I consistently get asked questions like the following: “Just look at Facebook/Amazon/Google (usually one of those three).  Don’t you think they have a terrible product?  How could they possibly be so successful?”

No matter how many times I hear the question, I always have to take a breath before I answer.

I think there are three relatively minor confusions underlying this question, and two very large confusions.  But they all get to the heart of what makes great products and great product people.  So in that spirit, I thought I’d share my answer here.

First the minor issues:

1. Product people often fall into the trap of confusing themselves with the actual target customers.  Just because you or I don’t like something doesn’t actually mean much, if we’re not the target audience.

2. Very often these backseat designers are pointing to secondary tasks that frankly don’t really matter.  Good product managers and designers know that there are a few critical tasks in every product that need to be exceptionally good, and if this comes at the expense of some secondary tasks, that can be a very good trade to make.

3. Anyone that has been working in this industry for a while, and has actually been running A/B tests, knows that we’re very often surprised.  What we think would happen with a given design or feature doesn’t always work out like that.  Unless you have access to the detailed analytics, it’s very possible your intuition is wrong.  Mine is wrong so often I have come to expect to be wrong.  But I’ve found that helps me much more than it hurts me because I’ve learned to be very open to the data and to learn quickly.

Now the big issues:

1. How do you actually define good?  If you define it by what you personally like, then maybe these sites are not very good.   But I define good using the product scorecard.  The prioritized set of business KPI’s that the business is looking to the product team to find ways to positively influence.

If you define goodness in a social network as the ability to rapidly grow and deeply engage users, its hard to argue that Facebook has been anything less than off-the-charts successful.

If you define goodness in an e-commerce site as KPI’s such as conversion rate, average shopping cart value, customer acquisition cost, and repeat use, then it’s hard to argue that Amazon has been anything less than stellar.

If you define goodness in a search engine as the number of search results (organic or paid) that the user needs to evaluate before he finds what he is looking for, then it’s hard to argue that Google hasn’t done an outstanding job.

2. Even when teams focus on the key KPI’s for their product, they still often can’t see the forest through the trees.  What I mean by that is that too many people focus on what’s right in front of them, which is typically usability issues.  I’m a huge advocate for removing friction cause by poor design, however, I also know that it’s mostly about value.  If you focus on providing real and sustained value, that will overcome a lot of sins.  If you don’t provide that value, I really don’t care how usable the product is.

The companies I highlighted above provide a ton of value to their users and customers.  Sustained value.

All of them make mistakes.  All of them work to improve their product every day.  But mostly they focus on providing real value to their customers and driving the key KPI’s of their business.

That’s how I define good, and I’m hoping that’s how you define it as well.

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