Book review: “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love”

Marty Cagan is a legend. Period. He’s a legend in the world of product management anyway. I’ve been to a number of events over the past few years where Marty either was a keynote speaker or acted as a ‘judge’, reviewing the product pitches of fellow product people who nervously presented to this ‘product guru’.

What makes Marty Cagan such a phenomenon? The answers can be found in his book “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love” which he first published in 2008. This book was probably one of the first ones in its league; providing product people with practical tips on how to create products that customers love. Since then there have been an awful lot of books on product management and developing engaging products, but a lot of that started with “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love”.

These are some of the things that I’ve learned from this book and which I’ve been able to put in practice over the past couple of years:

  1. Great products don’t happen by accident – Even if you stop reading Marty Cagan’s book after about 10 pages, you’ll have already picked up on Marty’s ten learnings about how to create inspiring products. His main point is that great products never happen by accident, but ‘by design’ and he’s listed some great points which underpin this point (see Fig. 1 below). According to Marty, the product manager has two key responsibilities in this respect: assessing product opportunities, and defining the product to be built.
  2. Building the right product vs building the product right: Marty makes a great point when he states that “the product manager is responsible for defining the solution, but the engineering team knows best what’s possible, and they must ultimately deliver that solution.” In Chapter 5 of “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love” Marty suggests three practical ways of working closely with engineers to develop a better product (see Fig. 2 below). Equally, as a product person I can help engineers by keeping their focus on a ‘minimal’ product; don’t define the ultimate product but the smallest possible product that will meet your goals (you can find an example here where I created an MVP version of my own product last year).
  3. Recruiting good product managers – In Chapter 6 of the book, Marty outlines key qualities to look for when hiring a product manager. I compared my list of important qualities to Marty’s list of personal traits and attitude, which naturally is quite a bit longer (see Fig. 3 below). The one thing that I’d like to hear more from Marty about is about communication and related soft skills. In his brief section on communications, Marty mostly talks about writing clear ‘prose’ and about more generic presentation skills. I would, however, love to know how Marty typically deals with difficult stakeholders (beyond ‘managing up’ as described in Chapter 10) getting people to buy into an idea or investment. Also, how does Marty approach people in coffee shops or on the streets for some ‘gorilla’ user interviews? It would be great to have Marty zoom in on these (soft) skills in more detail.
  4. Assessing product opportunities – One of the main things that I learned through Marty a few years ago was the practical value of his so-called ‘opportunity assessment’ (see Fig. 4 below). Even if you don’t ask yourself all the questions raised in this template, it provides a very efficient way to quickly assess a product opportunity. The thing I like most about Cagan’s opportunity assessment is that it focuses on the user or business problem that you’re trying to solve and not the particular solution that you have in mind. For example, when I assessed the opportunity for my own product last year I concentrated on the problem that my app was trying to solve and not so much (initially) on the actual shape that my app was going to take.
  5. Frame your product decisions – In Chapter 13 of the book, Marty stresses the importance of properly framing the (product) decision to be made, and to get everyone on the same page in terms of the decision frame. I’ve learned how easy it can be to lose sight of key decision factors or to think that everyone is on the same wavelength (whilst they’re not). The points outlined in Fig. 5 below can help massively in identifying the different aspects of the decision that you’re looking to make and in figuring out the data required to help make the decision.

Main learning point: “Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love” contains a great deal of specific pointers on how to develop engaging products and how to best create a product-oriented culture. Whether you’re completely new to product management or have been doing it for a number of years, I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to learn something from the absolute master that is Marty Cagan!

Fig. 1 – Creating ‘Great Products by Design’ (from: Marty Cagan – Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love)

  1. The job of the product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.
  2. Product discovery is a collaboration between the product manager, interaction designer, and software architect.
  3. Engineering is important and difficult, but user experience design is even more important, and usually more difficult.
  4. Engineers are typically very poor at user experience design – engineers think in terms of implementation models, but users think in terms of conceptual models.
  5. User experience design means both interaction design and visual design (and for hardware-based devices, industrial design).
  6. Functionality (product requirements) and user experience design are inherently intertwined.
  7. Product ideas must be tested – early and often – on actual target users in order to come up with a product that is valuable and usable.
  8. We need a high-fidelity prototype so we can quickly, easily, and frequently test our ideas on real users using a realistic user experience.
  9. The job of the product manager is to identify the minimal possible product that meets the objectives – valuable, usable, and feasible – minimising time to market and user complexity.
  10. Once this minimal successful product has been discovered and validated, it is not something that can be piecemealed and expect the same results.

Fig. 2 – Three ways to use your engineers to come up with a better product (from: Marty Cagan – Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love)

  1. Get your engineers in front of users and customers
  2. Enlist the help of your engineers in exploring what’s becoming possible as technology develops
  3. Involve your engineers (or at least a lead engineer) or architect from the very beginning of the product discovery process to get very early assessments of relative costs of the different ideas, and to help identify better solutions

Fig. 3 – Personal traits and attitude of great product managers (from: Marty Cagan – Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love)

  • Product passion – Having a love and passion for good products
  • Customer empathy – Being able to understand the problems and needs from your target audience
  • Intelligence – Intelligence is hard to measure, but problem solving is definitely an important trait to look out for
  • Work ethic – The focus here is on the level of responsibility that comes with being a product manager
  • Integrity – Being able to build up a relationship of trust and respect with the people that you work with
  • Confidence – Confidence is a critical ingredient when it comes to convincing others to invest their time, money or effort into a product
  • Focus – Have the ability to keep the focus on the key problem to be solved at any given moment
  • Time management – Being able to distinguish between what’s important (and why) and what’s urgent
  • Communication skills – Writing clear and concise prose, get ideas or points across clearly and succinctly
  • Business skills – Understand the business aspects of your proposition, market, etc. Being able to understand and speak business language and concepts

Fig. 4 – Assessing product opportunities (from: Marty Cagan – Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love) 

  1. Exactly what problem will this solve? (value proposition)
  2. For whom do we solve that problem? (target market)
  3. How big is the opportunity? (market size)
  4. How will we measure success? (metrics/revenue strategy)
  5. What alternatives are out there now? (competitive landscape)
  6. Why are we best suited to pursue this? (our differentiator)
  7. Why now? (market window)
  8. How will we get this product to market? (go-to market strategy)
  9. What factors are critical to success? (solution requirements)
  10. Given the above, what’s the recommendation? (go or no-go)

Fig. 5 – Framing product decisions properly and getting everyone on the same page in terms of (from: Marty Cagan – Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love) 

  • What problem exactly are you trying to solve?
  • Who exactly are you trying to solve this problem for – which persona?
  • What are the goals you are trying to satisfy with this product?
  • What is the relative priority of each goal?

Related links for further learning:



What to expect from Amazon’s anticipatory shipping patent?

Earlier this year Amazon patented its “anticipatory shipping” solution, which basically comes down to Amazon shipping products even before customers have ordered them. Amazon will use an algorithm to pre-determine things that people want to buy, based on a mix of data including previous purchases, questionnaires, wish lists, browsing data, demographic data, etc.

Even though this “anticipatory shipping” concept is in its early stages, these are the more interesting aspects worth looking into:

  1. Anticipating demand – This algorithm will help Amazon to anticipate demand and, critically, the location where that demand is most likely to arise. Predicting user demand is the holy grail for most eCommerce or content businesses and Amazon is no exception. Amazon is looking to utilise its treasure chest of customer data – behavioural and demographic – to the fullest.
  2. Impact on distribution – It all depends on how exactly Amazon will implement its patent, but one can imagine that their whole distribution and supply chain system will alter dramatically. For example, the patent includes an outline of “speculatively shipping” packages to destinations and how to re-route items based on proximity to potential customers for those items. One of the diagrams included in the patent (see Fig.1 below) gives a clear indication of what such a scenario could look like. As a result, goods might stop being stored in huge warehouses but instead be continuously on the move in trucks.
  3. Improving Amazon’s recommendations even further – Similar to the point I raised about anticipating demand (see point 1. above), it will be interesting to see how Amazon will further improve its algorithms to predict customer demand accurately. Amazon is already doing a pretty good job at figuring out user profiles (Darius Kazemi’s “Random Shopper” provides a good case in point) and providing content-based recommendations, i.e. looking at similar products that you have purchased previously. In order to get anticipatory shopping right, Amazon will base its predictions on additional data such as product searches, wish lists, shopping-cart contents, returns and more random aspects such as how long a user’s cursor has hovered over a specific item.

Main learning point: Anticipatory shipping sounds a bit futuristic, but its underlying rationale and benefit is clear to see. What intrigues me most is to see how the customer will benefit from a predictive, as-and-when delivery approach. One of the key factors in this equation is the quality and accuracy of Amazon’s predictions. I guess that’s the thing I will be most interested; how will Amazon accurately predict what I need, where and when?

Fig. 1 – “Speculatively shipping” by Amazon (taken from: US Patent 24 December 2013 No. 8,615,473 B2)


Amazon anticipatory shipping


Related links for further learning:


Book review: “The Lean Entrepreneur”

At first, when I picked up “The Lean Entrepreneur” I was slightly skeptical. I wondered how much new stuff I was going to learn from yet another book on “lean” practices. However, this book by Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper does provide a lot of interesting case studies and practical tools to implement. “The Lean Entrepreneur” can provide value to both people completely new to lean practices and to those who have applied lean principles previously.

For example, the book explains that “flow” in lean terms means that manufacturing is pulled through the product development process only when demanded by the next step in the product development process. I can imagine that practitioners familiar with lean principles will know this kind of stuff but will nevertheless find chapters and case studies around topics such as “minimum viable audience” and “viability experiments” of (practical) interest. These are the things that I found most helpful in “The Lean Entrepreneur”:

  1. Opportunity Matrix  The Opportunity Matrix is in essence a simple way of looking at one’s different (potential) user segments and their relevant characteristics. This tool helps in comparing aspects such as “depth of pain”, “budget” and “size of market” of each individual target segment.
  2. Value-Stream Discovery – A key aspect of lean thinking is to identify and optimise the value of your product. For instance, the authors suggest that a high level value stream might look something like this: validate product idea -> validate product -> validate marketing and sales -> validate growth engine. Validating the growth engine is about determining how to convert satisfied customers into passionate and loyal customers, enabling the business to scale. Dave McClure, who introduced “Pirate Metrics” suggests the following steps as part of this specific value discovery process: acquisition -> activation -> retention -> revenue -> referral (see Fig. 1 below).
  3. A Minimum Viable Product is about nailing the specific – In the book, Patrick and Brant offer a good reminder of what the Minimum Viable Product (‘MVP’) is and what it isn’t. An MVP isn’t about trying to capture all the general requirements in your product, throwing it against the wall and seeing what sticks. One could argue that this isn’t necessarily a bad approach and that it might even be successful in some cases. However, I liked how the authors stress the importance of “nailing the specific, not the general”. This means figuring out what your customers do with your product to complete the job your customer hired your product for.
  4. MVP Testing – I’ve written before about the importance of validating assumptions. The book does also talk about using validation as a core focus for your product focused activities. For instance, when you do interviews with users to find out if there’s a “product-solution fit” it’s all about setting a clear goal for these interviews; “we will talk to 10 customers and validate that they have problem x.” Another example is MVP testing, where the focus is on validating your MVP and validating the value that you expect your MVP to deliver (I’ve included an example in Fig. 2 below).
  5. Funnel vision – I SO want to have a ‘funnel vision’! One of the final chapters in The Lean Entrepreneur is dedicated to moving customers through the funnel. As I mentioned in point 2. above, the challenge here is to effectively move your customers through the funnel, in a way that’s appropriate for your business or product. For example, I wondered what a customer funnel can look like for a B-2-B-C business which creates Software-as-a-Service (‘SaaS’) products (see the related “B2B SaaS example” in fig. 3 below).

Main learning point: if you’re looking for more practical tools on how to best implement a ‘lean’ product development process, then “The Lean Entrepreneur” is your book. If you’re a ‘lean veteran’ you might already know quite a lot of stuff that’s in the book, but I think you’ll still benefit from both the practical suggestions and the real-life case studies which Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper have outlined in this great book.

Fig. 1 – Sample user acquisition and conversion funnel following Dave McClure “Pirate Metrics” (taken from:

User acquisition & conversion funnel Fig. 2 – Web App example of MVP testing (taken from: Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper – The Lean Entrepreneur, p. 184)

  • Segment: First-time startup founder needing the ability to read market signal for their product
  • Minimum functionality: Assumption wizard, survey tool and dashboard
  • Satisfaction: Use of online wizard: one per week; sends survey: once per week and views dashboard: daily
  • Passion: Resubscribes, acts as reference and a Net Promoter for the product

Fig. 3 – B2B Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) example (taken from: Patrick Vlaskovits and Brant Cooper – The Lean Entrepreneur, p. 199)

  • Funnel State 1: Aware
  • How do you know? Comes to landing page from tweet
  • Customer now wants to: Learn more about the product
  • So, what do you do now? Messaging and positioning; special offer
  • Funnel State 2: Intrigued
  • How do you know? Reads product description, benefits, requirements, testimonials
  • Customer now wants to: Equate price with value
  • So, what do you do now? Online return on investment calculator
  • Funnel State 3: Trusting
  • How do you know? Signs up for 30-day trial
  • Customer now wants to: Test product
  • So, what do you do now? Thank customer, send “getting started” package, offer personalised customer support
  • Funnel State 4: Convinced
  • How do you know? Clicks on “check out now”
  • Customer now wants to: Buy; needs boss approval
  • So, what do you do now? email sales for references,; provide competitive analysis
  • Funnel State 5: Magic
  • How do you know? Demo was successful, pricing page studied and competitive analysis studied
  • Customer now wants to: Buy, but is a bit reluctant
  • So, what do you do now? “Buy now” discount
  • Funnel State 6: Customer
  • How do you know? Input credit card number and clicked “complete purchase”
  • Customer now wants to: Realise value proposition
  • So, what do you do now? Get them into product experience (go outside funnel)

The Lean Entrepreneur