The Competitive Landscape

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

Products never exist in a vacuum. Products live in a world of competitors and partners, of peripherals, networks and enablers. Products live inside an ecosystem consisting of companies, governments, regulators and consumers.

To understand what your product does, what value it adds and how, it is crucial to understand the competitive landscape around you.

A classic ecosystem
A “classic” ecosystem

Who else is doing what you do?

The first thing to understand is who is doing what you do. There may be companies offering the same or a similar value proposition as you, or companies in a similar space offering slightly different propositions.

For most industries a quick search on Google can usually reveal most of the competitive landscape. Additionally, talking with users and people from your target group, either as part of formal user research or casual conversations, can reveal other products and companies who are operating in your space.

When you have your list of main competitors, break them down one by one and take a close look at what they do. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?

A useful tool is the old, tried and tested, SWOT framework (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). If you’ve ever picked up a book on business then you’ve seen this tool, guaranteed. As cliche as it is, it is actually a useful method for breaking down the differentiation between you and your competitors. (For information on the SWOT tool, here is a pretty simple explanation with examples.)


The first and most obvious place to start is by examining the product itself. How does their consumer value proposition differ from yours? Do they offer the same product features? The same user experience?

The differences between two products can be both subtle and large. Take for example these two products: Get Satisfaction, and User Voice. Both have a similar overall proposition: they are online tools that software products can use to get real-time feedback from users. Both are hosted solutions (meaning the integrating product does not need to add any code or infrastructure within their product; they just provide a link to the hosted feedback collection product), and both have similar price points. On the surface, they seem the same: but a level deeper and the differences begin to emerge, as described here. (Note on this thread the way the CEOs from each company compare their products against each other. Each CEO is acutely aware of the other company, but describes in detail, and with respect, the positive differences in proposition first, rather than focusing on negative elements of the “competition”. Admirable.)

Business Model

Differentiation against a competitor company does not always come purely from the consumer value proposition: the entire business model plays a role. Examine your competition’s business model and ways of working. How does their business model differ from yours? How do they organise themselves?


How and where do your competitors talk to their users/consumers? What kind of messages do they use?

Values and beliefs

What do your competitors believe in? Do they believe the same things as you? What do they see as important, and how do they view the world, compared with you?

Consider the example of Get Satisfaction vs User Voice above. Although both products offer similar features at a similar price, the fundamental difference between the two products is what they believe is important. User Voice believes that the aspect of collecting suggestions and ideas from users is the critical axis, whereas Get Satisfaction focus more on the user forum aspect, where users can exchange knowledge, tips and report problems.

Both products offer nearly the same actual features, but what sets them apart is a core belief about what is important.

Learn from your competitors

Steve Jobs is often quoted as having quoted Picasso when he said:

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

You can learn a lot from watching and analysing competing products carefully. Don’t be afraid to leverage knowledge, experience and solutions from other companies and products. If that other product has the perfect user sign-in experience, then take it, re-work it to fit your needs, and use it.

Remember, it’s not about having the pride of having “designed it all ourselves”. It’s about getting things done. Being (and remaining) successful as a product team is all about how quickly you can bring user value to users. The longer it takes, the more risk you pile up. (We’ll discuss this in much more detail in later chapters of The Complete Product Owner). If you can save a few days on the design of a peripheral flow, then do it.

Why should I buy your product over theirs?

One of the most common questions you will be asked as a product owner is: “why should I use your product over theirs?” In other words, as a consumer, why should someone pay you (with either their cash, their time, their clicks on ads, etc) for your product over your competition’s? What have you got that they don’t?

Here, a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses will not help you answer this for a user. What you need is a story that not only reveals how you are different, but that encourages the use of one over the other. It comes back to your consumer value proposition: what value do you offer, and how?

This is another little “pitch” you should practice often, as I promise you, you’ll get this question all the time.

Broaden your scope

Also keep in mind it’s not just about your direct competitors. Broaden your scope to look at companies and products that operate in the same space as you, even if they are not direct competition. You can leverage ideas and knowledge from similar companies, or also look for interesting opportunities to partner with other products or companies for mutual benefit.


Your product and your company do not exist in a vacuum. You need to constantly watch, review, and analyse your competitors, your partners, and your industry. Know how you are different, and how you are the same. Also think about companies and products that operate peripheral to you; how can you leverage them or partner with them?

And always have a good answer ready to the question that will frequently come: “why should I buy your product instead of theirs?”

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series, we’ll look at the product vision.


The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

Beyond the flat digital map: what’s next for digital map services

Babylonian stone map of the world.Babylonian map of the world, dated around 6BC. Source: Wikipedia

The map has come a long way since the Babylonians carved pictographic maps of their surroundings on large chunks of stone.

Ever since the appearance of the first digital maps many companies and products have appeared with the mission to produce better quality, more complete and more usable digital maps and navigation aids; among them Nokia Maps.

Since then, digital maps have become more detailed, more customisable, more accurate and more complete. Maps have become more visually engaging, with realistic 3D views of cities and countryside to add to satellite and terrain views of the world. But whatever visual abstraction, the digital maps today are still essentially a purely digital representation of their paper map ancestors: they are static. Sure, you have the ability to add different layers of information to the map or to customise the view (zoom and pan) – but these are just different ways of ‘holding’ the same map.

The vast amount of map-related innovation seen in mapping applications today in terms of the map visualisation have been in visualising data on top of the map. The very first Google Maps mash-up (Housing Maps) was a layer of real estate data on top of a plain, 2D map. Only a few products have taken visible steps to indicate a desire to innovate around how the map operates, and how a user operates with the map.

Two examples of innovation in this area are Apple, with their recently announced Map platform, and a new feature on Nokia Maps called “City Exploration”, which turns the map itself into a discovery entry point.

Apple Maps

Long before Apple officially announced the new map platform they will release in iOS6 to replace the incumbent Google Maps as the default map provider it was clear they were moving in the direction of building their own map product. A couple of interesting patents, submitted last August, reveal a plan to produce what they call “schematic maps”, or what we might call a ‘back-of-a-napkin’ doodle map. They describe a map where traditional map must-haves like scale and information density take a back-seat to essential functionality: how do I get from here to point B.

It works like this: instead of producing a map that contains a completely accurate rendering of the surface of the earth, a to-scale street network and all the businesses, landmarks and whatever points of interest that might exist in a given space (the direct digital evolution of a traditional topographical map or street atlas), the “schematic map” looks more like something you would draw for a friend on the back of a beer coaster to help them get to the next pub: a simple line describing the streets and turns you will walk (most likely not to scale), maybe one or two major landmarks to help with navigation, and a big “x-marks-the-spot”.

Apple schematic maps.Apple schematic maps concept mockups. Source: Patent application.

This is a radically different approach to maps because it challenges the deep-rooted assumption that a good map is always to scale, includes as much peripheral information as possible and has a north that points to the top of the page. Here, they literally re-draw the map using a completely different abstraction; one that isn’t bound to the reality of the streets and curves of the earth.

Nokia Maps – City Exploration

In a new feature recently released on, we make the map itself a discovery entry point by simply leveraging the existing cartographic symbols and text on the map surface as a new kind of navigational control.

We’ve learned from years of working with maps that a common use case is simple, often quite random, exploration of the world. In the same way people used to spin a globe around or flick through the pages of a world atlas to explore the cities and countries of the world, today people use digital maps to just see how the cities and countries of the world come together.

With City Exploration, you can move your mouse over any part of the map (on a country or continent zoom level) to dive right into detailed information nearly all major cities. Live traffic information, city facts, public transport information and 3D views are just some of the content that you can explore, right from the map.

City Exploration on Exploration on

Now, the surface of the map starts to become the whole atlas, instead of part of the contents.

The arms race between major mapping platforms and consumer products in the past years has been largely centered around data: more, more accurate and better quality. As data becomes cheaper and more and more a commodity, the next source of differentiation will be a fundamental change in how we use and view maps. These two examples show the start of the shift, but there is much more to come.

Cracking eggs

They say you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. That’s true.

You can, however, make an omelet without smashing eggs and getting egg-shells throughout the whole meal.

The act of breaking the eggs open is a controlled, thoughtful act. It’s not panic.

When you’re working on a new product strategy, fixing a bug, planning a meeting or refactoring a piece of code, think to yourself: are you smashing eggs, or breaking them?

The Product Definition

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

A product owner is the owner of a product: so it makes sense to start our exploration of the product owner role with defining the actual product. What is it? What does it do? What value does it add? Who is it for? These are some of the questions that you’ll need to be able to answer. It seems obvious, but it is surprising how many product people I meet who cannot answer some of these questions convincingly.

The best product owners know their product inside out, but they can do more than simply recite a list of features… they can answer the core questions of: what are you building, how you are building it, and why. You are the product expert.

The Consumer Value Proposition

A very useful tool for expressing your product is a consumer value proposition (CVP). A value proposition is a statement that addresses the key questions: what does the product do, who is it for and, most importantly, how it adds value for a consumer.

As an example, consider the following two pairs of women’s shoes:

Shoe 1
Tom’s Catino Ballet Flats
Shoe 1
Giuseppe Zanotti boots

While being obviously very different shoes for (presumably) very different occasions, the specific value propositions set them apart even more.

The Tom’s ballet flats cost a fairly standard $79, are designed to be comfortable and made from sustainable resources; but unique to Tom’s shoes is their “One for One” program: for each pair of shoes sold, Tom’s gives a pair of shoes to a child in need around the world. The unique value proposition here is that when you buy Tom’s shoes you can also help needy children in third world countries.

The Giuseppe Zanotti boots have a very different value proposition. At around $1,400 they set a very different expectation in terms of price. Here the value that the consumer purchases is prestige, glamour and exclusivity. The core function of a shoe (comfort and protection of the feet) takes a total backstage in this proposition to make way for luxury and glamour.

Note that the CVP is more than just a simple list of features. The Tom’s proposition describes the what (shoes, comfortable), and describes differentiation (how they are different from other shoes) by creating a resonating focus on the aspect of giving shoes to needy children. The best CVPs are not only factual, but emotional as well.

The Consumer Value Proposition is a very useful tool and will help you explicate the core value of what you are producing.

What do you stand for?

A good question to ask in any product team is: “what do we stand for?” When a consumer hears about our product or company, what do we want them to think about?

Tom’s shoes stand for helping children in need. At Nokia we stand for connecting people, and empowering people to live adventure everyday. One level deeper, at Nokia Maps, we stand for putting you and your neighbourhood on the map, allowing you to be a local, anywhere.

Understanding what you stand for as a product team helps align the vision for the product and sets a common direction within the team. The most productive teams have the knowledge and context to make good decisions at all levels of the team, and when everyone has the same beliefs about what you stand for as a team, everyone can make better informed decisions that continue in the best direction for the product and the team.


Closely related to what you stand for is the why. That is, why you are building this product in the first place: what are the core beliefs that you have that lead you to invest in building this product? What is it that you believe in that makes you do this?

When “Tall” Tim Pethick started the phenomenal fruit juice brand “Nudie” in Sydney in 2003, he believed that bottled fruit juices should be produced with 100% fruit: no preservatives, no additives, no concentrates. This desire for pure, fruit-only juice enjoyment and the story behind it became a core part of the Nudie brand image.

Simon Sinek gave a fantastic TED-talk on the topic of why, which is highly recommended viewing.

Who is it for? Market Segmentation

As important as what is who. In order to create a product that solves the needs of your users/customers in the best way, you need to understand who your users are. This starts with understanding your market segment.

Segmentation is all about understanding your target market; or in other words, about breaking down the world of people into smaller sub-sets that define more specifically what kind of people are your actual potential users. My wife doesn’t play video games and isn’t in the market for a new PlayStation, for example. She is not the target market.

The Nintendo Wii is the most successful game console of the current generation, and the third most successful console of all time (in terms of units shipped, having shipped over 95 million units as of March 2012). At the heart of the innovative business model that enabled the success of the Wii is the segmentation strategy: Nintendo chose to focus on a very different demographic than other consoles: instead of focussing on the traditional (and extremely competitive) “hardcore gamer” market, Nintendo targeted the Wii towards a broader demographic of “casual” gamers. This allowed them to decrease the focus on cutting-edge performance and graphics required to compete in the “hardcore gamers” segment and allowed them to produce a more family-friendly and cost-effective device that has been decisive in their success.

Once you understand your specific market segment, you can target your designs and services directly for these people. In a later post we’ll look at building user profiles to represent your target market to help in this process.

The Elevator Pitch: sell your product in 30-60 seconds

We’ve all heard the expression “Elevator Pitch”, but here’s a short bit of revision: the idea is to imagine you find yourself in the elevator with your CEO, and she asks you: “What are you working on?” In the time it takes for an elevator ride you now have to pitch your product.

The point is that you have only 30 seconds to make someone understand what you do and be interested or excited about it. It’s a nice exercise because it forces you to focus on what is important to engage someone with your story. In nearly all cases reciting a laundry-list of features will not cut it: you’ll need to tell a story that highlights what value you bring to users.

My tip is to really practice your elevator pitch. Even if you never end up with your CEO in an elevator, you’ll have forced yourself to consider what is important.

For a nice example of an elevator pitch, check out Evernote CEO Phil Libin, present his 50 second elevator pitch for Evernote.

The spur-of-the-moment demo

As we used to say in the boy scouts, “Always be prepared”. You should always be ready with your elevator pitch, and likewise you should always be ready to give a demo of your product. Have a couple of different demo scripts ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. I have three that I use for Nokia Maps based on how much time I have to demo: 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 15 minutes.

You never know when you’ll be called on to demo the product spontaneously, and every demo counts: so being prepared will ensure you give a great demo, always.


Know your product, as you know yourself. Never forget that you’re the expert in your product.

One important thing to remember is that knowing and communicating are two very different things. It doesn’t matter how well you know your product if you are not able to communicate it to your team, your customers or your partners.

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series we’ll look at the competitive landscape.


The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.