What Would Steve Jobs Think of the Build Trap?

brown wooden mouse trap with cheese bait on top
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I received some great feedback from Greg in Sydney about my last article on Escaping The Build Trap by Melissa Perri.

“I understand your article. But kept wondering what Steve Jobs would think. He relentlessly made products that we didn’t even know we wanted. But he did design them with the customer’s future experience and utility in mind. Will be keen to hear your thoughts.”

Greg, I think you are absolutely right. I don’t think Steve Jobs would have settled for anything less than a product that solves a customer problem simply and elegantly.

In fact, Melissa Perri actually talks about Apple in Escaping The Build Trap because it was a visionary led company. When you have someone as visionary as Steve Jobs leading your product strategy, it’s awesome. However, you open yourself to the risk that you may never be able to replace your visionary leader.

Creating a product that solves a hidden customer problem definitely isn’t a bad thing. You can’t really achieve that level of brilliance though without having an intimate understanding of who your customers are. I don’t think Steve Jobs would have asked customers what they wanted because he was always one step ahead. I do think he knew who his customers were and the experience that would make his products simple and addictive.

We can’t all have the vision of Steve Jobs. I do think us mere mortals have an opportunity to experiment like we are Steve Jobs. Watch customer behaviour, form a hypothesis and test small ideas quickly. Make the lives of your customers better. I’m not sure if Escaping The Build Trap will get into this, more to come…

I am going to tell you some stories about my build traps. I share these so that others can learn and maybe get a laugh out of my reflections.

Copy cat

I was designing an onboarding journey that would help customers get the most out of their new product. The work was up on the wall and a literal competitor of ours was invited in to review it. The oracle redesigned the whole thing. There are no words.

As a creative person I struggled to accept this approach. I consider this my own build trap though. I should have fought harder and pushed back. The products weren’t like for like, so copying the competitor didn’t solve many problems and it didn’t drive engagement. I also wonder whether it is wise to trust a competitor…

Technology led product

We built a product feature where customers had to choose a predetermined bundle of transactions. This was despite knowing that customers wanted to tick them one by one. The reason? It was easier to build it that way in the system.

It was frustrating to know the product itself had real value but we were ignoring customers on a critical point. We were making life harder for our customers.

The fun part? Receiving a grilling for months on end about why customers weren’t using it.

The big airliner

Early in my career I ran a series of campaigns to attract more customers to my product. I struck a deal with management (the audacity haha!). If I got 1,000 new customers in 2 weeks, they’d give me double the marketing budget next quarter.

Like a mini CEO PM I talked the biggest game. I told anyone who would listen about the new campaign that would break the acquisition record for the portfolio. Cashbacks were all the rage at the time. Yet would you believe that airline customers actually much preferred free flights? If only I had asked them I might have changed the order of my tests! Needless to say, I didn’t get the marketing budget!

My manager probably knew this would be the outcome but gave me the freedom to experiment anyway. The best part is that we laughed about it for years. I think that is the sign of a great leader. And yes, I had to justify my series of failed experiments to the executives of not just one but three companies.

Coming up next:

I'd love to hear what you think!