Ostensibly, building a product implies creating value through addition. But each extension of a product comes with a risk of unintended subtractions. Some ways to fuck up a product are obvious, like introducing horrific bugs. Other changes create tensions that lead to injuries down the road. The nature and maturity of a product influences the company’s tolerance of risk. E.g., in 2014 Facebook changed their motto from “Move fast and break things” to “Move fast with stable infra[structure].” But all companies, conservative or aggressive, should at least be aware of the particular pitfalls they face while pushing forward. Towards this end, I created a map of the dangers facing products builders.
The product triangle, with vertices for technology, users, and business, is a device for representing the interplaying dynamics surrounding a product. Within this Map of Ways to Fuck Up a Product, each danger is adjacent to the affected vertices of the product triangle. Six of the dangers involve breaking connections between two of the product vertices. Three of the dangers are “tensions” resulting from competing forces tugging at a vertex.
Breaking the connection between technology and users
These problems prevent users from accessing or understanding the product’s value.
Bugs. The technology doesn’t work as intended, in severe cases blocking critical user flows.
User experience flaws. Even when a product functions properly, its value can be obscured by design problems.
Breaking the connection between users and the business
These problems prevent a company from converting product usage into business value.
Inability to monetize. Even when users embrace a product they may not (1) be willing to pay for it or (2) be considered valuable by advertisers.
Growth engine failure. The user base is too small to create sufficient value due to lack of organic growth measures (e.g, viral mechanisms, SEO) and the cost of paid acquisition is too high.
Breaking the connection between the business and technology
These problems prevent the company from adequately producing the product technology.
Insufficient budget. It’s too expensive to build the technology that customers want.
Execution failure. The product team, due to failed process or technical snafus, is unable to build the technology within business parameters.
Tensions at each vertex, left unresolved, lead to the broken connections with neighboring vertices as described above.
Technology tension. The combination of business parameters and customer desires is technologically insoluble; e.g., resulting in worsening technical debt.
User tension. The actions necessary to monetize the product are at odds with the user experience. A prime example are advertising-driven companies where the needs of advertisers (to grab attention) clash with the needs of users (to consume content without distraction).
Business tension. The value captured by the company and the cost of producing the product is out of alignment with business expectations. There is business tension when (1) a mature company is losing money when it is expected to be profitable; or (2) the progress of an early stage company (perhaps measured in audience growth rate) falls short of investor expectations.
There are strategies for avoiding the dangers described above. For insight into how to not fuck up a product see my posts A Visual Vocabulary for Product Building, The Product Management Triangle, A Map of White Space for Product Managers, and Principles of Startup Team Design.