Start with the Customer, and Work Backwards

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This article is about the Amazon Product Development Process: Start with the Customer, and Work Backwards.

Amazon is a company that is absolutely customer obsessed — from the top-down.  It’s been able to build a culture with the customer at the center, because its processes, technology, and the general worldview of its employees are centered right on the customer.

The Core Values

The Amazon Core Values, for example, are not just a list of rote phrases the people forget after they are tacked-up on the wall: they are hard-core in every Amazonian.  Specifically, the Amazon Core Values are:

  • Customer Obsession: We start with the customer and work backwards.
  • Innovation: If you don’t listen to your customers you will fail. But if you only listen to your customers you will also fail.
  • Bias for Action: We live in a time of unheralded revolution and insurmountable opportunity – provided we make every minute count.
  • Ownership: Ownership matters when you’re building a great company. Owners think long-term, plead passionately for their projects and ideas, and are empowered to respectfully challenge decisions.
  • High Hiring Bar: When making a hiring decision we ask ourselves: “Will I admire this person? Will I learn from this person? Is this person a superstar?”
  • Frugality: We spend money on things that really matter and believe that frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency, and invention!

How do the core values weave their way into how people work at Amazon?  One example is Ownership.  Ownership is manifested in the way Amazon compensates its people.  Restricted Stock Units (RSU) are a big part of the annual bonus and merit increases.  And, because of the strong services and store-focused nature of the Amazon business, each store that is launched has a business owner, or general manager who owns the P&L for that store — so, that entire team has P&L responsibility with their compensation tied to the P&L — indeed, true ownership is manifested when your livelihood depends on the success of your project or initiative or, in Amazon’s case, the store. Product Development Process

Here’s another example: the product development process at Amazon is centered on the customer.  Amazon follows a process called “Working Backwards”, which means that the first deliverables created are the documents at  launch, then work backwards towards the items closer to the implementation.  Defining a product this way adds clarity and simplicity — you know at the front-end what the customer can expect, and working backwards allows the team to build it.  Here are the general steps followed in this process:

    1. Start by writing the Press Release.  Nail it. The press release describes in a simple way what the product does and why it exists – what are the features and benefits. It needs to be very clear and to the point. Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.
    2. Write a Frequently Asked Questions document. Here’s where we add meat to the skeleton provided by the press release. It includes questions that came up when we wrote the press release. You would include questions that other folks asked when you shared the press release and you include questions that define what the product is good for. You put yourself in the shoes of someone using the product and consider all the questions you would have.
    3. Define the customer experience. Describe in precise detail the customer experience for the different things a customer might do with the product. For products with a user interface, we would build mock ups of each screen that the customer uses. For web services, we write use cases, including code snippets, which describe ways you can imagine people using the product. The goal here is to tell stories of how a customer is solving their problems using the product.
  1. Write the User Manual. The user manual is what a customer will use to really find out about what the product is and how they will use it. The user manual typically has three sections, concepts, how-to, and reference, which between them tell the customer everything they need to know to use the product. For products with more than one kind of user, we write more than one user manual.

Following this process reduced so much “front-end” time — that is, the cycle time from concept-to-delivery (brainstorming, discussions, and arguments) was significantly reduced because the team and peripheral stakeholders agreed earlier rather than later on what the product would look like in the end.  Moreover, because of the bias-for-action core value, people naturally want to produce, rather than have long, drawn-out discussions: at the end, people want working code, manifested in a store that is launched and adding value to the top-line.

This process places the customer at the center, and drives simplicity and clarity throughout the process.  Start with the customer, and work backwards — is a very effective process that works well and places the customer in her rightful place.


  1. Holiday in Kerala says

    The book “Inspired. How to create products customers love” by Marty Cagan has similar and more ideas, originally developed at . There is a well known fact that 90% of new products fail in large corporations due to politics. It is refreshing to learn that Amazon minimized this risk. But the danger persists, even after the Internal Press Release

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