What is it you do exactly?

Working in the digital product space, especially in an agency setting, requires you to concoct several descriptions of your job & industry to keep on-hand for conversations with family and friends. Depending on their technical sophistication, how you describe your work will vary greatly. I’ve noticed that anything computer-related get labelled as “IT” by most in the Baby Boomer generation.

For example, simply saying “I work at a digital product studio.” may be enough for industry peers, but that’s about it. Sometimes you can append a supporting sentence such as “We build digital products for clients.” which doesn’t really add much clarity for the uninitiated.

I tend to simplify things to “I work at an app company. We build apps and websites for clients.” The second sentence was a recent addition after people asked which apps we made. It feels reductive to describe the entire digital product industry as “apps and websites”, but at its core, that’s what we do.

Adding some definition

Let’s start by covering some of the basics:

  1. A digital product is a product just like in the physical realm. It provides some form of value or utility such as entertainment or productivity for the customer. We will talk about the subjectivity of value in future posts.
  2. A digital product is digitally based meaning interactions occur through a digital interface. For example, Uber’s mobile app (either the customer or driver app) is a digital product. Users interact with the mobile app to perform a variety of tasks such as schedule a ride, review their ride history, and check the location of their driver.
  3. A product does not need to be a standalone business; it can support a broader business model of the organization. Examples of this usually occurs in service-based businesses that facilitate transactions through their products. Booking movie tickets through a mobile app can be seen as an example of this—the app itself is just a tool for the organization and doesn’t need its own individual revenue model.
  4. A product is not a service. This is a meaty topic but one I distill to: a service requires an ongoing relationship with the server (person/company providing service) to provide the value.

You might consider a banking website like Chase, where you can manage your account and pay your bills a digital product, since it meets the above criteria. Or maybe the selfie cam like BeautyCam, with all those cool filters that you use every time you post to Instagram. Even Instagram. Each of these is their own digital product to some degree. Does the distinction of what is or isn’t a product really matter? (For the sake of this post I should say yes). For me, anything impacting a product’s success is product work.

Going under the microscope

Some fuzzy stuff starts to happen if you look too closely about what is or isn’t a product. Is an e-commerce platform a product? In some regards, yes. If you’re a merchant looking to sell something, the platform is a product to you. If you are an end consumer buying that bike online, the e-commerce platform simply enables your purchase. You’re getting value from the bike, but not during the checkout flow. The platform is a delivery mechanism for the actual product.

To take things to the next level of confusion for a second, is a book review on Amazon about the physical product (paper book/container) or the metaphorical product (the contents)? When should it be about one not the other? This starts to get into a future essay around Levels of Seeing.

This leads into another grey area, for example is the “News Feed” a feature or Facebook or a standalone product? Is it as much a product as the window is on your car?

Writing that question had me second-guess my own thinking. The window on your car is a product, bought by car manufacturers to produce the end product. So to some people, it’s a product. To others, it’s a feature. At what point does a feature become its own product? Is the symbolic transition to a standalone app the right time, such as Facebook spinning out Messenger? These are questions I don’t yet have clear answers to but am keen to explore through writing.

I wonder if it is possible to neatly separate these two things. What makes something a product depends on your point of view. I believe you will get the most value in your career by applying a product lens to everything you can. How might you think about that “marketing website” as a product? What are customers trying to achieve and how are you enabling it?

Flavours of product

“Product” comes in different flavours these days. The space has grown over the past several years to encompass new contexts and relationships to product. I’ll dive into them more in the future, but the main three are:

  1. Startups / self-owned product. Typically a small team of people working on a single product together, managing multiple roles and all working towards product success.
  2. In house product teams. Typically a role within a larger organization focused on a single product. The company many have a large portfolio of products and you are responsible for one, or the product may be so large you work on a feature. Examples could be the “Messages” team at Facebook, the “Mobile” team at a Bank, or the “API” team at Twitter.
  3. Agency. Typically a digital or product agency, helping clients to build their own products. Similar to either of the above, however you act as an external party, collaborating with internal teams.

This introductory post has been a winding road, circling the task of defining a digital product and perhaps never arriving at a satisfactory answer. My hope is that you’ve learned something, you have some new questions to ponder, or will start thinking more about the digital products you interact with on a regular basis.

The next time someone asks you what you do, or what digital products are, tell them you build digital tools to help make people’s lives better. Because if a product isn’t offering value and making someone’s life better, is it even a product?

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