Do we need a vision?

A few months ago, I’ve been given a new assignment: design Deezer’s product vision. After a couple of years working hands-on on features like Flow, it was exactly the right timing to step back and have a look at what we were all trying to build.

The more I looked into the task, the more I realized how challenging it was:

  • Our product has reached maturity, key expected features are all there, but our edge needs to be defined more clearly,
  • Business models have converged toward freemium subscriptions, but we know that not everyone is willing to pay for music,
  • Our competitors are highly talented and moving fast.

Hopefully, this leaves plenty of room for innovation and it just so happens that we have lots of ideas. The thing is, we have been exploring many ideas at a time, and now was the time to choose a focus. Despite the fact that everyone fully agrees that we should all work towards the same goal, still we needed to figure out what that goal would be.

If you are familiar with strategy, you would know that theoretically such work starts with fundamentals likes company values, core beliefs about users, and future goal(s).

« The product vision should describe a broad and engaging goal: a goal that guides the development effort but leaves enough room for creativity; a goal that engages and inspires people, fosters creativity, and generates buy-in. »

Scrum Alliance, The Product Vision(Although that was meant to describe a product vision, I think it still applies to vision in a broader sense as well.)

Of course here, we’re not talking about short term goals like growing our user base or increasing revenue. Such a goal should sound more like Nike’s « To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete » or Disney’s « Make people happy ».

Although, some would argue that we don’t need a vision, maybe not even a strategy, because technology evolves so fast, future is so uncertain that it would be a waste of time to try to anticipate it. A more efficient way to proceed would be to try many things, fail fast, fail often and adapt. Totally legit. For sure, we can do that, failure is something we all experience 🙂

Why would that ultimately fall short?

“Fail fast” requires to recognize when a failure happens, which isn’t that easy

Trying to compete on multiple segments at once is leading to confusion, both internally and externally. As such well equipped human beings, things have to make sense. Somehow, our users have to understand what it is that we try to achieve together.

Very large companies can afford to try many things, launching several apps or businesses and keep the best out of them. Although, when you’re in a smaller company, real estate to experiment things with your user base is a lot more limited. Choices have to be made to keep the user experience consistent and simple at all times.

Last year, we experimented a lot around what should be displayed on our home page. Must-have features had to be there like Flow, top charts or new releases, but users showed real interest as well in contextualized recommendations like playlists for running, going out, chilling, … There are so many ways to help people discover new music that it’s easy to add many items on a page, and have features cannibalizing each other. When that happens, deciding when an experiment is a failure or not becomes very difficult. Highlighting a particular feature will drive good results on it, and kill performance of hidden ones. Success of a new feature not only depends on user appeal, but also on exposure and level of implementation.

Deezer Home section, 2015

« Try a lot of new things and see what works » is A LOT more complicated that it seems.

Frequent changes of positioning are expensive

Changing positions frequently is like moving every 3 months: boxing and unboxing all the time prevents you from cosying up and optimizing your place. Plus, your friends won’t remember where to find you anymore.

Solving problems is what pushes tech frontiers

Belief is that innovation/disruption is strongly tied to technology. Tech is so fast, that it will enable breakthrough we can’t even imagine right now. Having a vision today would be a waste of time since we can’t imagine what will be possible tomorrow.

« At a time when digital technology is transforming one industry after another, large companies tend to view innovation and disruption as the result of breakthrough discoveries or technological wonders. (…) Transforming a relatively simple idea into a $19 billion windfall, it turns out, was more about solving problems with the tools at hand than inventing new solutions from scratch.»

Laurent-Pierre Baculard, about Whatsapp, HBR July 2016 edition

Innovation doesn’t necessarily require new tech. Wanting to solve problems for users is pushing tech frontiers even more. For example, Facebook invests heavily on VR, real time, cross-platform architectures, and that is serving their purpose to connect the world.

“People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” Facebook Vision Statement

At Deezer, our holy grail is to be able to play the right soundtrack at the right moment. Working on that particular issue, I found out that solving that problem was as much about technology as about user experience, understanding what users want.

AI helped us make tremendous progress on music discovery, enabling us to build tailored music recommendations for any user. Although, this was not exactly the problem we wanted to solve. Playing the right music at the right moment means knowing when you’re in the mood to discover new tracks, or in the mood to listen to Calvin Harris for 56th time this week. AI can help find patterns in your listening habits, but building a user experience that enables real time feedback on suggestions can go a long way to solve the issue for a particular user.

Things don’t evolve by themselves, what we’re working on today will be shaping tomorrow.

Employees need purpose

I remember my first manager at Deezer, former VP of Product, saying that he was « making the world dance », when asked about his job. Despite the fact that we can argue a long time about whether people actually dance when waking up in the morning, it always reminded me of the luck we had to work in the entertainment industry. Let people be moved by music.

The more a company’s goal is clear and engaging, the more it makes you willing to go up and beyond to achieve it.

« Deezer is the link between you and the music that moves you. We listen to the beat of your heart and help you find the songs that match it. »