Stefan Wittwer

March 13, 2022

A product is a collection of trade-offs

What differenciates one product from another? Can there ever be one objectively "best" product in a competitive market? I don't think so.

There are inherent trade-offs in product design.

You can make your product more feature-rich or easier to adopt and master.
You can target your product for a broader market or you can have a more well-suited solution for a smaller group of users.
You can have radical innovation on key features in your product or you can have a more predictable measure of performance.

You can never do both well.

The art of product management is making decisions on these trade-offs and aligning your design, engineering and marketing efforts to be congruent with these decisions.

There is no one "best" product across the entire market because different products come with different trade-offs, which serve a slightly different set of needs.

A few examples:

Adobe Photoshop is harder to learn than, say, using the editing features in the built-in Photos app, but you can do a lot more with it. Both have their place.

Just about everyone has used Microsoft Word in their lifetime, but you would never want to write a screenplay with it. While Word is targeting a broader audience, Final Draft is the most prevalent software used among screenwriters. Both have their place.

And finally, there's software like HEY, which is completely different from any other e-mail service you've used. And there is Outlook or iCloud Mail which just work like you'd expect any e-mail service to expect. Although I strongly believe working on products like the former is more interesting work and necessary for progress, both strategies can work. Both have their place.

There are only objectively bad products that don't have a clear position on where they fall on key trade-offs, which results in an incongruous, confusing product for all users. By trying to serve too many needs at once, these products end up having a bad experience for everyone. 

For example, you can't put thousands of features into your product and expect it'll be easy to learn.

You can't say you make a broad tool for everyone and then start to incorporate a lot of feature requests from specific niches that don't benefit everyone – that leads to a confusing consulting-ware-like product that works great for about two people in the world.

You can't have radical innovation in your product without increased risk that the product will fail – the performance of truly new, innovative products is somewhere between hard and impossible to predict.

And you can't market a truly innovative product the same way you would market a more standard product.

Another problem is misalignment within the team. This usually leads to design and engineering building a different product than what marketing is selling, which is setting up your product for failure, because a product will never meet expectations it wasn't designed for.

So you need to make hard decisions on these trade-offs within your product and also make sure that everyone on the team is aligned with these decisions.

That's how you make sure that the people whose needs align with the trade-offs you've made will enjoy using your product.