the Fire Phone. Amazon’s attempt to break into the smartphone market was, by all accounts, a disaster. Features the company had thought were game changers were ridiculed by critics, and Amazon’s flagship phone quickly — but not quietly — fizzled out. So what happened? How could Amazon go so wrong with the Fire Phone when its siblings were so successful?
While Amazon got burned for multiple reasons, two problems lit the Fire Phone ablaze before it even reached the starting line. First, Amazon prioritized the wrong features, favoring flashy ideas over useful core features. Second, it timed the release poorly, trying to force its proprietary operating system into a seven-year-old market that had already decided there was room for only two.
For Amazon, however, perhaps the greatest sting — even more so than the burned profits themselves — was that its flop was preventable. Those two fatal mistakes that heralded its downfall didn’t have to happen at all. With the Fire Phone, Amazon’s grand failing wasn’t in innovation or vision; it was in product strategy. To avoid repeating Fire Phone’s mistakes, entrepreneurs must learn the art of . . . the product road map.
Three deadly sins product road maps may have
Unfortunately, product road maps are often misunderstood. The road map is a vital part of product development and, if done correctly, can save companies from a rude awakening upon the product’s release. Time and time again, these three road-mapping sins inadvertently torch promising products:
Sin 1: Seeing the road map as a starting point. No matter what the product, creators feel pressure to reach launch day as soon as possible. But preliminary work isn’t a luxury; it’s critical to understanding users’ pain points, alternative solutions and product differentiators before the road map is ever written.
To create a good one, host a strategy workshop. Use it to identify the problem being solved and to understand the end user. Don’t forget to select success metrics and perform a competitive analysis.
Next, conduct design sprints, a series of rapid problem-solving sessions used by Uber, Nest, Medium and others to gather critical insights and feedback from users. In as little as one week, design sprints can reveal whether product features will resonate with users, ensuring the product is built not on presumptions but on real-world evidence. Fire Phone failed to test risky assumptions; therefore, it embarrassed the company and wasted millions in development dollars.
Sin 2: Being agile to a fault. Now popular worldwide, agile methodology encourages practitioners to “move fast and break things.” While this mentality certainly has its place, it is possible to be too agile when road-mapping.
When you create a road map, there’s no substitute for high-level planning. Without an overarching plan, agile sprints become scattered and ineffective. People are constantly developing small things and running tests without creating the larger vision needed to focus their efforts.
In order to create an overall road-mapping strategy, understand the different types of product road maps. There’s the agile road map, a short-term road map that prescribes a plan for creating a product’s highest-priority features within a matter of weeks.
There’s the release road map, a mid-term road map that packages multiple agile maps for easier analysis. This road map is great for thinking three to nine months ahead to a major release.
Last, there’s the product life cycle road map, the highest-level and most flexible of the three. Comprised of several release maps, this multiyear map is meant to account for changing market conditions, new user feedback and changing business needs
For week-to-week development work, nothing beats the agile road map. It must, however, be a part of a larger plan. Use release and life cycle maps to keep the big picture in mind throughout development.
Sin 3: Taking a “one-and-done” mentality. Product managers often take a one-and-done mentality to product road-mapping — they create a road map for the MVP and forget it for future iterations. Why? Because they’re often rewarded more for getting a product to market than for iterating on it, biasing them toward that initial launch-phase road map.
Unfortunately, this often creates a “build it and they will come” mindset, which prevents entrepreneurs from changing the product as competition shifts and technology improves. Software products are rarely “done,” so be on the lookout for new features and optimization opportunities. Don’t fight or ignore them. Embrace change and adjust your road map.
Think of road maps as product insurance. Consider that, in terms of employee time, road maps have a price. But, in exchange for that price, entrepreneurs gain peace of mind. Road maps ensure that product features are thoughtfully developed and iterated on. (Need a model? Yeti’s free product road map template and guide can speed the process along.)
So, no, product insurance isn’t cheap. But building something that your users will love is priceless.