Writing by Peter Hilton

Define your product using existing product categories

How categories clarify your product definition - 15 January 2020 #product

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unsplash-logoJan Kolar

Your product definition has too many words, half of which people will misinterpret. You will struggle to keep it short, as you add clarifications. Meanwhile, it takes discipline to use language that other people understand, without making up your own terms and assuming (or declaring) that they mean what you think they mean.

Like it or not, people won’t feel like they understand your product until they can categorise it. Consider the following product page introduction:

Build relationships. Save time. Sell better.
The all-in-one software that simplifies your work. (Teamleader)

You can’t assess these claims until you’ve had the inevitable a-ha moment: ‘oh, it’s CRM’. An existing product category, such as Customer relationship management (CRM) software provides valuable context that your product definition doesn’t need to build itself.

Business software categories

Industry analysts sometimes define business software categories. Gartner’s Magic Quadrants, and Forrester’s similar market research reports, segment markets and define product categories. These externally-defined categories give you product definition shortcuts, but at the cost of dependency on someone else’s vision of what capabilities your product should have.

An existing category generally has a Wikipedia page, such as Customer relationship management. Wikipedia tends to acknowledge more product diversity and related categories than industry analysts do.

Note that ‘CRM’ refers to both a software category and a management approach. Business software categories often correspond to a management discipline that relies on software support. However, you may find multiple software categories that support a single management technique. Business process management (BPM), for example, forms the basis for business process management systems (BPMS), case management, human workflow software, each of which has a different focus.

Not having an existing category

If your product doesn’t fit an established category, your product definition will have to work harder for people’s understanding. You’ll need more words.

You can start with the closest one or two categories, and clarify the similarities and differences. Alternatively, define a new category from scratch. If you don’t find that difficult enough, come up with a good name for your new category as well.

Beware outgrowing a product category

Products don’t just grow up - they also grow until complexity overwhelms the original product. Atlassian Jira offers a famous example:

When launched in 2002, Jira was purely issue tracking software, targeted at software developers. The app was later adopted by non-IT organizations as a project management tool. (Wikipedia)

By evolving from issue tracker to project management software, Jira moved to a product category with a larger market. While the increased market size no doubt increased sales, the resulting product has less focus on issue tracking for software developers.

Similarly, Atlassian evolved Confluence from wiki to some kind of collaboration software. While Confluence sells well in its enlarged target market, its users don’t all love using it.

Beware the implications of outgrowing a product category: complexity overtakes usability, market size overtakes product vision, and market size and sales focus overtake user-centred design. This kind of evolution doesn’t necessarily kill a product: at the time of writing, Atlassian now sells ‘Jira Software’s next generation experience’. Time will tell if that works. In the meantime, you could just buy Trello.