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Book Report: The Lean Product Playbook


The Lean Product Playbook is a product development book by Dan Olsen, previously at Intuit (specifically working on Quicken), and now a product consultant. I actually read this book a few months ago but revisited recently to brush up on a few things related to product design. It’s good to have around as a quick reference on a lot of different things I encounter all the time.

I got see Dan give a presentation at the Product Austin meet up earlier this year and he did a pretty high level overview of what he had written. The book obviously went into a lot more detail and I learned a lot from it: mostly around how to make product decisions based on customer needs, and how to continuously gather feedback about how you’re product is doing.

What is it?

  • A book about how to innovate with minimum viable products by talking with your customers (or users) and gathering their feedback.
  • The book covers all aspects of the product development process under the “lean startup” methodology. That means there’s chapters on customer research, visual design, user experience, weighing product features, prototyping, measuring if your design is successful, and ultimately building your product (and of course continuing to track key metrics).
  • He uses real world case studies which is what I tend to learn most from.

What was fascinating:

  • How important it is to talk to your customers continuously, at all stages of the product development process. This is something I need to work on. I know how valuable this is but I struggle with implementing a process for some reason. I haven’t ever worked at a company that put a lot of emphasis on it, but I am working to change that.
  • The level of detail you can go through to add math to your product feature decisions and effectiveness.
  • You don’t have to build much of a product to determine if there’s product-market fit. One example from the book was backing all the way to a basic launch page, and use an email sign-up to gauge interest (might not work for all things, but I found that kind of cool).
  • The importance of interviewing your customers (and potential customers) so you really get to know them – which helps with constructing user/customer personas.
  • If you can set up a good process for product development, it makes deciding what to do much easier

What I’m still thinking about

  • The book focused a lot on launching new products, whereas I don’t really get to do that but maybe once every year or so. Most of what I am tasked with is keeping current products up to date or adding new features to existing products. I think a lot of the same principles apply, but I’d like to see how people use the lean process here.
    • In my mind it’s the same thing. Talk to your customers > build a prototype > test a prototype, and repeat until it’s right and sent to be developed. That makes sense, but some case study examples would have been nice.
  • How can I build a good product process into an already existing day to day work load? This seems like a daunting task. I get that there’s value to a more lean process, but in a lot of ways it stretches the design and development process over a longer time period. How will that effect our outputs in the short term? In the end it will be more effective, but how can I change our current process over time to be one that outputs better products and user experiences?

Final thoughts

Too often in the past I would rely on intuition or my own desires to drive product/feature development. After reading this book I put a lot more weight in identifying pain points in the customers user experience and using that to make better decisions on what to do. Furthermore, I learned a lot about the value or prototyping concepts with the same group of customers to make sure you got it right.

I really liked (and am trying to implement) the idea of bringing in customers/users to test stuff on a weekly basis. That way you’re constantly talking to customers, getting to know them, and getting feedback on whatever it is you’re working on. If anything, this customer feedback loop is something that should come before anything else.

All-in this is a good guide on what a process looks like to create products that people love.

The Lean Product Playbook on Amazon

More about Dan Olsen

Posted in Process, Product Management

False Start

A few months ago I had started to feel lost in my career. I didn’t like where I was and I felt like I should be doing something different. Communicating through visual design is something I’ve always been interested in. There’s a deeper aspiration to create meaningful experiences that help create positive emotions or help move our world forward. I know that’s what I want to do, but I didn’t feel anywhere close to it when I looked at the positions I’ve held over the last 8 or so years of working professionally.

It made me really mad to think about the gap between the expectations I have for myself and where I stood in reality. At first I wanted to blame the employers I worked for – they didn’t give me the opportunities I needed. I blamed them for not wanting to do the things that I thought they should. I blamed my education and background. It didn’t teach me what I needed to have on my resume to get the good jobs at the dream companies. I blamed myself for making poor decisions to leave jobs when really I was just trying to somehow get lucky and stumble into my dream career.

I thought I knew everything when it came to what I did. I mean, I’ve worked for 7+ years… I basically mastered it, right? I realized that while I thought I knew everything, the truth was I didn’t know anything. That’s a little harsh– I knew somethings but I certainly didn’t know everything I should. It’s pointless for me to try to blame other factors, or myself, for not having all of the skills that I believe I need to be a great designer.

So I’ve come to look at my current career as a false start. I’ve never been formally trained in design or development. Sure, I’ve been working in the tech industry for 8 years now, but that doesn’t mean I always know what I’m doing when it comes to product development. I’ve never worked under someone who taught me how to be a great designer. And all of this might sound like complaining, but it’s not. I’m just coming to an honest realization. I want to work in this industry because I love doing what I do. I love to design things that people use. I love to design experiences that are meaningful and help people. that’s what my raw talents have lead me to.

Now it’s just a matter of focusing on where I want to be. I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I know there are things I can expand on. I’m not sure exactly where this will take me but it feels like the right decision to take a step back to assess what I know and what I don’t know (even more important). That way I can hone in on skills I need to build and get better at what I do.

With that goal in mind, I’m going to do a few things:

  • Complete the Interaction Design Specialization from UC San Diego
  • Read 3-4 books over the next 6 months related to product development
  • Create my own side projects to add as work in my portfolio
  • Blog about my journey

I have decided to take my portfolio down for the time being while I rebuild it with work that I think is more meaningful for what I want to do. All of this has to come from me, and not from anyone else. What I mean is that I can’t expect my employer to give me the work that I truly want to do. I have to find that and pursue it on my own time.

Let the journey begin.

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