The 'Car Product Development Stages' analogy sucks

If you’ve worked as a product manager in the last few years, I bet you’ve seen the diagram above.

The message is clear: strive to deliver value to the user as quickly as possible, and add extra value after each iteration, rather than building frustratingly tantalising parts of something that is only useful once the whole thing comes together.

Sure, I can get behind that. But the second row – the super happy wonderful example we should try to emulate – annoys me a lot.

Why? Because there is no world in which those five steps are all solving the same user problem. Try to imagine a world in which one specific user is happy with every part of that diagram from scooter through to car – I can’t.

Another negative aspect of this model is that a lot of the learning from each stage will be wasted later on. The engineering and useability challenges of building an effective scooter are totally different to those involved in building a car.

To illustrate my point, let’s examine a couple of problems that users could plausibly have, and a progression of products that both add value at each iteration and continue to solve the same problem throughout.

Hypothetical user problems

Problem 1: I want to get from home to work as quickly as possible. All I care about is speed, nothing else.

In my head, the product development stages to solve this problem look something like this:

A product development stages diagram to solve the problem that a customer wants to get from home to work quickly. Stages: scooter, bike, motorbike, rocketbike.

Each step is faster than the one preceding it (I assume that the status quo was walking), and better yet, the lessons from each step can be reused when building the next iteration.

Problem 2: I want to transport heavy goods from one place to another, in as few trips as possible.

Potential solution:

A product development stages diagram to solve the problem that a customer wants to transport heavy goods. Stages: wheelbarrow, rickshaw, car, van.

Again, customers will be happy with at each step.

Lessons for PMs:

  1. Deliver value with each iteration, but always focus on what problem you are trying to solve.
  2. As much as you can, anticipate the a few iterations ahead and try to learn lessons now that you can apply in the future.