When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
— Clarke’s First Law by Arthur C. Clarke
Current technological constraints heavily influence many of our product decisions. When figuring out the minimum in your Minimum Viable Product takes too much energy, consider temporarily discarding all of the constraints. Later, incrementally reintroduce them back, monitoring the impact on the product. Exploring product without constraints allows your team to reconnect with the underlying customer behaviour and identify both smaller and better ways to serve it — the ways hidden behind years of bad memories about intractable problems.
The technological landscape is continuously evolving. New tools and frameworks pop up every day. The problems that before were considered hard or even impossible to solve, suddenly become trivial, thanks to the constant stream of new platforms and tools. If what’s possible is being redefined every day, the day to day decision-making ends up being based predominantly on what was possible yesterday, not what is achievable now.
The human mind also likes predictability, a lot. So much so that we easily fall into complacency around previously identified limitations. When you find that something is impossible to do, the hard way, you unconsciously file the challenge under “insurmountable”. When the problem inevitably gets a solution, our mind becomes a blocker, stealthily protecting us from repeat disappointments at the cost of stagnation. Over the years, the mind builds layers of these intractable problems, making our decision-making even more biased towards the past long gone.
Designing A Miracle for A Need
I have a trick that I use during gruelling product planning sessions. I call it Maximum Feasible Miracle. In planning, good teams usually focus on searching for the smallest possible combination of features to fulfil a small, but visible part of the target need. Instead, I would ask them to clearly state the target need and search for the smallest, most magical product, that adequately addresses the need — the more impossible the product, the better. I task the team to pretend they are wizards and design the best digital elixir they can imagine. I ask them to find and define a Miracle.
Let’s say you are a member of a product team planning incremental delivery of an online product shop. When defining the scope of the build, you would naturally start talking about authentication, administration, product listing, product search, basket and checkout capabilities. If you are using the User Story Mapping format, you would put the activities into the map backbone and start exploring individual features within each activity to build an incremental backlog. How much of search can we get away with as the first smallest increment? How much of the checkout functionality do we need to support a necessary purchase? These conversations become very heated very quickly. After all, isn’t all this functionality a market standard? Surely we need all of this in the end.
However, what is the ultimate miracle version of the webshop? What is the customer need that we are trying to fulfil here? The customer either wants to purchase a particular product as a result of a decision they already made or they want help in making the decision. If we focus on purchasing a specific product as our target need, what is the magical software concoction to fulfil it? A mind-reading, single-product landing page comes to my mind. You type in the domain name into a browser, and the exact product you want appears in front, read straight from your mind. Underneath the product is a single button to purchase. Clicking on the button works out the address to which you want the product delivered, the bank account you want to use and all the credentials required, effectively committing the purchase. Let’s say we plan to implement all this by utilising a series of mind-reading services AWS announced just this morning (they might not have).
Maximising Feasibility, One Constraint at a Time
Besides being a scary proposition, mind-reading and zero-interaction banking platforms are not a reality (yet?). So what is the value of coming up with this imagined solution that we can not deliver? As with many things, the value is in the journey, not the destination. Creating a product with all the reality constraints stripped allows us to see the need we are trying to support. Granularly reintroducing constraints then allows us to individually evaluate the impact of each of them on the solution and the need. It allows us to look at the problem, the solution and the limitations, without taking any of them for granted. It also allows us to find new ways of addressing the need.
We can not yet read minds to identify the desired product. That’s a constraint we are introducing back and a piece of magic we now have to remove. We have to ask the customer which product they want. However, what if instead we decide to sell a limited set of products and show all of them straight on the landing page or, perhaps, pick a single random one on each customer’s visit? Alternatively, maybe, we add a single search field, leading customer to a single product page, a la Google’s “I am feeling lucky”. If the constraint is that we do not know the product on a customer’s mind, what are our options? Surprisingly, faceted, paginated search results interface does not always end up being the first pick.
The interface to extract bank account details from the customer’s brainwaves is not widely available yet. That is another constraint we are reintroducing. Do we have to ask a customer for his bank account details through a complicated checkout process? What if instead, we use Amazon Pay, Apple Pay or Google Pay, resulting in just a single button to purchase? Also, customer account and history? We can explore getting it through the above integrations too. If the constraint is that we need to allow customers to commit purchase, what are our options? Asking for customer’s bank account details is not the only option on the table anymore.
A single-page, random product shop with an Amazon Pay button to commit the purchase, sounds scarily close to our wacky Miracle. We just found our Maximum Feasible Miracle! Admittedly, this exercise is unlikely to unfold in this exact way for the majority of your webshop planning sessions, but it is more than possible for you to discover different, creative routes to the need fulfilment. At the very least, it might help you generate options for delivering the original scope more incrementally.
Planning for Magic
Any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.
— Corollary to Clarke’s Third Law by Arthur C. Clarke
We often bring large amounts of personal bias and baggage into planning sessions. Over years of practice, it gets hard to see the tree of need behind the forest of widely-accepted practices. For an industry that continually strives to solve the unsolved, too many limitations of the past seem to influence our decisions today. It is then of no surprise that many products and solutions we end up delivering are carbon copies of each other. Reused constraints bread reused decisions.
One of the simplest ways to fight biases is to shine a light upon them. By removing and then incrementally reintroducing individual constraints, we are exposing them to critical thinking. It might feel like we are retreading the old grounds or reopening the old wounds, but only by reexamining the past can we hope to improve the future. One of the commonly accepted roles of software is in the opening of new doors. Perhaps, it can also help us reopen the doors unintentionally closed.
Maximum Feasible Miracle is just one approach to help expose and explore hidden constraints. Gojko Adzic, in his book Specification by Example, introduces a different version he calls Bug Driven Development. He would start planning from a single screen, asking stakeholders to file verbal “bug requests” about the missing functionality. It works very similarly to the approach in this article. I’m sure there are others. Maybe you have your own. Leave a comment below if you do or if you find the approach a useful addition to your toolbox.