Summary of Lean product playbook

Summary of The Lean Product Playbook for Product Managers

In this article, I am sharing my notes consisting of the summary and my understanding of product management related concepts in ‘The Lean Product Playbook’, written by Dan Olsen.

About the author: Dan Olsen is an entrepreneur, consultant, author, speaker, and expert in product management and Lean Startup. Dan has worked with a range of businesses, from small, early-stage startups to large public companies, on a wide variety of web and mobile products. His clients include Facebook, Box, and Microsoft.

While I would recommend reading the book to get an unbiased and detailed content, I have tried my best to present the interesting concepts covered in the book. I would also highlight that this article isn’t summary in a true sense, as I have only spoken about the product management concepts that I found insightful.

Why products fail?

The root cause is product doesn’t meet the needs of the customer in a way that is better than an alternative. In essence, your product has not achieved product-market fit.
Marc Andreessen coined the term product-market ft in a well-known blog post titled “The only thing that matters.” In that post, he wrote, “Product-market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.”

How to see the product-market fit from a product perspective?

The lean product playbook
The pyramid separates the market into its two distinctive components – the target customer and their needs. The need layer is above the target customer layer as their need is relevant to achieving the product market fit.
In order to decide the which featured to build, you want to focus on building features catering to underserved needs in a way better than others in the market. That’s what product strategy is. The mixture of the value proposition (set of needs you want to meet), feature set, and UX define your product.

The problem space and solution space

One of the major problem during product research is combining ‘what problem to solve’ and ‘how to solve’. By phrasing the starting question in the wrong manner, you can anchor the answer.
The author quotes the famous example of ‘Space Pen’. The problem NASA was trying to solve was “Make a pen that works in space”. Investing close to 1 million dollars, a firm developed a pen that works in space. However, the Russian space agency used a pencil instead, which solves the problem here. The problem here was the mixing problem and solution space. Instead of framing problem-space question – “design equipment to work in space”, NASA anchored the problem to a pen. This happens all the time.
In the research, it’s critical to figure out the correct problem. As Steve Job once said:

“You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it”.

However, you can’t work with customers in problem space. Often customers aren’t good at describing problems but providing feedback for the product.
That’s why working in solution space with the customer is much more helpful. It’s better to build MVP (minimum viable product) and then ask the customers to compare with the current products and share with you the pros and cons. This feedback, which you gather in solution space, can help you improve your problem space hypothesis.

Identifying Underserved Needs

It’s one of the most critical steps. I found two interesting frameworks related to this concept in the book.

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

The lean product playbook
While we all have look at these pyramids and aimed to cater to higher needs. One of the critical point to keep in mind is that meeting a higher level need doesn’t really matter unless the more basic needs below it aren’t met.
For example, if the product’s loading time is high, the fact that it has a better UX doesn’t really matter. The lower level needs should be met first.
For web product, a typical hierarchy of needs could be: Uptime -> Page Load Time -> Absence of bugs -> Feature Set -> UX design

2. The Importance vs Satisfaction Framework

The lean product playbook
It’s a great framework to decide what problem to tackle in order to build a successful product.
It’s obvious that you don’t build a product for needs that aren’t important to customers. In addition, you also don’t want to build a product for the top-right quadrant. Consider the desktop application Excel, it’s targeted to an important need of the customer, and its satisfaction score is also high. That’s why it’s tough to compete in these segments.
Space where a need is really important, and satisfaction is low is the most attractive segment. Uber targeted similar segment. People need a taxi, but they weren’t happy with all the hassles associated with the taxi business.

Testing Tools

While there is a lot of interesting content on MVP and testing method, I loved the section about wireframing tools. Olsen suggests using the following wireframing tools:

  • Designer: Illustrator and Sketch are graphic design applications used mainly by designers.
  • Web-products: Balsamiq, Axure, and UXPin for web products.
  • Mobile-products: Mobile wireframing tools Flinto and Marvel for designers and POP and Dapp for nondesigners.

Fake Door or 404 Page

Showcase a new feature as a link on the bottom of a web-page, and see how many users click the link. If there is enough traction, the feature is worth pursuing.
Zynga used to publish feature pitch (a short description) as a promotional link in their live games for a short period of time to see how much interest it generated from customers.

Design principle

The most crucial factor in the success of the product is whether users see the benefits. Poor UX gets in the way of users seeing the benefits. That’s why it’s imperative to focus on the designing of the product. The author has beautifully bucketed the designs aspects that are crucial for the success of the product. 

  • Definitely, the first component of the crucial design is that it should solve a problem in a way better than any alternatives.
  • The second crucial consideration for designing the product is usability – how easy it is for customers to use the product. A few key factors here are:
    • Successful completion of the task:  What percentage of users encounter a problem in completing a task? It’s important to align the product with the expectation of the user.  
    • Efficiency: There are multiple factors to determine efficiency:
      • Physical effort: How many clicks does it take to complete the task? There is also a three-click rule – every crucial feature of a product should be accessible within 3 clicks.
      • Cognitive Load: You can’t mentally overwhelm users by showing too many information or providing too many choices.
      • Ease of learning: Successful onboarding is one of the critical factors in determining the success of the firm. Many products that deliver a great user experience address the need for “user onboarding” with helpful tutorials and guides for first-time users.
  • Delight: Delight, which goes beyond simply avoiding user frustration, means evoking positive emotions. Let’s talk about a few key factors in delighting customers. 
    • One aspect of delight is aesthetics—ensuring that the product has a pleasant design, which conveys credibility and high quality.
    • Simplicity, often, helps in delivering customer delight. The simple landing page of Goole or the minimalist design of the iPhone is often quoted as the best examples of this theory. 
    • Empathy and understanding of the user segment are again critical. A product that seems to understand users and deliver what’s expected is delightful.
    • A product that conveys personality traits such as funny and conservative often evoke positive emotions from users and build stickiness.
    • Mobile apps have heavily used dynamic action to keep users engaged. The whole point of tracking your car in Uber keep you engaged and more importantly patient. To illustrate, Dan talks about the  “rubber band” effect that occurs in iOS when a user attempts to scroll past the end of a displayed document or webpage.
    • Finally, ‘surprise‘ is an important component of delight. One of the examples of brilliant use of surprise was Twitter’s famous “fail whale” graphics displayed during service outrage.

Besides these concepts, there are several good case studies and details on the visual element such as colour and typography that you might want to run through. However, that’s the crux. Hope you gained something new 🙂


About the author

Incoming Product Manager at Google | Kellogg MBA '20 | IIT Delhi Graduate

I am passionate about product management, startup, and fitness not in any particular order.


  1. I do agree with all the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They are very convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for newbies. Could you please extend them a bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

  2. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

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