“Good Enough” Product Management

by Brian Blum on October 29, 2009

Flip MinoWhy has the Flip video camera (and now its key competitor the new iPod Nano) been such as a roaring success? An article in the September issue of Wired suggests it’s part of a technology trend to build “good enough” products.

In terms of growth (if not total numbers), the little Flip is beating the pants off full-featured digital camcorders from Sony, Canon and the like (sales at Flip are up 200% this year even in the recession). The video on the Flip is indisputably crappy; the camera itself has none of the bells and whistles of its bigger cousins (there isn’t even a proper optical zoom); even the view screen is tiny.

But, as Wired senior editor Robert Capps writes, the camera does the minimum of what consumers want: it fits in a pocket and it quickly uploads videos to YouTube. And at under $200, it’s “good enough.”

The Wired article presents a number of other examples, from “eLawyering” to reduced expectations from military hardware. The most familiar, though, is the de-evolution of music quality.

Even today, old-fashioned records are still considered to deliver the highest-fidelity sound. Of course, by the end of the 80s, these were nearly entirely replaced by CDs, which purists derided for years.

But the real change is the MP3 which is clearly inferior in sound quality. But, again, it’s “good enough.” Music lovers can store thousands of songs on a mobile device and easily share or download the small files.

Even more: in an informal poll conducted over the last six years by a Stanford University professor, young people are increasingly stating that MP3s sound “better” than CDs, because they’ve become accustomed to the distortion found in compressed audio. If that isn’t “good enough,” I don’t know what is.

So what does this have to do with product management, the theme of this blog? The same trend in end user products has crept into the product planning and strategy phase. It used to be that you needed significant capital to properly launch a startup (we raised just under $1 million in the first round for Neta4 in 1998 – and that was considered on the low side).

It’s much easier today for a couple of talented engineers to cobble together a working beta (and isn’t everything beta for years nowadays?) quickly and with little or no investment. When you’re coding in hurry, there’s no time for product management. You post it and then crowd source changes in near real time.

The problem is that this approach has led to a delge of half-baked sites and services that nevertheless get covered on TechCrunch and other review sites only to eventually enter the inglorious “dead pool.”

There are two schools of thought here: virtually ship it “good enough” and iterate, or get it right before launching, the thought being the old adage that you only have one chance to make a first impression.

It may seem that I’m arguing for the latter approach, but truthfully, they both can work (and they both can fail). For agile companies in a hurry, I’d recommend that as soon as they do receive funding (and after all, other than a few viral Facebook, Twitter and iPhone apps, it’s pretty hard to make it to the big time without investor backing), they back up and start the product management tasks they didn’t have time for the first time out – planning, strategy, specifications, prioritization, roadmap, business intelligence, competitive analysis and more – with an aim towards hiring a full time product manager as soon as possible.

There are some great companies out there that have taken unorthodox ways on the path towards success. “Good enough” technology is here to stay. That doesn’t mean that product management necessarily has to follow suit.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gary Heller October 30, 2009 at 5:33 am

Pretty Good
By Charles Osgood, CBS NEWS
From “The Osgood File“, ©1986, CBS Inc.

There once was a pretty good student.
Who sat in a pretty good class
And was taught by a pretty good teacher.
Who always let pretty good pass.

He wasn’t terrific at reading;
He wasn’t a whiz-bang at math;
But for him education was leading
Straight down a pretty good path.

He didn’t find school too exciting,
But he wanted to do pretty well.
And he did have some trouble with writing,
And nobody had taught him to spell.

When doing arithmetic problems,
Pretty good was regarded as fine;
Five and five needn’t always add up to be ten.
A pretty good answer was nine.

The pretty good student was happy
With the standards that were in effect.
And nobody thought it was sappy
If his answers were not quite correct.

The pretty good class that he sat in
Was part of a pretty good school.
And the student was not an exception;
On the contrary, he was the rule.

The pretty good school that he went to
Was right there in a pretty good town.
And nobody there ever noticed
He could not tell a verb from a noun.

The pretty good student, in fact, was
A part of a pretty good mob,
And the first time he knew what he lacked was
When he looked for a pretty good job.

It was then, when he sought a position,
He discovered that life can be tough,
And he soon had a sneaky suspicion
Pretty good might not be good enough.

The pretty good town in our story
Was part of a pretty good state
Which had pretty good aspirations
and prayed for a pretty good fate.

There was once a pretty good nation.
Pretty proud of the greatness it had.
But which learned much too late.
If you want to be great,
Pretty good is, in fact, pretty bad.

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