Amazon’s “working backwards” approach helped to transform the company into an online retail giant. (Image Credit: GETTY Images)

 

Often I’ve seen projects start with little planning. 'Design by the seat of the pants,' I think is the cliché. Although this work backwards isn’t the proper mil-standard way to work on projects, I wonder if it should be…

 

Amazon has been making an impact in the retail service industry for the past 25 years, and in the process, has been transforming itself. The company first started out as an online bookseller and eventually became one of the world’s largest online retailers. Looking even further, Amazon is also the leader in cloud storage services (AWS), has just entered the healthcare market and is also a producer of TV and film (Amazon Studios). Amazon’s success was driven by taking a “working backwards” approach to product development. Ian McAllister, Director of Amazon Day and former Director of Amazon Smile, described the process in a Quora thread a few years ago.

 

According to Ian McAllister, the process begins by “[trying] to work backwards from the customer, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it."

 

A product manager must also write an internal press release to announce the finished product. “For new initiatives, a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.” McAllister wrote, “If the benefits listed don't sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they're not (and shouldn't be built)."

 

The product manager continues revising the press release until something better is created from it. It may seem like a lot of work for something that may never happen, but it’s actually a lot less expensive and quicker to iterate on a press release than it is to iterate on a product.

 

McAllister also notes that the press release should be kept simple, a page and a half or less in length, with paragraphs made up of three to four sentences, nothing more. Part of keeping the press release simple involves writing it in such a way where mainstream customers can easily understand it, a technique called “Oprah-speak”, as McAllister states, "Imagine you're sitting on Oprah's couch and have just explained the product to her, and then you listen as she explains it to her audience," he writes. "That's 'Oprah-speak,' not 'geek-speak.'” That way, if the product undergoes development, the press release can be used as a guide.

 

When it comes to building major products, it can be easy to lose focus and get carried away with the main product by adding new features or even addressing smaller details, a problem commonly known as “scope creep”. To overcome this, McAllister points out that product teams should ask themselves, "Are we building what's in the press release?" If they’re not meeting their goal, they need to ask themselves why.

 

Working backwards can be beneficial because it gives you the chance to work on your product and add more to it, while also putting it to the test. It will become clearer if the idea is worth pursuing in the long-run after writing and rewriting, refining and reiterating the press release. This often helps to focus more on bigger and better ideas while moving on from mediocre ones. When the decision is made to move forward, the press release will help to keep you focused, to continue to see things from the customer and will allow you to communicate to them in a way they’ll understand. This will allow you to work backwards, transforming your ideas from good to great.

 

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