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February 2012
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2012-02-05 »

What is the definition of success?

A product manager asked me a great question at work the other day:

    "How do we define success for our project?"

He said he had asked someone else that question, and the slightly scary answer was, "I don't know." I said that's crazy, the answer is easy. Success is getting our product working and into the hands of real users who actually want it. Right?

But a few days later, I've thought about it some more, and I don't like that definition after all. Here's my new version:

    Success is making a product better than anybody else's product, that users absolutely love, and that's able to sustain itself indefinitely.

That definition is a real challenge, something that you'd be proud to live up to. It's something that deserves to be called "success." Unfortunately, using that definition, I've never been successful (unless you count wvdial).

You might be dismayed by the first criteria. A product better than anybody else's product? It seems obvious that most products can't be the best, but I think there's more room at the top than you think. There's no single ranking system from 1 to 10. Every user judges differently, so if you satisfy one person better than any other product, then you win, in some small way. And if you can be successful once, you can expand that success a bit at a time.

Users loving your product is kind of cliche, since Apple has made that philosophy famous. But as obvious as it now is, most developers still don't aim for it. If they did, you'd know.

By the way, your product can be the best in the world without users actually loving it. That's why I listed it explicitly. Before Apple, few people loved their phones or laptops or music players, but surely one of them was still the best - the best of a bad lot. Lovability is orthogonal to usefulness.

The last point - sustaining itself indefinitely - is where I've had trouble. At NITI, we made ridiculously awesome products that were quite obviously the best out there, if I do say so myself. And our users loved the heck out of them. But in the end it didn't sustain. (IBM bought the company and eventually killed the product.) The lack of sustainability was less about the product and more about organizational issues, but that's no excuse; it just tells you that the organizational issues are part of the product, whether you like it or not.

Sustainability can be about money (if you make enough money, you can afford to pay people to maintain it indefinitely) or quality (if, like wvdial, it's so good that you don't need to maintain it) or love (if developers are willing to work for lower or zero wages). But however you aim to achieve sustainability, it matters. You can have the greatest, loveliest product in the world, but if it dies, then you've failed.

That definition of success is my new benchmark for everything I do. If I can't see a path to success, based on those three criteria, then I shouldn't be wasting my time. If you notice me wasting my time anyway, please club me over the head as a reminder.

(Also, the project should be something I actually enjoy working on. I've made that mistake too. I don't think enjoyment is necessarily part of the definition of a successful project, but a "happy life" is also a nice-to-have :))

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