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Finding Your North Star: How to Set the Course for Product Development

Night Sky with Stars

Bringing to life a new product idea is exciting. And work intensive. In many cases, product design and development are the most difficult and important parts of the product’s go-to-market strategy. Many teams prioritize these tasks and dive head first into building the product. Some do so without first articulating a clear goal. 

Frequently, teams that struggle to define and measure their primary objectives struggle to gain traction together. Without a clear, measurable goal to unite them, it’s easy to end up working in silos with no coordination of efforts. 

Your product strategy has to be built around a primary objective, or a North Star. It’s critical to pair that goal with an appropriate key performance indicator (KPI) to track progress and remind your team to continually tune and harmonize efforts to the shared goal. 

Without a North Star, it’s much harder to take your product idea from concept to fruition. How do you know what your North Star should be?

Locate Your Product North Star

Establishing your North Star is the first step in creating an effective product development strategy. That strategy, or product roadmap, creates guardrails to ensure that work is coordinated across parallel tracks and helps your team understand how their contributions support the overall goal. Defining your overarching North Star goal sets the course for that strategy and aligns the work of the various team disciplines (design, engineering, marketing, sales, etc.). 

Defining Your North Star Goal 

Your goal is your bottom line, the action your customers take to access your solution. This goal cuts through the noise of competing individual priorities to remind your team what their work ultimately helps achieve for the end user. You want to keep this target simple, because all the subsequent mini-goals you create will get increasingly more complicated. 

Those mini-goals are North Stars for each respective product development discipline: marketing, design, software engineering, etc. They all have their own cascading sets of smaller goals. Each level represents an added layer of complexity. 

The strategies and tactics needed to make progress on the respective tracks are not simple. It’s all-too-easy for your team to get mired in the details and requirements of their individual efforts. Whether you’re developing a fitness app, creating stationary bikes, or curating premium health and wellness content, you have to help your team stay focused on the end user. 

For this reason, you must align your product North Star with the mission of your business. We’ve touched on how critical it is to define your company’s reason for being. The product strategy you pursue has to support that “why” (a.k.a. your company’s North Star). 

Apple offers a great example. The company’s reasons for existing include “making personal computing accessible to each and every individual” and “making the best products on earth.” These translate to a product strategy designed around innovative hardware technology. Apple’s North Star goal is hardware sales (phones, personal computers, tablets, wearable devices). 

To be sure, Apple also makes software products. However, you can only access these products with their hardware. Apple’s product strategy prioritizes hardware, and all other product types support that primary goal. 

This can’t happen without everyone following the North Star. 

Choose Your Product North Star KPI

Subjective goals that describe the future you want to build can have a number of different definitions or interpretations. Your product strategy turns those subjective goals (i.e. making personal computing accessible) into objective ones (i.e. hardware sales) that help your business succeed. Objective goals are also easier to translate into meaningful KPIs, and thus, easier to track. 

Once you define your product North Star, you need to choose an appropriate metric that can help you track goal progress. Look for a number that everyone easily understands, as your team should always know how they impact this number. 

Avoid choosing vanity numbers, like website visits. Focus on metrics that drive your business. Just like with your North Star goal, the KPI has to describe your bottom line. If you’re developing an app, that number is user downloads. If you’re building next-generation exercise equipment, you’re looking at units sold. If you’re creating gated content, you focus on subscriptions. 

Once you identify your KPI, don’t keep this important metric a secret. Product leaders should put the “big number” on permanent display for the team. An everyday reminder will keep them attuned to the success of your product and serve as a continual reminder to the ultimate purpose of your team’s work. 

Use Your North Star to Chart Innovative Product Strategy 

Your approach to data plays an important role in the direction you set with your product strategy. And product teams appreciate data, as they should. However, some are more selective than others.  

The Data-Led Approach

Data-led product teams prioritize the breadth of information they can collect. They strive to evaluate all available data sources and key metrics to formulate a big picture. They try to find relevance and make predictions about future market conditions. 

However, this approach can lead you in several different directions, including away from your primary goal. If Apple is seeing huge growth in its base of fitness content subscribers, should that data influence the company to abandon its hardware-first approach in favor of potentially richer pastures as a subscriber-based content provider? 

The Data-Informed Approach 

This data-led approach is not the one the company’s product leaders took with the development of Apple Fitness+, its fitness tracking service. We know this because Apple Fitness+ is only available on the Apple Watch, and no other device (not even the iPhone). If subscribers were the primary goal, this service would be available on every possible screen. 

Instead, Apple’s product team stuck to their North Star (hardware sales). They analyzed user interest in fitness and created a hypothesis: that fitness content can help drive more sales of the Apple Watch. They then used data to validate their approach and continued the process, creating and testing more hypotheses to refine and innovate the service. 

Product Development Success Depends on Your North Star

Digital products aim to solve complex customer problems. Your solutions will require a complicated product strategy. But, before you design your sophisticated, next-generation solution, you actually need to start simple. 

Identify your product North Star. Be clear about your bottom line and communicate it to your team with a KPI everyone understands. Then, create an appropriate data infrastructure to continually test and validate your product idea. These efforts are the surest way to lay a foundation for product development success.