Great companies make great products.
They also must do many other things well in order to succeed in the long term, but at the core of it, they make great products (be they hardware, software or service).
So what are the hallmarks of great products, those that reach beyond utility to some higher plane? And how do some companies regularly produce them and prosper, and others issue forth a steady stream of mediocre (or worse) products and business results.
A few thoughts follow…
I believe that it starts with a deep belief in the basic truth asserted above. Your culture has to feature your products in starring roles.
I bought my first Apple product shortly after watching a video documentary made from "In Search of Excellence." I listened to Steve Jobs for the first time, heard him declare their goal of making nothing short of "insanely great" products, and they've consumed an embarrassingly large percentage of my disposal income ever since. Driven by Jobs, Apple is built from its foundation on the deep belief in, and commitment to, great products.
Symbol too. Jerry Swartz drove us to it, from a million angles (usually all at once). Ray Martino often said that great products were ALL that mattered. Fred Heiman had about the best product sense of anyone I know. Our engineers and product management teams presented their proposals and finished works with pride more typically reserved for offspring.
OK, so it starts with focus, belief and commitment. Then what?
Great products have to be designed from the outside in, the inside out and with coherence and integrity.
Great products create great user experiences. They don't achieve excellence in some abstract framework, but as judged by the impressions of their human owners. This in turn is accomplished by thinking deeply about the total user experience from the earliest stages of design through to its finishing details of fit, finish, line and even grace. It's not just about what the product is, but how its design creates the desired impressions. They don't just meet a need, they create excitement and a sense of possibility.That's outside in design.
Inside out is equally important. Great products are built around solid cores that ensure quality, cost effectiveness, scalability.
Apple Macs are what they are in large measure because OSX is a great operating system.
Symbol bar code scanners still lead the industry all these years later because the theoretical foundation of their design was built solid and deep. Small example from the early years: a math model Jerry and collaborators developed proved that much less expensive components and simpler alignment methods could be used, as compared to competitive designs, and would yield a scanner that would actually work better than one built with conventional approaches. More for less wins.
Inside out design is about investing to understand the theoretical underpinnings of product design better that your competition, and then using that knowledge to get your core foundations right.
Finally, great product designs are coherent expressions of the strategies and values of the companies that make them. You should be able to pick up a product and read a story in it. It's company's story. What it stands for. Where it's going. What it means to enter a relationship with that company by becoming a user of its products.
That only happens if there's integrity in the design of individual products, and continuity across families of products, aligned deeply with the essence of the company that designed them.
Want to be a great company? Commit to, invest in, and deliver great products, and you'll be on your way.