Working Back and Forth

by Len Epp, Co-founder

1. Working Backwards Isn't Always An Option

In their international bestseller Working Backwards, former Amazon executives Colin Bryar and Bill Carr write about:

" new ideas and products are developed at Amazon: Working Backwards from the desired customer experience. Before we start building, we write a Press Release to clearly define how the new idea or product will benefit customers, and we create a list of Frequently Asked Questions to resolve the tough issues up front."

It's a brilliant and hard-won idea, and a practice that made Amazon one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world. It's still in use today, across very different businesses within the sprawling organization. (You can hear me talk about it with Gregor Hohpe, Senior Principal Evangelist for Amazon Web Services on our podcast here.)

In fact, it's such a good idea that reading the book can make you jealous if you don't have the resources to do it yourself - particularly, if you don't have the time and opportunity to work on multiple "PR FAQ" processes at the same time, and pick the best one after months of iterating on all of them.

Another reason you might not have the option to start a new product or service initiative this way, of course, might be because you're working on improving something that has already existed for a while. Or because you're more naturally inclined to the approach of building something and getting it out there, seeing if it gets any real-world traction, and then iterating to find product-market fit.

2. Working Back and Forth

Now, working backwords isn't the whole story in Working Backwards, of course. Amazon has a notoriously customer-focused culture (at least in its own estimation), and as Bryar and Carr point out at length, interacting with customers to improve or abandon products and services is also a key feature of their process.

For example, they describe how everyone at Amazon had to do one day of customer support per year. And yes, that absolutely included CEO Jeff Bezos.

So, a better (but less catchy) way of thinking about the process of developing a product and developing customers at the same time would be "Working Back and Forth".

"Working Back" is going from the ideal customer experience, to a designed and implemented product or service.

"Working Forth" is going from real customer interactions with the actually designed and implemented product, and returning to your product to change it for the better.

But putting them together in "Working Back and Forth" is the key to understanding real-world product and service building: these are actually two parts of a single process, one that in an important sense doesn't really have an absolute start or end point.

3. Paying Attention to What Customers Are Actually Saying is Key to "Working Forth"

One of the hardest things to do is to interact with people who are having trouble using your product or service.

That's because if they're contacting you, in every case it's because they have some kind of problem, or need something you haven't given them.

But it doesn't always have to be that way. We talk all the time in the tech world about developing products, and if we're steeped in the literature we might also talk about customer development, but one thing we don't talk about enough is developing customers.

This is a key part of the back-and-forth: you're not just working to improve your product, your working to help improve your customers, too.

One way I've had great success in this area, is using a contact page to nudge customers into best practices - specifically, sharing screenshots of their issue.

It might sound trivial, but it will absolutely help them get their issue resolved more quickly, and at the same time give you an asset created in the real world by a customer, to hand off to the product or development team, for "Working Forth".

For some more insight into this process, see my "5 Customer Support Tips for Startup Founders" post here.

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