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Purpose: the most important part of a product

To create a successful product you need to give it a purpose. In this post I attempt to answer why purpose is important and show some examples of successful products with a purpose.

What do most successful products have in common? Is it the refined aesthetics, smooth user experience, or maybe a brand that quickly becomes a household name?

Over the years, I learned it’s none of these things. It’s the problems a product attempts to solve for its audience that defines its individual purpose. Without a meaningful purpose a product is just another shallow attempt at making money and sooner or later will be replaced by a competitor.

It’s the purpose and its execution that defines the basic success of your product. There are obviously other factors, such as product launch timing, user experience, or audience reach, but none of them seem to matter as much as the purpose itself.

Can a TV have a purpose?

In the age of venture capital showering startups with money to burn on innovative product ideas, it’s not really the innovations your customers are after. There are still millions of problems that haven’t been reliably solved for ages, yet we keep coming up with new ones every day.

Smart TVs solved hardly any issues people had with their non-smart TVs; sure they made a lot of external devices obsolete, but as a result they made some problems worse. Manufacturers jumped on a on-demand content bandwagon and started adding more complex software, application marketplaces, and always-on connectivity, just to make their product more alluring to the potential customer.

Now, instead of a single problem (viewing experience), they have inherited most problems smartphones and tablets have too, such as privacy and security risks, software updates, connectivity, slow and unreliable apps, and lack of good navigation for their interfaces.

Sure, all this new functionality will allow you to turn your TV into a weather widget or a wall-mounted fireplace, but the manufacturer may eventually stop providing it with security updates because maintaining software is expensive. Six months down the line your new TV becomes last week’s news.

This is why I think modern TVs lack in real purpose; they try to solve superficial problems born out of chasing features, specs and revenue, rather than from a pursuit of a great viewing experience. Does anyone even remember what were the problems we’ve had with non-smart TVs some 10 years ago?

That said, there are examples of true vision that helps in solving real problems.

Timekeeper turned wrist doctor

Smartwatches have been around for a few years now, and we’ve recently seen the unveiling of the fifth generation Apple Watch. Many have tried to nail the idea of a perfect smartwatch, but have they gotten any closer to it?

Most smartwatches are just an extension of your smartphone, and they inherit some of the problems of their forefathers, as well as a few of their own:

  • haven’t gotten any better at telling the time
  • require recharging after just a few hours
  • bring all distractions from your pocket to your wrist

On the positive side though, smartwatches are generally:

  • smaller than your smartphone
  • more versatile than your conventional watch

Now, the last point is the most interesting to me. What problems does a smartwatch solve? It definitely gives you access to things you’d normally have to carry your smartphone for: calls, messages, email, calendar, etc. But what problem does this actually solve? Especially, if you still need a smartphone to accomplish most of these tasks reliably due to the fact a smartwatch has a tiny screen and fiddly controls. It moves existing problems from your smartphone to your smartwatch. Same problems, less screen estate.

  • Would you use a smartwatch to write a longer response to an urgent email?
  • Would you try to process an important bank transaction to a new payee by only relying on your smartwatch?
  • Would you trust a smartwatch during a weekend camping trip in the wilderness?

From a practical point of view a smartwatch is just another gadget; it’s not important as a utility. Perhaps it’s more of a fashion statement. But why is that? Could it be that a run-of-the-mill smartwatch doesn’t have an innate purpose? It’s supposed to supersede a conventional watch, but does it offer much that would actually beat a conventional wristwatch?

From the people I know who wear a smartwatch of any kind, 100% of them still carry their smartphone with them day-in-day-out, everywhere. The smartwatch doesn’t replace their smartphone. Not one bit. It can sometimes act as a reminder of what’s happening on the phone, but rarely if at all replaces the main device, which is still the smartphone itself.

However, what I also discovered was why these people continue to wear their smartwatches, despite their downsides, such as poor battery life, clunky interface, or no advantages over a conventional timekeeper.

Above all, they wear them because a modern smartwatch gives them a much better insight into their health. Some swear that this is the only reason they actually bought one in the first place.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the missing purpose of a smartwatch as a product. It’s something Apple have embraced only quite recently, as they started developing more hardware and software related directly to our wellbeing. The recent addition of ECG and Fall Detection is a proof that their smartwatch is positioned as a health/lifestyle product, not as a replacement for the iPhone.

It’s this not immediately obvious purpose that defines helpfulness of the product. It attempts to solve an existing set of problems:

  • How can you tell someone is unconscious after they fall from the stairs if there’s no one around?
  • How can you tell you might have arrhythmia early on in your life without regularly seeing a cardiologist?
  • How can you tell you may have a hearing problem without seeing a laryngologist?

These and more are things smartwatches have not been deliberately designed to do, but now are starting to embrace this newfound purpose. That gives them a unique advantage over other wearables or smartphones. Purpose is what defines the true value of a product. And here it is, discovered during development of the fifth generation of Apple Watch.

Purpose lost. Purpose found.

A smartwatch is an example of a lost-and-found purpose in a product formerly destined to end up in the proverbial technological wasteland. There are more products like this, in software, hardware, or everyday appliances.

Trivia time: there are a lot of project management products, but when you think of “project management software” what single product comes to your mind?

Now, why is that? Why did your mind conjure this particular product? There are plenty of other products that solve a similar problem, yet only a select few stood out to you and made an imprint in your memory. More likely than not it’s because the one you thought about has worked for you.

If you analyse any successful, mature product, you are very likely to discover that it begun with a very clear-cut purpose and still stays true to it.

Before attempting to create a product or a service of some kind, ask yourself a few important questions: what purpose would my product serve? Is this purpose worth pursuing? Will it benefit anyone, including myself?

So in the end, would you want your product to be the smart TV, chasing a non-existent problem, or the smartwatch, aligning its purpose to what’s important to its users?

Start with the purpose and you’ll have a much better chance at striking gold than those who start with the money alone.