Product First Principles

My uncle Ronnie, whom I think I met only once when I was 3 years old, taught my father how to drive according to his 4 rules of driving. My father, in turn, taught me and I’ve never forgotten them. In no particular order, they are:

  • Anything bigger than you has the right of way,
  • Never back up an inch further than you have to,
  • Never drive faster than your headlights,
  • Always be wondering what the stupidest thing the cars around you could possibly do, and then be prepared for them to do that.

When I was 15 and learning to drive, this list terrified me. Years later it amused me. But now, this list fascinates me — in two decades, I have yet to find anything I’d add to this list before I teach it to my son. Everything on this list has saved my life. Adding more information might distract from these memorable truths of “how to not die in a car accident.”

The clarity, honesty, and brevity of this list frame my understanding of first principles, which I seek to identify in everything I learn. What are the elemental, atomic truths that hold true in all cases? These are the things worth knowing, worth writing about and passing on to others.

In my ten years of product experience, I’ve sought out scholarly articles, books, and modern-day philosophers of product first principles. And I haven’t found many. It seems this way of looking at the world may be too new to have come fully into focus. There are no university degree programs, no classical education tracks for the fledgling product person. But surely there are first principles worth writing about.

That’s the basis for this blog. I haven’t got it all figured out, but I hope that as I write, others may find this exercise interesting and join in on my hunt for product first principles. I’ve identified a list of topics worth writing about, in no particular order:

  • Influencing without authority
  • Frameworks vs. feedback loops
  • Design to learn
  • Anecdotes are not data
  • Innovation ≠ invention
  • Divergent & convergent thinking
  • Simplifying complexity
  • Desire paths
  • Outcomes over output
  • Iteration is subtractive, not additive
  • Efficiency of teams, not people
  • Minimum viable
  • Single points of failure
  • Systems of record
  • Required vs. desired
  • Scope & specificity
  • When to endure, when to fail fast
  • Bias & cognitive chunking
  • Inputs & outputs
  • Reject cognitive load
  • Validate unknowns

If this list looks like stuff you’d want to read about, follow along!

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