Part 2: Building a Product Sieve
Turn your wasted time into gold
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This post is part 2 of a two-part series on the concept of a product sieve. If you haven’t read part 1, I would suggest you start there.
Part 1 explored the need for a product sieve. Our dislike of boredom and the chase of consistently performing at peak productivity result in building products that don’t solve a real problem.
Part 2 is about application, answering questions such as:
What are the features of a good sieve?
How do I build a product sieve?
Once my product sieve is created, how do I use it?
These questions and everything in between lie ahead.
Characteristics of a Sieve
A sieve is a tool used to separate smaller chunks from larger chunks of material. Depending on the strength and the characteristics of the sieve, it can separate a wide variety of material. However, it is important to understand what your sieve can and cannot do.
What a Sieve Can Do
A sieve will tell you one critical thing: Does this material match what I am searching for? Physical sieves tell you whether or not the material is the right size and shape. Your product sieve will tell you which ideas are possible solutions and which aren’t worth your time. This is an important, if not the most important, part of building a product. Ideas are cheap, and building is expensive. Your sieve should let you play fast and loose with ideas in order to ensure you don’t waste time building something that doesn’t provide value.
A sieve has two main characteristics, the holes through which low quality material escapes, and the mesh pattern that catches higher quality material. Both of these play a critical role in your sieve, but you should only be focusing on one. The mesh. Don’t misunderstand, the holes are a critical part of your sieve. In fact, if you make the holes too small or too large the entire sieve, no matter how well built, is worthless. But it is the mesh that defines the holes, so focus solely on the mesh.
When you are using a sieve, the shape of the mesh (and thus the size of the holes) determines what it will capture, and what will escape. The mesh is what captures the high value ideas and what defines the holes that allow inexpensive and bad ideas to fall through. You want this to happen before the ideas become an expensive product feature to build.
What a Sieve Cannot Do
A sieve does not create the material that is passed through it. In the example from Part 1 — separating dirt from gold — your sieve creates neither the dirt nor the gold. These materials must come from elsewhere. Similarly, the ideas you pass through your product sieve must come from elsewhere. They could come from meetings with customers, your own research and brainstorming, or suggestions from your development team. Ideas come from all over the place (that is why we are building this sieve in the first place). But, the one place they will not come from is the sieve itself.
Also, a sieve does not prioritize the order through which you review its captured contents. When you pass material through the sieve, some portion of it will be captured. After that, it’s up to you to determine the order in which to further examine and process the captured material. This same principle applies to your product sieve. Your sieve will not tell you which ideas are more important, create higher value, or increase profits: That is your job.
How to Build a Sieve
Building a product sieve doesn’t happen in a single sitting. Your sieve will change over time and multiple people will have worked to build it. The good news is that some of the parts of your product sieve may already exist, you just need to leverage them in a new way.
There are four main parts of a product sieve: 1) the problem statement, 2) a vision, 3) part of the plan to get there, and 4) questions to make it usable.
The Problem Statement
This part of your sieve may already be complete, but it is surprising how many organizations and products skip or hurry through the problem definition stage. These products typically become “hammers in search of a nail” -- products that solve a problem nobody was asking to be solved. While you may already have a problem statement for your product, this is a good time to revisit it.
Note: The problem statement is rarely a single sentence. While it can be that short, it is often helpful to wrap some background context around your problem statement.
The best problem statements typically get started with saying “It really sucks how...”. These four words help you define what your problem really is. Use this as a starting point to identify your problem statement. It will help you find something that is emotive, and that gets your team, and customers, to agree and say, “Yes, that does suck!”
Show what the world could be like if your problem statement was no longer a problem. Your vision statement should be inspiring. Your problem just explained how something sucks, now is your chance to flip that narrative on its head. Your vision should be the answer to your problem statement: “Something in the world is wrong, and it sucks. But here is what the world could be if this was fixed”. The vision is what will keep your team motivated as you work hard to make the world a better place.
A Plan to Get There
Now the shaping of your product sieve really begins. The first two elements are critical for forming the landscape in which you will work and build, but the plan is how you are going to get there. The plan is what your product will do, how it will work, and why users find it delightful.
However, you don’t want to define your entire plan here, because then you wouldn’t need a product sieve. You would already know exactly how you are getting from the current world to the future one. The goal of your plan is not to define every feature or every piece of technology you will use. Rather, the goal of your plan is to start shaping the mesh on your sieve so you can filter the right amount of “dirt from gold”.
This is more of an art than a science, but here are the general rules that apply when creating the plan: The more detailed your plan, the larger the holes in your mesh. Likewise, the less detailed your plan, the smaller the holes in your mesh. While this may seem counterintuitive at first, it is an important distinction, so let's break it down a bit.
What Happens When Your Plan is Too Detailed?
Every additional detail you add to your plan removes the need to consider future ideas. As your plan increases in detail, so does the size of the holes in your sieve. The larger the holes in your sieve, the fewer ideas you will capture. This could be a good thing if you have done the work to validate your plan is the right course of action, but this is rarely the case. With a plan that is too detailed, any new idea would have to be well-defined, inescapable, and highly convincing to be caught in the sieve. This means more golden ideas will slip through your sieve unnoticed, causing you to miss valuable opportunities.
What Happens When Your Plan isn’t Detailed Enough?
However, the other end of the spectrum can be just as bad. The fewer details in the plan, the smaller the holes. This will lead to more ideas getting caught in the sieve, even if they aren’t high quality. Because you don’t have a clear idea on how you are getting from the current world to the future vision, you must stop and evaluate everything that looks like a decent opportunity. You inevitably lose the value of your sieve since the goal is to separate the high-quantity, low-quality ideas from the low-quantity, high-quality ideas. The lack of a plan paired with a vision, means considering everything as a potential means to your end.
Find a happy medium that works for your product and what you are trying to accomplish. Define a plan for how you are going to accomplish your vision, just don’t make it so detailed that you can’t investigate golden ideas that come up along the way.
An example is the best way to illustrate this…
Blockbuster, the video rental store of old, had a growing business for years, having 9,000 stores around the world at the peak of their success. We all know the story about their tremendous fall and now non-existence due to a lack of innovation and defeat by Netflix. However, the reason they failed to innovate wasn’t because they had never heard of video-rental-by-mail or online streaming. They failed because their plan was too detailed. Their vision, providing affordable access to video entertainment around the world, is the same vision as Netflix. However, their plan on how to get there, requiring physical storefronts for access to the content they were providing, increased the size of the holes in their sieve. The increased size of these holes allowed the ideas of mail rentals and online streaming to escape. Had Blockbuster removed some of the detail in their plan, in effect shrinking the size of the holes in their sieve, they would have captured these ideas and seen them as another means to accomplish their vision.
The Sieve Questions
Now that you have your problem statement, vision, and a plan to get there, it is time to make your sieve actionable.
The questions should accomplish one main thing: help you evaluate an idea and push it through the sieve. These questions enable you to bounce an idea against all facets of your product sieve, either finding a place it gets captured, or letting it fall through and escape. Some organizations may have the same sieve questions, but many of them will be unique.
Some great sieve questions to start with:
What would my current users think of this?
Would this feel out of context for our product?
Does it align with the vision?
What part of the problem does this line up to?
How would my users interact with this in their new life?
Does it disrupt any part of my plan?
Would the vision still come true without this?
I have found that the last two questions — and the last one in particular — are the most helpful in making bad ideas escape the sieve. These questions will change over time, and that is okay, they should. If you aren’t changing how you evaluate ideas over time, then you aren’t making progress.
Note: A sieve is different from your product requirements documentation. These documents are typically not created until after you have used the sieve to determine the work is worth building.
How to use the sieve
Whenever you get a product idea, feature suggestion, or new business opportunity, put in through the sieve. This gives you the best chance to execute on golden ideas instead of only focusing on things that sound the coolest. You should use your sieve the same way each time to ensure you have the same context and perspective for evaluating each idea.
First, re-read, re-watch, or re-listen to your problem, vision, and plan. This keeps you centered on where it is you are headed and how you have planned to get there.
Second, think about the different aspects of the idea by asking questions like: How might it fit into the product? and What are the knowns and unknowns about the idea?. Try to shape it up as much as you can, this will give you a better chance of making sure it is given a fair shake. Shaping shouldn’t take a long time, you only want enough to precisely define the idea. Don’t put something like “build a portal” in your sieve, it won’t stand a chance of getting captured. Shape it up into something more defined, “build a web portal for admin users to access the failed login attempt history of their user population”. One is much more likely to get caught or escape the sieve appropriately.
Third, ask the sieve questions. There is no hard line on how many questions should be answered positively or negatively for an idea to be caught in the sieve. The answers to your questions should help you make an informed decision with the full context about whether or not the idea fits. If you decide it is captured, now the real work begins, evaluating and building.
Fourth, captured ideas must always be evaluated for their value. Just like large clumps of dirt can get caught in a sieve with the gold, bad ideas can get caught with the good ones. Identify them, decipher the breakdown that allowed it to get caught, and adjust your sieve accordingly. Just like a fine wine, your sieve should get better and better over time. As you adjust it and get used to using it, you will start to get more and more value out of your sieve.
Building a sieve for your product can be hard and tedious work on the front-end. It is not something that can be done overnight and will be constantly evolving as you get better at using it. However, if you don’t take the time to build a sieve for your product, your chances of failure and wasted effort sky-rocket.
Part 1 talked about how important it is to waste hours instead of years. Building a sieve may seem like wasted hours. It won’t be perfect at first and it will be tedious to use. But without the sieve, you will waste years working on features and opportunities that aren’t getting you any closer to your vision.
Everything you and your team works on should be getting your one step closer to your vision. Your product sieve will ensure that is the case.
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Thank you to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Richie Bonilla, Sara Campbell, and Patrick Rivera.