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From idea to action: How to develop a digital product idea from scratch

If you have a digital product idea, you might be thinking the first step is to find some developers and ask them how much it will cost to build your product. However, starting by finding a developer skips five simple steps that you can take to significantly reduce risk in building a digital product.


These five steps are the foundational work of product strategy. But don’t let that put you off. They are simple to execute and take less time than you might imagine, especially when you consider the pay-off for your product venture in terms of time, money and reputation saved.


Follow this simple guide to go from product idea to ready-to-build product strategy.


1. Define your problem to solve


When we come up with a product idea, typically we are thinking of the solution. We want to automate this document review process. We want to make a communication app for two specific parties to chat. We want to make a work tracking dashboard for teams.


But the very first product idea you have may not be the product idea that succeeds. This comes down to the magic product Venn diagram. (You may have seen this diagram before titled as the innovation sweet spot - but for me, you’d have to add a fourth dimension of “novelty” in for something to be truly innovative. No stress though. Your idea does not need to be innovative to be a successful product. But that’s a topic for another article.)

A venn diagram with three overlapping circles titled "desirability", "feasibility" and "viability"
Sweet spot for successful products

If you want to build a truly successful problem, forget solutions and instead start with a problem. Uncover the problem your first idea is trying to solve and ask yourself: Am I passionate about solving this particular problem?


How do you uncover the problem your current idea is trying to solve? For this you can use the 5 Why’s Exercise.


Write out your product idea and then ask “why?”


Write your answer to that question and then ask “why?” again.


Repeat three more times.


Usually by four or five why’s you have stumbled on the real problem you’re trying to solve.


If this doesn’t work for you, you can also use “so that…” in a similar way.


Write out your product idea and then add “so that…” to the end and complete the sentence.


Keep adding “so that…” until you get to your real problem statement.

Worked example of the 5 why's exercise and the 5x so that exercise
Applying 5 Why's or 5x So That

Once you have your problem, rephrase it into a clear problem statement. For example:

  • I want to enable professionals to enjoy their job more by eliminating frustrating manual processes.

  • I want to reduce back-and-forth between clients and professional services.

  • I want to help teams hit their KPIs more often to succeed at work.


If you have a brand already, feel free to insert your brand in place of “I” and replace “want to” with “exists to”.


Here's an example for my company: Wizard Labs exists to enable product teams to solve problems, better and faster.


2. Interview people who experience your problem


Now that you know exactly what problem your product will solve, you can find out more about this problem. This step is important for a number of reasons.


Firstly, you will validate that the problem you are solving is a real problem that customers would be willing to pay to fix. If it’s just a moderate problem that customers can easily ignore, there won’t be a market for your product. (Failing the first test in the magic product Venn diagram)


Secondly, it enables you to understand what your potential customers are currently doing to solve the problem. Maybe they are just living with it, but more often than not they have alternative tools or approaches to solving the problem. They overcome painful processes through standardisation or spot-fixes. They solve communication problems with emails or meetings. They use visual project management to track their progress. Asking them about these solutions will give you clarity on what solutions your product is truly competing with.


Thirdly, it enables you to understand what customers are looking for in a solution to this problem and what their pain points are with their current solutions. This can spark all sorts of ideas for you in developing a product with a truly unique selling point and clear value proposition. It will also enable you to prioritise the features you include in your product to target your customers’ most pressing pain points.


Finally, it enables you to talk about the problem in the language your customers are using. This is important for your marketing and sales work. Customers won’t know they need your solution if they don’t see that you are talking about the problems they experience.


These interviews don’t need to be complex. And you don’t need hundreds of them!


A simple 45 to 60 minute conversation with 5 of your potential customers is enough.


If you want to get started with this yourself, you can download a product jumpstarter toolkit here which includes a user interview guide.


3. Create a product vision


Now that you are clear on the problem you are solving and the value a solution will bring to customers, you can summarise this into your product vision. A product vision is important because it will help you stay focused on the problem you are trying to solve and the customer you are solving it for.


When you are building a product, you will find the longer you work on it, the more ideas you will have. And once you have some designers and a development team working on it, they will have ideas and suggestions. Then you’ll show it to customers and they will start to list off a feature wishlist.


If you take on board these feature suggestions without filtering them through your product vision, it can be easy to waste time, money and effort building a product with “feature bloat”. You may end up investing in features that only a small percentage of customers ever use. Or worse, features that no customers ever use.


The other important function of a product vision is to align your team. Eventually you will bring on board more specialists to help you bring your product idea into reality. Having the product vision ready to go is a great way of getting them clear on the problem you are solving and how the product solves the problem.


Here are three product vision templates that you can choose from. All of them are great, it just depends on which statement resonates best with you and the product you are trying to build:


Three types of product vision statement with examples
Examples of product vision statements

Grab an editable version of these templates and a mini-workshop to produce them in the product jumpstarter toolkit here.


4. Test your product idea


If you’ve done any exploration of building products, you have probably come across the idea of testing your product with an MVP, or minimum viable product. But it is possible to test and validate your digital product idea without having built a single page or button.


Here’s the simple three part test:

  • Desirability: Gauge customer interest through a landing page or survey

  • Feasibility: Draw how you imagine your product will work (and if you can, run this past a developer)

  • Viability: Create a very high-level budget and compare that to what you think you could sell the product for.


In a bit more detail…


You test desirability by finding out if anyone would be willing to part with their email address to find out more about your product. To do this, you can create a simple landing page. This is a one page website that describes the problem your product solves (in your customers language that you learnt about in step 2!) and includes an email address inviting customers to sign up to be the first to know more.


If you don’t want to create a one-page website, you can also use a tool like Typeform or Jotform to create a short survey about the problem you are trying to solve. At the end of the form include some information on your product idea and invite participants to share their email to know more. Share this among your relevant network via social media or directly with contacts.


If you get some email addresses with these methods, it probably indicates that customers have a real interest in a new solution to the problem your product will solve.


For feasibility, it’s time to start thinking about how you will actually bring your product idea to life. The simplest test is to take your original idea and line it up against what your customers told you they wanted in the solution. Ask yourself: Does this solve the customer’s problem? If not, it’s back to the drawing board.


If it does, you might want to take it to the next step and draw out how you see your product working. This can be a simple as a series of boxes describing the steps your customer would take to use your product. Or you can start to draw wireframes of your product.


If you know any developers, it can be really helpful to run these diagrams past them to get their opinion on how feasible your product idea is.


To test viability, you want to make sure you can build a business model around your product idea. Create a simple budget that covers the major line items in digital product development: developer time, designer time, your own time, hosting costs, and a budget for marketing.


Next, think about how customers will pay for the product. The most common model for software these days is a monthly or annual subscription, known as Software as a Service (SaaS). Pick a price you believe customers would pay for your product and multiply by the number of customers that you believe you could get. Does this revenue figure cover the costs in your budget? How many customers would you need to cover costs? Is that reasonable? How much would you need to charge to cover costs? Would customers pay that?


A viability test budget worksheet is included in the product jumpstarter toolkit here.


5. Decide on your next steps


Following the steps in this article, you have:

  • Defined the problem you are solving

  • Understood your customers needs

  • Created a product vision

  • Tested the desirability, feasibility and viability of your product idea

Now you have information to make a decision about next steps.


If you have strong indicators that customers want or need your solution and that it’s feasible and viable, you can start building a minimum viable product.


However, if customers aren’t interested or your initial idea doesn’t line up with what they need, you will need to spend more time researching the problem space and work to come up with additional solution ideas.


If you feel somewhere in between and want more data about whether your solution meets customers’ needs, you can use a rapid prototyping approach such as the design sprint to build and validate a product prototype. This puts a clickable mockup of your product in front of customers and enables them to experience what it would be like to use your product. Customers are able to give you much more concrete feedback that will help you determine your next move.


An easy toolkit for developing your product idea from scratch


Each of these five steps can be easily executed by anyone with a product idea. If you do these five things before you start building, you will significantly reduce the risk of wasting time and money building a product that no one buys. And we’ve made it even easier with our product jumpstarter toolkit. Download a copy here.