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:



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