Updated: April 17, 2023 - 7 min read
In real life, the North Star is the star Polaris, the brightest in the constellation Ursa Minor. (Yes this does relate to Product Management, bear with me!) Because it is almost motionless in our night sky, navigators can use it to find their way without a map or compass. Essentially, ‘north star’ is shorthand for what guides you when you’re lost.
Product Management involves so many different things, it can be easy to get sidetracked and forget just what it is you’re trying to do! As there are so many people working on the same product, it can also be difficult to keep everyone working towards the same goal. That’s why every product or service needs a north star.
You may have heard the phrase ‘north star’ thrown around in relation to product. Here, we’ll take you through the benefits of having a defined north star. You’ll also hear from Shubhansha Agrawi, a Senior Product Manager at MyFitnessPal, on how to find your product’s north star.
What Does ‘North Star’ Mean in Product?
Your north star can also be thought of as your ‘why’. It’s your reason for being, the thing you want to achieve, the product you want to fix, the difference you want to make…
A product can do more than one thing. For example, Airbnb began as a way to cut out the middleman and hassle of short-term property rentals. They later branched out to luxury booking and local experiences for travelers. Although these added features are nice and help to build up the product’s USP, the core values of Airbnb remain the same. They want to build experiences for users. Everything they do reinforces their north star.
Benefits of North Star-Thinking in Product
Making it a metric
According to Amplitude, a north star metric is…
A north star metric is the key measure of success for the product team in a company. It defines the relationship between the customer problems that the product team is trying to solve and the revenue that the business aims to generate by doing so.
Some companies, notably Google, use the concept of a ‘north star metric’ to guide prioritization decisions and measure the performance of their products.
To work out your north star metric, think about the one thing that a user can do with your product to help fix their problem. For Spotify and Netflix, a north star metric might be clicking on ‘play’. For Amazon’s Kindle store, it might be downloading a book. Instagram’s north star metric might be image uploads.
By having a north star metric, you’ve condensed down everything your product is really aiming to do above all other functions. Why is this useful?
For starters, when it comes to prioritization, you can use it as a measuring stick. When comparing Feature A and Feature B, and trying to decide which is more important, think about which one has the biggest impact on your north star metric. The one which gets users to stream more songs, upload more photos, or buy more books, is probably the more useful feature.
You can also use it with your data analytics, as it helps you focus on the right things. Keeping an eye on your north star metric is a good way of getting a snapshot of your product’s health.
Having a north star metric is also a key component in product-led growth strategy.
Using it to guide teams and stakeholders
Guiding teams and stakeholders is difficult for product managers. You have to have all of the influence, but with none of the authority! But this can be made easier when everyone is united towards the same goal.
By agreeing on a north star, you’re starting every conversation from the same place. “We know where we are, and we know where we want to be.” Having the same destination in mind will be key when trying to unit behind important decisions.
Using it for branding and storytelling
Branding and storytelling might sound like the sole property of the marketing team, but as a Product Manager, storytelling is your best friend.
Externally, your north star becomes a selling point for users. It might be what leads them to choose your product over your competitor. If your competitor has a different north star, which doesn’t correlate as directly with a user’s needs, they’ll choose you instead.
When your north star is evident in everything you do, it’ll help communicate the story of who your brand is, not just what your product does. With so many similar products on the market, brand is a huge influence over potential customer buying habits. Think about your target customer and what you would tell them? What’s the story?
Finding Your Product’s North Star with MyFitnessPal Senior PM
Shubhansha Agrawi a Senior Product Manager for MyFitnessPal, an app for the health-conscious to track their calorie intake and plan their fitness journey. She describes a product’s north star as an “A-ha” moment for the user. The idea of following one is particularly popular with tech people because it does not represent the flashiest number, but what gives us direction.
Check out her talk here:
A Case Study: Facebook vs MySpace
Facebook and MySpace are two similar platforms in the same space with two very different success stories. Facebook is now a multi-billion dollar company, and MySpace failed miserably. Why?
A difference in vision: MySpace thought that people would not be very open with their information, and want to keep it hidden. Facebook did the research and realized that users were actually ok with it.
MySpace did not iterate: When MySpace realized that what they were doing wasn’t working, they did not iterate. They stuck solidly to their company strategy and tried to improve it, rather than giving the market what it really wanted.
What can we learn from this?
1. Build It Right
Having a vision is great, but unless you find your product-market fit, you’re just not going to find success. You also need to avoid unconscious bias and forget your assumptions. Or at least do the research and test your ideas before deciding what to build. With your product, you need to tell a story that your user understands, not just the one you want to tell. A story that no one wants to hear leads to a product that no one wants to buy.
2. Get the Basics
Your product vision might have come to you in a matter of days and make perfect sense. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll find other people who will buy into it. Spend ample time to understand and build your vision. It’s only a north star if everyone can see it.
Don’t forget to think about your strategy. Plan out the first 3 months – 6 months – 12 months of your product. Do you research, test your assumptions, and gather feedback.
You have to take ownership. Even if it’s not given to you. Without ownership, you can’t ask the hard questions. You can’t ask ‘why are we doing it this way?‘
Always anchor stakeholders, because they have their own goals and are doing their own things. But you as a Product Manager have to keep getting that vision into everything. Because you are the center of what’s going on. If you don’t pay attention to whether the work converges on the vision, no one else will. Don’t fear sounding repetitive. It’s your responsibility to keep the vision solidly in everyone’s mind.
4. Understand that things will change
When you’re building for your target market, you have to understand that it might be subject to change. Maybe not day to day, but certainly year by year. If you’re aiming to build a product to satisfy that market, you need to iterate as your product grows. Achieving product-market fit isn’t a one-time thing, it’s a constance process.
You may find yourself having to find a compromise speed, quality, and cost, but never compromise on your vision.
A Product Manager should always first get the basics right, and then move on to the next stage. Take an adequate amount of time to properly your vision, and use it as a guide moving forward.
Updated: April 17, 2023