Design Process10 minute read

5 Signs Your Product Strategy Is Broken—and How Designers Can Help Fix It

A good product strategy aligns team efforts, cuts costs, and encourages long-lasting conflict resolution. Three Toptal product design experts discuss how product strategies get derailed and what designers can do to help get things back on track.

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

A good product strategy aligns team efforts, cuts costs, and encourages long-lasting conflict resolution. Three Toptal product design experts discuss how product strategies get derailed and what designers can do to help get things back on track.

Toptalauthors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.
Christian Adolphus
Verified Expert in Design
5 Years of Experience

Christian is a product designer, product owner, user researcher, and Webflow developer. He led the design team at Chaka, a financial solutions platform, and worked as the founding product designer at SquadPal. His product experience spans B2B, B2C, and SaaS enterprise software.

Featured Experts

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Milos is a product manager with more than 5 years of experience in finding creative solutions to product and company goals. He has built, reshaped, and grown numerous digital products in the healthtech, fintech, edtech, IP, HR, and HSE industries.
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Austine is a UI/UX designer with more than 5 years of digital product design experience. He specializes in building responsive minimum viable products (MVPs) for B2B, B2C, SaaS, and data visualization platforms.

A product strategy is a roadmap for developing and delivering a product to market. It enables alignment between product management, project management, and product design, and ensures that the product supports business objectives. Designers may not be responsible for developing the product strategy, but their work and successes are inevitably impacted by it, especially if they work in growth-driven and lean environments.

As a product designer who has built several web and mobile solutions on cross-functional product teams, I know the signs of a failing product strategy. In this article, I share those red flags and discuss with other Toptal experts how designers can help their teams overcome those shortcomings.

Red Flag No. 1: Lacking a Clear Product Vision

The most important consideration when crafting a product strategy is the product vision. A robust and well-defined product vision helps teams set an ultimate goal, provides a sense of purpose, creates alignment, and avoids strategy problems from the outset. When issues do arise, the product vision acts as a north star, guiding teams back to base.

The product vision is the long-term objective for the product and can be defined through a product vision statement that communicates the product’s goals to stakeholders. For example, eBay’s vision statement for commerce contains “enabled by people, powered by technology, and open to everyone.” In contrast, bad vision statements generate confusion for teams and stakeholders, and lack clear focus and direction for the business.

Without a clear product vision, it is hard for anyone (business owners, developers, designers) to see the big picture. Teams may end up changing course while disagreeing on how best to move forward. So how do you ensure that everyone is heading toward the same destination?

Product Strategy Solution: Measure Your Product’s Success

A product vision should be defined from the outset. However, to keep a product team on the right track, the product vision must be revisited and assessed throughout the product life cycle. These small adjustments often lead to significant improvements.

As the product grows and markets change, teams must continuously measure a product’s success to avoid a stagnant product vision. This is where product success metrics enter the picture.

Product success metrics provide objective insights that help a company forecast a product's earning potential and measure its engagement performance. For instance, customer lifetime value is a formula that predicts how much revenue someone will generate during their time as a paying customer, while bounce rate measures how many people leave a site or app after visiting a single page. Generally speaking, they are measured by the product manager. However, as a product designer, you may be asked to help measure UX success metrics to understand how users navigate digital products and resolve design flaws.

There are two types of UX success metrics: behavioral (what users do), such as time on task, and attitudinal (what users say), such as the customer satisfaction score.

Product and UX success metrics have the potential to deliver valuable insights and ensure that product goals remain aligned with the product vision. However, for metrics to be meaningful, they must be actionable, accessible, and auditable. When determining which metrics to measure, consider asking these questions:

  • What type of metric best suits my product?
  • Where is my product in the life cycle?
  • Who are the stakeholders for these metrics?

Red Flag No. 2: Allowing Customer Requests to Override Product Requirements

The secret to crafting a product strategy that delivers practical solutions starts with a clear understanding of the product requirements, the encapsulation of a product’s functions, features, and behaviors. It does not lie in giving undue priority to customer requests—queries about sales or features that are not necessarily based on the comprehensive goal of the product.

While customer requests are motivators that drive a customer to buy or use a product or service—such as the desire for a smartphone upgrade for access to more feature-rich applications—product requirements are needs that are explicitly articulated through market research, such as the need for additional smartphone storage and greater functionality. Customers are demanding by nature, and although we should be empathetic to their needs, a strong product strategy cannot necessarily accommodate every customer request.

An illustrated scale shows product requirements outweighing customer requests.
It’s impossible to satisfy every customer. Don’t give one-off customer requests more weight than your researched product requirements.

Toptal product and project management specialist Milos Belcevic says that the challenge posed by trying to balance requirements and requests can be an expression of an imbalance between the pursuit of product excellence and customer intimacy. Product excellence is a framework that prioritizes quickly developing and delivering products that exceed customer expectations. Customer intimacy is the practice of engaging with individual customers to accommodate their needs and increase their product loyalty.

Neither of these strategies is necessarily superior to the other, but finding a logical balance between the two is key to managing customer requests over time.

Product Strategy Solution: Perform UX Analysis to Assess Customer Requests

Sometimes customer requests end up outweighing product requirements because of a lack of proper UX analysis. Without it, the product team may develop features and functionalities to fulfill one-off customer or leadership requests that are not actually significant to the overall product strategy. Just as it’s an engineer’s responsibility to push back against an inferior design, it’s a designer’s responsibility to resist poorly conceived and burdensome requests.

Belcevic suggests using opportunity mapping to assess and prioritize new requests based on business goals and customer research. It’s also sensible to consider the reason behind a customer request. It’s much easier for a customer to identify a problem than for the product team to find a solution. Identifying the underlying problem may lead to a far superior remedy than what was requested. Analyzing prospective users with UX techniques like personas and empathy mapping can also help product designers better identify their core product users and understand their needs and behaviors.

When I worked as a product designer for Chaka, an online investment platform, we cultivated our user community to ensure that our product strategy was aligned with our customers’ needs. We worked on a new product based initially on analyzing gaps in our existing product set. To prove out our ideas, we first assessed our customers’ willingness to purchase, their capacity to accept risk, and the kinds of portfolios they’d want to build.

To gather this information, we established weekly sessions with the customer team. This allowed us to interact with our customers throughout the product definition and prototyping phases. Of the 7,000 users we worked with before development, more than 5,000 signed up for the product as a result of our continued interactions with them. By the time we launched, 10,000 existing customers had signed up through the company’s Telegram channel. I consider this a strong indication of a successful product strategy that balances business goals and customer requests.

Red Flag No. 3: Mistaking Features for Value

Another sign of a failing product strategy is mistaking large numbers of features for product value. For digital products, features might be an application’s functionalities, capabilities, or visual characteristics, such as product filtering, wish lists, and checkout on an e-commerce website.

Building a digital solution with unnecessary or low-value features can result in delivering products to market that are too complicated to use, a phenomenon known as feature creep. Excessive numbers of features, or the wrong features, are associated with higher design and implementation costs, lower returns from those features, and increased customer dissatisfaction in the feature set.

According to Toptal multidisciplinary designer Austine Eluro, too many features are a troubling sign of diffuse product strategy. He says, “If you add too many features to a single application, you create a hub that can do everything but cannot satisfy anybody. No product can be all things to all people.”

Similar to a factory environment, rolling out a multitude of unnecessary product features will confuse the user.
When it comes to features, choose quality over quantity. Too many gimmicks can confuse customers.

Some organizations become known as “feature factories,” companies that reward feature quantity and don’t stop to assess prospective features’ value so long as they fit into the development schedules. For digital products, “bloatware” is a similar phenomenon: unwanted and potentially harmful apps come pre-installed on devices. Most of these apps are never used, users didn’t ask for them, and they often can’t be uninstalled. A new spate of bloatware removal tools has been created to tackle this problem.

Melissa Perri describes this failure mode in her book Escaping the Build Trap, recommended by Belcevic. In her book, Perri says that when companies fail to understand their customers, they can’t provide real value. They replace genuine understanding with a simplified metric based on features shipped, and that creates a false definition of value. Organizations fall into the “build trap” when they start formally measuring success in terms of output volume instead of by outcome.

Product Strategy Solution: Implement an Effective Prioritization Framework

Prioritization helps ensure that product teams are working on the most relevant features and avoiding wasteful practices. Consider asking these questions about all prospective features:

  • Is this feature valuable to the end user?
  • Is it essential to the product/business objective?
  • Do the benefits outweigh the cost and complexity of design and implementation?

If the answer to these questions is no, you should exclude the feature from your product strategy or defer it for future consideration.

I recommend also using a formal prioritization framework to evaluate new features rationally and consistently in the product strategy roadmap. Product prioritization has famously been a topic of confusion for product teams, and sometimes a more scientific approach is required.

As a product designer, I have experience using the MoSCoW, RICE, and Kano prioritization frameworks. For instance, at Chaka we used MoSCoW to help narrow our feature set when facing significant time constraints. I created MoSCoW quadrants and plotted our customers’ needs (based on research) in must have (M), should have (S), could have (C), or won’t have (W). This helped us reduce our features in just a few hours.

Red Flag No. 4: Encountering Communication Breakdowns

In product strategy development, there are many stakeholder inputs and opinions to juggle, and communication problems may arise. Some of these problems occur because project role definitions can vary dramatically from company to company and even from project to project. For example, some product managers are technical and focus on engineering; some are designers and assign themselves prototyping responsibilities; and some focus more on marketing, product life cycle, or users. When you join a project as a designer, it is crucial to determine the limits of your role to avoid conflicts with other team members and ensure that every phase of the project is implemented correctly.

This kind of role clarity issue can usually be addressed upfront by clarifying the chain of reporting and ensuring that all project roles are clearly defined through techniques such as team discovery. However, other communication issues and conflicts can arise during a project, such as misunderstandings, lack of feedback, and operating in silos. One of the most common conflict areas is between the product manager and the UX designer. Both are concerned with user experience and the relation of requirements to user needs, but they may approach problems differently.

Product Strategy Solution: Reinforce Product Vision and Foster Conflict-resolution Strategies

Team alignment is fundamental for effective communication within a cross-functional product team to ensure that the product strategy takes precedence. For starters, I recommend collaborating across teams to establish the product vision rather than allowing a single individual or small group to impose their ideas on the whole team. A good way to ensure transparency within cross-functional teams is to display your product vision statement on the office wall (for in-house teams) and as part of company wikis and internal knowledge bases, such as Confluence.

Of course, conflicts will likely occur during any project. Conflicts aren’t the problem; problems arise when conflicts aren’t adequately resolved. Within most Agile frameworks, there are standard patterns for conflict resolution and role definition. This might start with ensuring that team members with different roles (e.g., product managers, product owners, Scrum masters, product designers) collaborate in the early ideation and product definition stages. Toward the end of a project, teams can resolve conflicts by attending and participating in a retrospective meeting to discuss what went well and what can be improved.

Red Flag No. 5: Enabling Unnecessary Resource Loading

Resource loading is a crucial element of resource planning for any product team. Since it impacts every team member, it’s important to recognize when there’s a problem with it. Resource overloading—when there are too many tasks for the available resources—is a clear sign of a failing product strategy. Sometimes a project feels burdened with problems from the start, even before customer requests and development iterations have had a chance to influence requirements. Other resources apart from design, like engineering, testing, and marketing, may individually or collectively be stretched to a breaking point with consequent damage done to the design process.

Eluro says that problems with load can arise when product teams fail to acknowledge a project’s success. “Some teams ignore success indicators. When the product has been launched, they ignore the success that that product has actually achieved. It’s not enough to focus on faults.” He says acknowledging success can provide direction for future requirements, whereas focusing only on faults or gaps in coverage can lead to a diffuse development focus and excessive workloads.

Product Strategy Solution: Create an MVP Prototype

I always like to start the design process with a minimum viable product (MVP) prototype to reduce costs and time to market. Product designers often build prototypes to identify problems, develop solutions, and share designs with stakeholders without unnecessary resource expenditure.

The type of prototype you decide to create will depend on where you find yourself within the product development life cycle. In early development, you may build a low-fidelity, static prototype or wireframe using low-cost, readily available materials. Lo-fi wireframes include simple visual representations of on-screen UI elements and content hierarchy. Later, designers build high-fidelity, interactive mock-ups to visualize the attributes and interactive features of the product in more detail. These prototypes are typically used to test the product’s capabilities before development.

Rapid MVP prototyping is a particular approach used in lean environments that enables effective early feedback from stakeholders and end users. MVP prototypes help teams achieve an early win and can be developed into deployed products incrementally even in the event of reductions in resources and schedule cuts.

A Robust Product Vision Helps You Build a Fail-proof Product Strategy

There are many ways for a product strategy to fail, but all successful product strategies have one thing in common: a clear product vision. The product vision should be developed as a collaborative effort between the product team and the product designer, incorporating customer and end-user input as early as possible.

When building a product, problems are inevitably going to occur. However, with a well-defined product vision, a clear understanding of the product requirements and features, and knowledge of conflict-resolution techniques, it will be easier to develop and implement lasting solutions.

Understanding the basics

  • What makes for a good product strategy?

    A good product strategy aligns team efforts, cuts extra costs, and encourages long-lasting conflict resolution. It also establishes a clear product vision and outlines product requirements and features based on market research and UX analysis.

  • What are the challenges of a product strategy?

    A product strategy fails when teams aren’t aligned around a singular vision for the product. The product vision acts as the north star, and without it, problems can arise, including a lack of clarity on the product team, unresolved conflict between stakeholders, and features that provide value to only a small segment of users.

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Christian Adolphus

Christian Adolphus

Verified Expert in Design
5 Years of Experience

Birmingham, United Kingdom

Member since August 18, 2022

About the author

Christian is a product designer, product owner, user researcher, and Webflow developer. He led the design team at Chaka, a financial solutions platform, and worked as the founding product designer at SquadPal. His product experience spans B2B, B2C, and SaaS enterprise software.

authors are vetted experts in their fields and write on topics in which they have demonstrated experience. All of our content is peer reviewed and validated by Toptal experts in the same field.

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