Product Management Rules of Thumb 2: The Three Boxes Rule

by nils  - June 6, 2012

New Products Improve Processes

Earlier I mentioned one of the rules of thumb I use as a product manager to help me assess whether a product idea is worth pursuing – what I call the “order of magnitude” rule of thumb (in short, your product needs to offer an order of magnitude improvement over the status quo). Another simple rule of thumb I like to use is what I call the “three boxes rule” (even though the picture I draw actually has four boxes!).

The goal of your product is to improve some process of the customer’s. This is true even for innovative products like the iPod, which improves the “walking around” process by adding music to it. SAP improves the customer’s business management process overall by providing a central repository for the data and a predefined best practice workflow for doing back office information processing. Photoshop improves the photograph editing and manipulation process by taking it out of the darkroom and eliminating the need for scissors and paste.

Actually four boxes illustrating the old process and the improved process.
The three boxes – make sure A still links effectively to B’, and B’ links effectively to C

Improving the process is all well and good. But this rule addresses the fact that processes don’t live on their own – there are processes that come before and that come after. In the case of Photoshop, for example, there is the predecessor process of taking the picture, and of getting it into the computer. And then, after using Photoshop, there is the process of putting the picture into a magazine or newspaper layout so it can be printed.

The diagram above summarizes the situation. Box A represents the predecessor process, box B is the process we’re going to improve with our product, and box C is the successor process. The improved version of B is shown as box B’.

Now that we have our boxes, the rule of thumb is apparent: It doesn’t matter how good B’ is compared to B, if you can’t get from A to B’, or from B’ to C, your product will have a hard time succeeding. (This concept is related to the idea of the “whole product,” covered in many books about product development and management, such as Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore.)

Example: Photoshop In Its Infancy

Photoshop is the product that got me thinking about this rule of thumb. Coming up with the idea for Photoshop required a flash of brilliance, as well as the availability of some technical capabilities like personal computers and GUIs. But once you have the idea, the details are going to work themselves out – “hmmm, I need to be able to crop, recolor, touch up, burn, dodge, copy a section from one picture to another picture, etc.” In fact, most of the functions of the original (20 years ago!) Photoshop were computer-based analogs of what photo editors were already doing in the darkroom or on a paste-up board. I don’t mean to minimize the work or design that went into the functions of Photoshop itself, but the reality is that the functions were secondary to a much bigger problem.

Before Photoshop, when you edited or retouched a photograph, you worked with … a photograph or a negative. A piece of paper or a piece of emulsion. For some activities you needed a separation – three pieces of plastic. To make a copy of a photograph you either printed a new one from the negative, or you took a picture (a photostat) of it. When you were finished editing it, you pasted it into a layout, then took another several pictures of the whole thing to create separations that could be used by a printer.

However, to work with a photograph using Photoshop, you had to have a digital version of the photograph. And at the end of using Photoshop, you still have a digital version. Nowadays that’s not such a big issue. But when Photoshop was first released, B’ was fantastic, but it had a severe impedance mismatch with A and C, which were based on paper.

Mismatches To Watch Out For

There are lots of ways for impedance problems to arise between A and B’ and B’ and C. Some examples:

  • Platform mismatch – the preceding process is on Windows, while your new and improved version of B is on the web.
  • Technology change – this is the Photoshop example – the improved process uses a different type of data from its predecessor.
  • Unfamiliar look and feel – the existing process lives in a client-server world, while the improved version is Web-based.
  • Legacy data integration – my product replaces an existing solution, but the customer still needs to work with their old data.

Many products fail because, no matter how good a job they do at B’, customers can’t get to B’ from A or to C from B’.

Adobe realized that Photoshop could not be successful just by being a fantastic replacement for traditional photo retouching – it also had to address the interface with the old paper methods preceding and following the touchup process. Adobe managed this successfully, obviously, and that makes it an incredible example of the product manager’s art.


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Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

  • Hi Nils, this is exactly the issue we were trying to address with our Skore app when I spoke to you last. Mapping out the processes in a simple way and allowing you to drill down into the details of those processes as and when required. This helps you visualize those before and after processes to ensure your improvements still make sense.

    We're still working on it but our market has shifted slightly. We're doing less with products and more with businesses.

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