Why product-person fit trumps product-market fit

Where the product ends, the market begins

Imagine your team have just finished building what you proudly consider the best product of its type in the world. Sure you are biased but this product is absolutely phenomenal and everyone in the team agrees that you have something really special on your hands. You and the team gather together in the largest meeting room in your offices, and suddenly you’re aware that everyone is looking expectantly at you.

The sense of expectation is palpable because whereas everyone else’s initial job has finished, yours is just about to begin. Your job is turn the potential of this product into the success it deserves to be. To try and persuade people to try it out, and then once they have tried it, to and keep on using it.

3 insights to rule them all

With the heavy weight of everyone’s expectations on your shoulders, you step confidently to the front of the room. You pull out a blue whiteboard marker that you’ve had in your pocket, and hold it up in front of you. You have been planning your strategy for months now, and this is the moment where you’ll share your plan. Your strategy is based on 3 simple ideas that make sense to you but are not widely used for some reason. You mentally reflect on what you’re about to say.

Insight 1: Product-market fit is ultimately about Product-person fit

The first insight is based on the foundations of a well-tested idea. Many people have heard of the term “Product-market fit”. Its the idea that the first task of any product team is to discover and build a “fit” between their product, and the compelling unmet needs of the people who would use it. They should fit together like a lock and key.

All of the brilliant members of your product team know what a product is, but are maybe not as familiar with a market. Well a market, you reflect, is just the sum total of all of your potential users. It is simply the sum of a whole lot of individual people (preferably a large number) who might need your product. Insight 1 says that what is not so evident about “product-market fit” is that it is built one person at a time, by building a whole bunch of individual Product-person fits.

Well that’s obvious and not particularly profound, you imagine your team saying, and if the foundations of your plan stopped there you would agree. But here comes your second insight.

Insight 2: Product-person fit requires the person to change their behaviour

When a person meets a new product its a little like the start of a new romantic relationship. You cautiously approach the Other looking for clues that this might be a match. You unconsciously go through your mental checklist of the Perfect Other and warmly tick off the pluses, whilst inwardly frowning a little at the minuses. This Other is quite charming; the initial fit is good, so you decide to start dating.

And then the real work starts. Of course there is no such thing as a Perfect Other, and even if there was, there’s this other problem. You see you have all of these well-established routine in your life. You like your routine. It fits you. In fact your routine is the best fitting thing you have in your life. And this Other is disrupting your routine. Asking you to change, to adapt.

And this is the heart of your second insight. When a person meets a new product, it is the person who has most of the work to do around adapting, not the product. You’ve influenced their initial behaviour; to get that first try-me-out date. But now there’s another job, because now the person needs to change their behaviour; their deeply ingrained habits. And changing behaviours is hard. Really hard. And if they don’t, or can’t, then we both lose out. In fact products typically fail for only 2 reasons. Firstly because they can’t get the attention of the market to try them out, and secondly because they can’t get the person to adapt their behaviour to work with the product. Influencing behaviour is at the core of all successful products.

But what if we could play a role in influencing that person to change their behaviour? To first of all persuade them to go on a date with our product in the first place and then to help them through the process of adapting their routines. What if we could help them find the motivation to keep working on creating new habits that ultimately bond us together.

Most organisations ignore the important insight that Product-person fit requires the person to adapt

. Imagine for a moment you are a parent, and your child is having difficulties in adapting to a new school because you have moved to a new neighbourhood. What would you do? Well, you would probably help. Because you realise that not only is it good for the child to learn to adapt, but its also good for you too, for the ultimate harmony of your household. And you are the parent of both your product, and your customer’s relationship with your product. And that raises a third question; how do you influence another person’s behaviour?

Insight 3: People can be reliably influenced to change their behaviour

Product managers rarely think of themselves as being in the business of behaviour, but maybe that is what separates the successful ones from the others. Behaviour is simply the way person acts, and it’s determined by a constellation of largely psychological factors. Your third insight is that if you can understand how these factors catalyse a person into action, then you can play a proactive role in building retention by helping people build new habits around your product.

Of course you can imagine now the skeptics in your team protesting that there is no comprehensive theory of human behaviour. The human mind and our behaviour have been mysteries since we first became conscious of our self. And of course that is still somewhat true, but the behavioural sciences and associated fields of scientific research such as behavioural economics and motivation science have unlocked many of the big questions around what influences human behaviour. These advances are also complemented with developments in digital technology such as behavioural analytics, machine learning and the surprising lead that game designers have taken in hacking human motivation. Taken collectively, science and technology have in recent years significantly increased our ability to guide human behaviour towards self-beneficial outcomes.

If you can influence them they will come, and stay

You started building your strategy on the foundations of a well-known and well-trusted maxim about how to build successful products. Product-market fit is the first critical foundation. You then connected that to 3 logically associated insights.

  1. Product-market fit is ultimately about Product-person fit
  2. Product-person fit requires the person to change their behaviour
  3. People can be reliably influenced to change their behaviour

And the logical conclusion you come to is this. If you can influence people to try out your product, and then adapt to your product, then you maximise your chances of establishing product-person fit, and thereby achieve product-market fit.

Someone shuffling at the front of the room wakes you out of your momentary reverie. All of these thoughts have flashed through your head in a few fractions of a second. You purposefully take a deep breath and then bring the pen to the whiteboard marker and write; “If you build it they will come”. A classic line from Kevin Costner’s “Field of Dreams”, and one that has inspired the imagination of many an idealistic product development team. You turn to face the team, and then you deliberately turn back to the board and draw a line through it. You move your pen down the board and then write something new; If you can influence them they will come, and stay. You turn back and face the team, and begin.