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The Four Product Diseases and How to Cure Them


Radhika Dutt & Radical Product

There are no shortage of articles and books on product management, most of which read more like another manifesto with tips and tricks that say product vision and product strategy are important. But few of these manifestos walk you through (in a straightforward way) how you go about actually building and communicating a product vision, what a product strategy actually means, or translating this vision and strategy into actual product execution.

Building vision-driven products that solve real pain points shouldn’t be a radical idea, but in practice it often can be. So Radhika Dutt and her colleagues, Nidhi Aggarwal and Geordie Kaytes set out to create a toolkit to help product leaders when good products go bad.

Radical Product is a free and open source toolkit for building great products. Radhika and I talked about the Radical Product framework and how it can be applied as a cure for the four product diseases.

If you like what you hear from Radhika and want to hear more you are in luck! Radhika is one of our speakers at UX Fest on June 4th! So register now to hear her talk more about how to build radical products!

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Listen to the Show:

Show notes:

Podcast Transcript:

Heath: Radhika, welcome.

Radhika: Thank you.

Heath: And welcome to UX Fest. We’re excited to have you as a speaker. I thought what we’d do is to start out and have you tell me a little bit about your background and your path to product management.

Radhika: So my background is that I started my undergrad and grad in engineering from MIT and since then I’ve been in the startup world. My first company was LOBBY7 where we built the early version of Siri and that was acquired by what is now Nuance. I’ve since been in a variety of different industries and verticals from broadcast to telecom to ad tech and wine, which was my own start up called Likelii. We use that a lot in our examples in Radical Product. And most recently in robotics and warehouse automation when I was at Symbotic. But that’s I guess the theme of my background, which led to Radical Product. It’s been experience across a variety of different verticals and having started my own company, getting into product management and over time and looking at all these different industries, observing how products are built, what works, what doesn’t, and observing kind of where good products have gone bad and that’s what led to wanting to start Radical Product with Geordie and Nidhi.

Heath: If I’m following correctly, you were engineering by training, but you really have been product from day one. I mean, engineering is product, but much like design is product, but you’ve been focused more on the prototypical product management role than say engineering or managing development.

Heath: 2000 is when you had the Siri version, in 2000?

Radhika: Yes.

Heath: Gosh, that seems like so long ago. It’s funny you mentioned Palm Pilots. I was a company, at PatientKeeper, and we had … our first product was Palm Pilot based. And our CEO jokes about being on a plane way back in those early days of the company and seeing people on their Palm Pilots and thinking, what are these people doing? Because the only thing you could do on a Palm Pilot was add something to your calendar or look at your contacts or play Tetris. So back then I can only imagine that voice recognition and Siri technology left a lot to be desired and it was … was it sort of you were ahead of the market in that sense?

Radhika: We were entirely too far ahead of the market. And I think that was one of the first few experiences where I realized that you can build very interesting technology but where you aren’t solving a desperate pain point … you know, and the truth is that it was a pain point, but it wasn’t something that … we call pain points validated when they’re both verified and they’re valued. I think not enough people had this pain point and therefore we shouldn’t … that’s why we really were too early to the market.

Heath: Or it wasn’t one of their top three pain points. My wife was in a similar scenario in … gosh, it would’ve been … call it 2003. Her company was focused on video streaming and making the technology behind streaming video much more efficient, less drops and hiccups, less expensive to do and companies would look at them like, “Okay, that’s nice, but how much video am I streaming other than maybe internal training videos,” or something like that. It was absolutely ahead of the market and it failed because it wasn’t valued, right?

Radhika: Yeah.

Heath: Cool technology, great idea, no doubt they were probably at the best technology that is probably in use today, but no one would pay for it back then because it wasn’t a big enough issue. It was a nice to have maybe or a cool thing, but it wasn’t a real pain point.

What is Radical Product and what’s the Radical Product approach?

Radhika: So Radical Product is more like a movement about building great products. It’s all free and open source. We have a tool kit that we’ve created. And the reason we built this toolkit is because my collaborators, Geordie and Nidhi, the three of us, we would look at, as I mentioned, you know, products go bad and we had this one question, which was, is good product management an innate skill or is it something that can actually be taught? And all the material that we saw about product management was more a manifesto than an instruction manual. So, a lot of articles and books gave you tips and tricks or they said, “Vision’s important, strategy’s important,” but nobody kind of was laying out how do you build a good vision? What does product strategy actually mean? So that’s what we started to sit down and define as part of this framework.

So it’s a way to create a good vision based on a template that’s centered around a problem. It’s a way to create a product strategy so you’re thinking about what are the key elements of product strategy, which, if you’re just thinking about intuitively, it’s hard to think about all of those elements of product strategy together. So it’s about thinking about it more comprehensively.

And then lastly, it’s about how do you translate vision and strategy into actual execution. Like you for instance see a lot of companies jumping directly from having a vision to directly the backlog and here are all my user stories and there are a few key steps in between, which is what’s your cross functional strategic roadmap. And so how do you build that to then drive your execution and then what do you measure at the end to know if you’re actually on a path to achieving that vision?

Heath: So how did you come up with the name Radical Product and is there a meaning behind that?

Radhika: The word radical came to us because it really means the root. And we wanted to go back to the root of building a product, which is going to what the real pain point is and then building the solution around that. So it was about a radically different approach to thinking about product in this more comprehensive and going right to the fundamentals way.

Heath: I’ve heard you and read you and your colleagues talk about product diseases. What’s a product disease and what are some of the most common diseases and what’s the cure for those diseases?

Radhika: One of the most frequent manifestations that we’ve seen is, you probably have a product disease if you feel like, oh, you know, Lean Startup and Agile just isn’t working for us. That’s very often an easy symptom to spot, right? But basically digging a level deeper, what happens is that if you have Lean or Agile, whatever your execution methodology, if your vision and strategy aren’t clear enough, the way it manifests itself in product diseases is one of these four most common product diseases.

The first is what we call pivotitis, right. So that I’ve seen a lot in the startup world, but even in big companies when Agile isn’t working, very often each sprint feels like a micro pivot every two or three weeks, right? And what happens there is because when there isn’t a vision that anchors you, it’s very easy to keep trying to pivot until you find what works and those pivots not guided by here’s what’s our driving force.

The next one is strategic swelling. What we mean by that is, very often if the question is “Should we add this feature or not?” Usually the answer is “Let’s add it in.” It’s this fear of missing out that ends up looking like a very bloated product that tries to do everything for everyone and again it’s because there isn’t a very clear picture of “Here’s the problem we need to solve and here’s our strategy to solve it.”

The third problem that we’ve seen is obsessive sales disorder. I think this is one where a lot of people really … it resonates with a lot of people. You know, there was one company that I’ll talk about where they were in so many different verticals, servicing customers in many different verticals because that’s kind of where sales led them and it’s not to say that you never make a sales driven decision, but every time you take on an opportunity that takes you further from your vision and it’s only for revenue, you’re taking on what we call vision debt, just like you take on technical debt. And there comes a point where it really starts to burden the business when you have so much vision debt because you’re getting further and further away from your vision.

And the last one is what we call hypermetricemia. Now this is one where when you hear companies say, “We measure everything,” that’s typically where we see hypermetricemia. That there’s this desire to measure things, but very often, I think this analytical approach to product management is taken to mean, “Let’s measure everything.” But measurement is really expensive, right? And so in the sense that it takes resources and it’s an opportunity cost. And so if you can be really strategic about what you measure, you get more out of that measurement whereas hyper metricemia often leads to small changes in the product that aren’t really moving the needle, but you feel like you’re doing the right thing by iterating and continuously chasing a particular metric that may not be particularly relevant for what you’re doing.

Heath: The obsessive sales disorder really resonates with me. For good or for bad in previous roles in companies that seemed to be the one that always tripped me up, you know, it’s that proverbial sales rep comes to you say, “Hey, if we can deliver X piece of functionality, we can sign this deal.”

Radhika: That’s exactly right.

Heath: Or I can close this deal at the end of this quarter and it finds its way into the roadmap and no one says, “Well that’s nice, but other than this one prospect, we’ve never had a user bring this up. We haven’t validated whether it exists elsewhere and whether it’s more important than what’s already been promised down the roadmap.” So that one, which I assume could also lead to what you called strategic swelling.

Radhika: One of the things we actually offered to help with this tracking technical debt in what you’re taking on, is a very simple two-by-two rubric, which, if there’s one thing that you can take away from this whole toolkit and apply tomorrow to what you’re doing is this two by two rubric, which helps you measure opportunities by looking at vision fit, that’s your y-axis. So is this a good vision fit or a bad vision fit? And the x-axis is sustainability, meaning is this helping me survive another day or is it taking me away from survivability, right.

And so in the best case scenario you’re working on opportunities that are both a really good vision fit and they’re making you highly sustainable. So in the case of a start up for instance, that might be where you’re able to get revenues or funding as a result of it.

But in the worst case scenario, you’re doing something that’s a bad vision fit and it’s bad for survivability, which just you know, you should avoid it. But I think what’s tricky is where you get into the two quadrants, which is a bad vision fit but it’s going to make me sustainable. Those are very often the ones that your sales person might bring to you and say, “This is that deal that we can get if you just do this one feature.”

And so as long as you’re tracking vision debt and you say, “Okay, here’s how we’re going to service it.” And maybe it’s going to help you take on something in the vision investment column, quadrant rather, which is basically a high vision fit, but it requires an investment in that vision. And so by plotting things on this two by two it helps you think about your strategy in such a way that it’s communicable with your whole team where you have this common framework and terminology for all of you to talk about together and say, “Okay, maybe we do decide to take on this vision debt,” but at least it’s a point of discussion and you have this framework to talk about what’s vision debt versus vision investment.

Heath: And so presumably Radical Product, the company, not just the approach and the framework, has cures, pills, for each of these four diseases, right? An approach or methodology or recommendations or can help companies overcome some of these diseases?

Radhika: It’s an open source toolkit and framework. And our mission is really to help product leaders and founders build better products. We have also done workshops for companies and the other thing is that we’re planning on putting together a book that we’ll put out by the end of this year that will really be that voice-over for the toolkit that people can use to … as a DIY basically for using the framework.

Heath: Okay. Makes sense. So UX Fest is coming up in June, and we’re really excited to have you onboard as one of our twelve speakers. Can you tell me a little bit about, give me a preview of what you’re going to be talking about at UX Fest?

Radhika: Yeah. I’m really excited about UX Fest. What I’m going to be covering is Agile and Lean, a Radical approach to these methodologies. The reason this topic is near and dear to my heart is we’ve seen, whether it’s startups or companies, having to pivot a lot as they work on finding product-market fit, so what we’ve found in building this toolkit is even in our own experience, this would have really reduced the number of iterations that we’ve done as part of building companies and products. So the goal is to help our audience see how they can build more and pivot less. And so ways to use this Radical approach to Lean and Agile so that you’re reducing the number of iterations and building your product more efficiently by crafting and communicating a really clear vision product strategy.

Heath: Well, we’re excited to have you at UX Fest and thanks for coming in.

Radhika: Thank you for having me.

Author Heath Umbach

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