August 19, 2012

Amazon.com and Product Development Strategy

Amazon.com LogoAmazon.com has always been an interesting company to watch. Back when I was in college, I had high hopes for them, mostly because the school bookstore, and the publishing companies that backed them, seemed to me to be a monopoly that had far to much power of my pocketbook. Beyond that, I'm 20 years into a love affair with the written word, so any place that allows me to scratch that itch and do so without breaking the bank is probably going to win my heart.

Given their start as an online-only, discount book broker, it shouldn't come as any surprise that Amazon's starting place in new product development also has its roots in the written word. For most development groups, that means a design spec, some kind of capital funding request or maybe just a high-level vision statement. Not Amazon, they start with the press release.

For those of us who has spent our careers working with our customers to create interesting business and technology solutions, this seems to be starting at the wrong spot. Isn't the press release the thing you do at the end of the project, that thing that you write once you know exactly what it is you will be releasing? How do you start there when you probably don't know what the final deliverable of your project will look like? You don't yet know how it will look, how it will function, how people will access it or really much more than the problem you're trying to solve or the opportunity on which you are trying to capitalize.

But all of these things are just details of the thing you're trying to build. Amazon seems to understand that the details that go into making a product do not equal the product itself. Their use of a press release really is really nothing more than a way to phrase the project goals in such a way that they can be easily captured and communicated to the people building the product. The fact that this document can later be reused to explain the finished product to the rest of the world is really just a happy accident.

When you take a look back at Amazon's recent press releases, you can even see all this in action. Read through a few and you'll find out everything you need to know about their new products. The line between these press releases and their products are clear.

The one thing I am quite curious about is what happens after a press release is finished. When it is approved and handed off to the the development teams to go implement, what do those teams do? The article specifies that they use it as a 'guiding light', but what additional information to the write? Are they an agile development shop that spends their time focusing on the working software over comprehensive documentation? Do they use digital requirements management solutions? Do they go through a traditional requirements elicitation process that takes months? Inquiring minds want to know.

While I really like Amazon's product service and appreciate some of the technological achievements they have created in the service of becoming the world's best online shopfront, I wonder if there are not some holes in this process as well. The original Kindle, for all its popularity, was better at getting Amazon's product into consumer hands than it was at being a ground-breaking product. The original version, to me at least, felt incomplete and poorly implemented. The constraints imposed on the product made it feel significantly less capable than it could have been. Was this because the original vision for it, as outlined in a press release, was so narrow in scope that it never achieved everything it could be? Or was the press release process put in place to some failed or less-than-successful project somewhere in the past where the development process went even further off the rails?

While we may never know the answers to those questions, knowing what we do know of their project initiation process does help us to understand a bit more about how some of our most beloved products and services are created. To me, that is golden knowledge. Here's to hoping they pull back the curtain even further in coming years.