This article is adapted from Evelyn Watts' talk at the Product-Led Summit, London 2019.

"'If you build it, they will come.'

This is the ideology that lies deep in the heart of any product company.

But, the closely-held nature of this belief is an intrinsic problem.


People don't care about your features just because they exist.

And, the obsession to build product does not always facilitate a better customer experience.  It can hinder your ability to progress. It prevents you from growing your business both outwards and upwards and aligning your goals with your customers.

Let's delve into the wider misconceptions that arise from this.

Misconception No. 1: Product led equates to product first.

Product first is not the same as product led.

You can tell if you're a product first company because your website most likely has a laundry list of features on it.

What you care about most is what you’ve built for your customer.

But, what your customer wants you to care about is the problem that you're going to solve for them.

We'll delve more into this later.

Misconception No. 2: One size fits all.

The product you have created will not always suit everyone.

How you talk to your children would not be the same way that you talk to your boss.

It’s important to shift your mindset and stop mass targeting functions in your product.

Misconception No. 3: The proof is in your product.

It's not.

The proof lies with your customers. They will tell you if your product solves their problem and they will tell you if you are being successful.

Changing our outlook

1) Explore the broader customer experience

Let’s go back to the recipe book.

Photo by Jason Briscoe / Unsplash

We can imagine the features that we have are ingredients in the end product. Adding more ingredients does not always make a tastier meal.

The features are not the product in the same way that the ingredients are not the meal.

It is not just about the food, either. How do you present that meal? Ultimately, what is the end experience?  Having a burger in a fast food joint is a very different experience than eating at a five star restaurant. The price is going to reflect this.

Take a look at the entire experience of the product. How can you market this? How do people consume it? How can you make them love it? How can you make these ingredients sing?

2) Problem solve for your customers

I currently work in a SaaS environment. We are developing all the time.

If you're releasing new features, but not explaining what they mean or why they will benefit the user, you're making your customers do the math and connect the dots in their head.

'What do I do with this?' 'Why should I care about this?' 'What problem is it solving for me?' 'I don't care how fast and new and shiny it is, make it meaningful for me.'

I previously joined a small company. They built performance management software. My job was to come in and reframe their products because the messaging on their website looked like a takeout menu. The customer didn't know what they needed.

The other challenge they were experiencing lay with their roadmap. It was not going to deliver any new features. They had two years of infrastructure retooling to deal with. So, there wasn't an opportunity to build the next product. They were instead working on the current one they had so it could scale.

Product Managers were frustrated because they couldn't show the value of what they were doing. The Sales team was worried that they weren't going to be able to sell the next new product. And, even our customers were asking, 'What am I paying for?'

They were paying for the software but they weren't going to get any new features for the next two years. And, they were paying for something that they weren't really using.

It needed an entire rethink. So, we took a cross functional team and we started shaking things out. We took all of these product features, all of this content, all of these services, and, like Lego, put it out on the table and started grouping all of these solutions together into problem areas.

We switched it from a product first approach to a problem first approach.

They still only had one product. But, they had a platform. There were capabilities that could solve their problems.

Before, we hadn't been talking about the problems we were solving. We were talking about the products that we had (or didn’t have). Switching to that mindset was an opportunity to reframe all we had to offer.

We now had the chance to make the customer’s lives easier and none of this had anything to do with new development. Starting feature first, and having your customer work out what the function does, just adds friction.

If you can help reframe the value of what you're already offering, and if you can solve new problems with the products that you already have, you're going to do yourself a huge favor moving forward.

You will help grow the product that you have as opposed to worrying about what you're going to build next.

3) Target your product and its marketing

I play Pokemon Go. My kids had me start and then it became a bit of a problem. I'm on level 34.  For those of you who don't know, it's a video game, where you want to capture a character by throwing a ball at it. In real life, not everyone's going to care and not everyone's going to want to play.

For us at Shopify, there lies a necessity to understand the grouping of our different audiences.

We have partners that build, people who are trying to start a brand new business,  people who are trying to expand into new markets. We have people who are just trying to shop.

We have to understand each group and we have to tackle their problems differently. We also need to be able to communicate with them in a way that resonates with them, because one message does not fit all.  

We're now at a stage where there's a million different merchants, in 175 countries. There are vastly different needs that we have to start unpacking and understanding because the one size fits all does not work.

4) Grasp the deeper problems facing your customer

Communication is key to measuring the success of your product. At Shopify we have an entire team of UX researchers.

You don't even need that.  You just need a phone, an email account, and most importantly, you need to be willing to talk to people.

Hold interviews, complete surveys, visit the customer in their place of work. Shift the conversation. You don't want to ask them what they want. You need to fully understand the problem that you're trying to solve.

I was doing sales enablement. And every salesperson wanted their own custom data sheet. I don't have 1000 hours in my day. And also, if I give you what you're asking for, it's not necessarily what you need. How can I understand the problem that you're trying to solve so we come to the right solution together?

It is paramount that you are able to deeply understand the job they're trying to get done, and that might not necessarily be what they asked for.

5) Look outwards

Don't just talk to your own current customer base, because those are customers you've acquired along the way.

Your product has evolved and changed. Imagine what your next customer is going to look like. What do they need? Ensure you're not just looking inside the building.
You need to obsess about what problems you solve and for who.  Leading from there, your product then becomes the mechanism by which you can achieve this.

6) Repackage what you have

Imagine that you can't build anything new. But, you have a platform that can be used to serve different types of audiences.

You can take the exact same product and slice it a different way and repackage it for someone else.

Focus on what that particular customer cares about right now. And then understand and anticipate what they're going to care about next.

7) Have empathy for your customers

Empathy is absolutely key.  

It's not just understanding how someone uses the product. It is understanding their business, so that you know what time is right for them to adopt it, or in what manner they need to be able to adopt it.

As a user, it is frustrating having to update your product. You have no idea what the update will bring. It's going to take 20 minutes to download. It interrupted your workflow. You were trying to do something else.

Now, you've added friction. Rather than helping your customer, you're actually hurting them.

You need to communicate the value of that feature, not just the functionality. How can you put that in the right context? How can you be sure you are focusing on your target audience?

Timing is everything. Just because you're done building does not mean your users are ready for it.

It comes back to knowing your customer inside out. If you succeed in this, the authenticity of your feature will shine through.

Finally, treasure your mealtimes

My husband makes me dinner all the time. He'll put together the ingredients, he has the right presentation.  He knows that I come home from a very hard day.  I get to drink wine. And I get to watch him cook. He has empathy for my day. And he's happy to  serve me this lovely dinner that is not always a 10 out of 10. And there's a reason for that because I was told if I always get a 10 out of 10, I would never appreciate it. So occasionally a two out of 10 is required. And that's when we say that it was made with love. With dinner, sometimes love can be an ingredient and luckily, I'm a very loyal customer.

This delivers the proof of a better experience. Your product won't necessarily always tell you that you hit the mark, but your customers will. Whether it's through reviews, whether it's through forums or communities, whether it's through interviews. The proof is not in the pudding, it’s in the eating."

Evelyn Watts leads Product Marketing for Shopify's e-commerce section of products. She's worked in a variety of roles, from engineering, to management to sales enablement.