Every great product has a core thesis

A single idea that justifies that product’s existence

very great product you use and love has a single unifying reason to exist, some central thesis. This thesis is not always correct — not everyone wants to wave at their computer to move a window or change the focus of their pictures later, but every successful product has a single thesis that is the focal point of that product and all of its features. Products without this core statement for existence tend to try doing everything, but end up doing nothing. These are products like the Fire phone and Google+ that seem to be created without a reason except to exist and compete in a market.

The touch screen

The very first iPhone was the introduction of Apple’s entirely touch screen smartphone. Its thesis was that phones are the perfect use case for touch screens.

More screen real estate, larger images, and an overall improvement over past phones. As a result, every feature on the new phone was designed to be used with your fingers rather than mini scroll wheels or physical keyboards. Every app used the entire screen and forced everyone to type on a touch screen. It meant that you could have a large iPod video screen in your pocket on the same device you could really see the pictures you took and were sent to you.

This first product was the first phone to use a touch screen, but it was the first to design every aspect of the phone around the touch screen. With the core feature of the device being touch, everything needed to be rethought because the old paradigm of the non-touch screen phone interface no longer applied.

As a result of making everything based on touch many things were also not so great, you could no longer type without looking and the typing experience had a frustrating learning curve to it. On top of some quirks in the interface, the original iPhone did not have many of the bells and whistles we take for granted in today’s smartphones. There were no games, no app store, the apps it came with were the only ones you had. Not everything was great about the device, but the fact that it was deadset on perfecting touch where so many had failed before helped it convince the world that touchscreens were the future of phones.

Launching without a thesis

Not every product launches with a clear thesis. In 2014, three years after Apple released Siri, Amazon launched its Alexa home assistant with the idea that the best place for a voice assistant is at home on the kitchen counter. As people slowly began to adopt and love the Alexa in their homes a few clear patterns came into view.

Alexa was not being used to buy things, it was mostly being used to play music, set timers, get the weather, and ask fact-based questions. Unlike Siri on your phone, Alexa was not designed to do personal tasks like call friends or set calendar appointments, it was instead designed for many people to use and share. This focus on helping everyone rather than a single person is what seems to have inspired some of Alexa’s more unique features such as bedtime stories and telling jokes. When designing a device for everyone, the attention shifts away from sending messages and scheduling calendar events, to instead help set times, play music, or settle arguments. Overtime the Alexa team has taken these learnings from the early days to double down on what their users seem to care about: great sound quality at an affordable price. Not launching with a thesis but with a set of a different set of features can be a great way to find what users care about the most and let it become the product’s thesis. This is a path many big companies seem to take whether intentional or not but is also a path they can afford to take since pivoting and tweaking to find that product-market fit to unify a product around can often take more years than smaller companies have a runway.

Some products change their thesis over time. For the iPhone, the first version was all about the screen, then the focus shifted to apps, and finally to the smartphone camera wars we have today. When a breakthrough innovation such as the touch screen in smartphones becomes table-stakes the product’s raison d’etre needs to evolve. For the iPhone, we see a different thesis with almost every major iteration. The iPhone 3G was not so much about the internet speed boost as it was about the app store and what apps on your smartphone meant for you. The iPhone X was about the new type of screen and the iPhone 11 Pro is about the new camera system.

Other products that never really had a core thesis when they launched found one in later iterations. A good example of this is the Apple Watch (I apologize for all the Apple examples, but this one is just too good). When the first iteration of the Apple Watch was launched it was unclear what it would be used for. Smartwatches had existed for years before Apple introduced its Apple Watch. The Pebble was great at showing notifications and Garmin was great as an activity and run system. Those two previous products had a core thesis, notifications, and exercise respectively. When the Apple Watch launched it was doing everything, apps, notifications, health, but did none of those things particularly well. After a couple more iterations, until the Apple Watch Series 3 really, the watch’s thesis became squarely about health. With each subsequent iteration, Apple added more and more features focusing on this health aspect from EKG to heart irregularity detection. Not launching with a product thesis is risky at best and suicide at worst, but looking at how customers are using your product and iterating towards a specific use case can help you create a better-focused product in the long run if you have the runway to last that long.

How to spot the thesis

Spotting a product’s thesis is not always as easy as looking at a landing page or listening to a keynote, sometimes you need to break down the feature set to see what the goal of this product is. It should be relatively easy to spot the thesis, if you’re having trouble spotting it there’s likely no central thesis. Let’s take a product like Minut’s Pointe Alarm. It’s a product you’re unlikely to have heard of so we can step through it together. It has the following features:

1. It analyzes the sound in your home to determine some type of safety threat burglary, earthquake, smoke, or carbon monoxide.

2. It triggers an alarm sound and sends you a notification if it detects a threat

3. It sends you a notification if your temperature falls outside of a safe temperature range

4. Alerts you if your home is likely to harbor mold

5. All sound processing is done on-device, so no recordings leave your home.

Based on those features, what do you think the thesis of this product is?

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If you said using sound for home safety you’d be right. To put it another way, I’d say their central thesis is using sound to detect threats to your safety. It seems other features like temperature and humidity were added on as relatively low-cost bonuses they could add into the product to help detect other threats to your home such as low temperature bursting pipes and creating harmful air. In this case, Minut has done an excellent job of making all its core feature support the thesis of home safety device.

If Minut had decided to add a few more features like a Bluetooth speaker, Alexa voice support, and maybe even thrown in a screen to display the outside temperature then the thesis would be less clear. Home security is not something you interact with every day. It’s something that you put in the background and it alerts you when there is a problem. If a Bluetooth speaker is added, that’s something that is used fairly often. With a screen it could tell you the time and weather. So, by adding Alexa support, a Bluetooth speaker, and a screen for sake of example we’ve made an Alexa alarm clock with some security features. But now there are three competing visions without a clear product thesis. To different people, it is different things. To the kids, it is an Alexa, to the wife it is an alarm clock, and to the husband, it is a home security system. That should never be the case for a product with a single thesis. One thing done exceptionally well instead of 3 things done to mediocrity.

Single thesis product strategy

With the Wynd Halo our initial idea was to use sensors to automatically control the devices in your home. Instead of telling Alexa to turn on a light, fan, air purifier, etc. The Halo would have the sensors to understand your environment and control the devices inside it automatically. It started with our Home Purifier. By having the Halo and Home Purifier in the same room, the Halo could control it based on your needs. If you prefer the home office to be set to productive mode, the Halo will ensure the air quality is pristine while making sure the Home Purifier’s sound never gets above 35 dB, so you can focus on your work while breathing clean air. Using your phone, we can detect if you’re at home or not, if you’re not at home, then everything turns off. With sensors, things can be controlled automatically. Turning on and off based on if you are home or not. Connecting with WeMo to control lights. Connecting to Ecobee to control the thermostat. Connecting to the Home Purifier to clean the air only as much as needed so you never have to worry about your home environment again.

When you have a clear thesis every single feature is added with the single goal enhancing the argument. Just like any good argument, every point strengthens the thesis. This idea is not unique to arguments or tech gadgets. It is the reality of every product you’ve ever interacted with. The mug sitting next to you to the pencil or wallet in your pocket. They are all designed with a single purpose and every feature enhances that thesis.

In the case of a mug, it is made of a thick material either glass or ceramic to help insulate the hot contents. It has a handle to keep the user comfortable while maintaining the liquid’s warmth. Two primary features of most good mugs. Thick material and a handle. There are of course mugs that have different methods of accomplishing the same goal. Extra insulation to keep the inside warm and the outside cool to the touch. This different material still caters to that same central thesis of a transportable vessel to keep contents warm.

A pencil is another good example. A pencil is a writing instrument that allows you to undo your mistakes. A pencil without an eraser is effectively the same as a pen. If you can’t undo your mistake then there is little difference between the two products. By attaching the erase directly to the pencil, the product always has the feature that allows it to undo its mistakes when needed.

Now you try. Look for a product around you and distill it down to its feature set, then try and figure out its core thesis for existing. Some products you’ll find have conflicting feature sets and no clear thesis. Others you’ll find have a simple clear thesis.

When you create your products keep this idea of a core thesis in mind. It’s what differentiates good products from great products and winners from losers.

Product Manager and designer writing about ideas. Living and working in SF. See more of my projects at www.alexcreates.me