The caveat of designing a product out of an all-purpose technology solution

The purpose of a product is to solve a specific problem for a particular demographic of users. A word processor is for typing letters, papers, and reports. A spreadsheet is for making spreadsheets and charts. Sometimes users decide to use their tools differently, for example, they use a spreadsheet to organize words in a table rather than building a table in their word processor, but they are usually aware that they are unconventionally using their tool.

Specializing a product for a specific task and demographic has another purpose; it makes it easier to find a product-market fit, which is essential if the product design team is developing a product for the first time. Products evolve out of experiments and general purpose prototypes.

Facebook emerged from an app called, Am I Hot Or Not, aimed at university students. The iOS and MacOS operating systems grew out of NextSTEP operating system, developed by NeXT Computer Ltd. This was the company founded by Steve Jobs after he left Apple; he later returned and rescued Apple from bankruptcy with the technologies they had developed at NeXT Computer. Android Inc. developed the Android operating system with a focus on Digital cameras first before Google acquired them and used the OS in their smartphones.

The search for the product-market fit drives a product development team to productize their prototype into a minimum viable product for a specific purpose and targeted at a specific demographic.

They meet the sweet spot when:

  1. their users can identify what the product does
  2. it solves the users’ particular problem
  3. a large number of users are having with the same problem
  4. they are going to choose the product from this vendor
  5. they are going to pay for it too!

There is a caveat to productizing a universally designed solution. From the point of productization, it has no other option but to succeed or fail. Once a product fails, it is very difficult to revive it and convince everyone to use it. Sure the product designers can do refinements in every iteration, but they will be working within the boundaries of the product’s purpose to solve a specific problem aimed at a particular group of users. Sadly, or sometimes, fortunately, most products die and don’t enjoy widespread success.

Sometimes adding uncertainty to a technology solution can prolong its life. You can do that by keeping the technology at an embryonic stage so it would have the potential to be used for solving a large array of problems. Platforms, frameworks, and operating systems are good examples.

Linux is an open source operating system. What it does is essentially to tell computer hardware how to be a computer. Engineers ship it on Desktop computers, servers, Android phones, and all kinds of hardware. There is an entire industry developed on using and customizing Linux as the infrastructure for apps and middleware.

WordPress is a generic blogging app which can be customized for marketing, delivering news, and writing journals. There is an entire industry developed around customizing and specializing WordPress. Freelancers, small companies, and major news agencies use WordPress to publish content.

There comes a time in every product development team to decide whether to productize a technology or keep it as a general purpose solution. Sometimes the market isn’t yet ready for a new technology solution, so an all-purpose and flexible architecture can prolong the life of the technology. Sometimes there is a unique opportunity to take a shot at reaching product-market fit. That’s when you decide to productize and specialize your general purpose technology for specific business logic and user experience to achieve product-market fit. It also means that your product is now destined to either succeed or die trying.

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