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A tool, not an identity

In the echo chamber of software development businesses, it's easy to get caught up in trends. Recall the late '90s, when 'dot com' was the hallmark of cutting-edge technology in company names. Can you imagine branding anything ‘dot com’ today? This brings us to the current culprit… AI.  Don’t get me wrong, I am 100% in on AI. I spend about 95% of my day working on and thinking about AI right now.  However, while AI is transformative, it is merely a tool in the toolkit, and you may want to think twice about making it part of your identity.

Understanding AI's Role in Your Brand

AI is following a similar trajectory to 'dot com'. It’s becoming a buzzword, a trendy tagline that companies rush to slap onto their products and branding. But here’s the hard truth: just because you use AI doesn’t automatically make your product innovative. If AI is your core value proposition, you might be missing the point. It’s a means to an end, not the end itself.

We’re witnessing a surge of companies and brands integrating AI into their core. It’s as if the mere mention of AI is supposed to give customers trust and confidence. Should it? AI, like any other technological tool, is part of your arsenal to solve problems, not a magic wand that automatically makes your product superior.

Just Another Tool in the Tech Stack

Let’s put it this way: you wouldn’t market your product based on the coding language you used or the type of database powering your back-end. That would be absurd, right? Yet, this is basically what’s happening with AI. Companies are flaunting their use of AI as if it’s a unique selling proposition. 

We need to start thinking of AI as any other tool in the tech stack. It’s there to enhance, improve, or make things more efficient. It can’t be the defining feature of your product or service. Your customers are looking for solutions to their problems, not a rundown of your tech stack.

The Exception to the Rule

There is, however, a notable exception to the rule of keeping AI out of your branding – and that is if your company actually builds foundational AI models. If you are Open AI… OK fine, you got me there. In this case, AI isn't just a tool in your toolkit, it's the core of your product and business model. Companies developing and selling AI technology for others to use in their stack get to make this their unique selling proposition.

This is a narrow slice of the market. If your company's purpose in life is to develop and sell AI technology – to be the craftsmen of the AI plumbing others will use – then, by all means, AI should be front and center in your branding. 

For everyone else, AI is a means to an end. 

Focus on Friction, Not Just Adding

In the midst of the AI craze, there’s a shift in perspective that needs to happen in product leadership. Actually, it's not really a shift but more a getting back to basics type of thinking. The wrong, yet all too common, question that teams are asking right now is: “How can we add AI to our product?” This approach is fundamentally flawed. This is the very definition of a solution looking for a problem. I have a cart… has anyone seen my horse? 

In most businesses, AI is not a value driver. AI simply opens up the world of potential problems that we can attack to add value. The right question, the one that truly aligns with customer-centric and value-driven product development, is: 

“What friction areas do we have in our product? Given that, can AI provide a pathway to a solution we hadn’t thought of before?” 

But wait, that's just boring old product development.  Yep, the more we change, the more we stay the same. 

By focusing on friction areas, you prioritize the user experience and efficiency of your product. AI should not be shoehorned into your product just because.  It should be leveraged thoughtfully to alleviate specific pain points and enhance the user experience. 

What’s hard about your product now? Maybe AI can help you solve that?

What’s time consuming about getting started with your product? Maybe AI can help you solve that?

What keeps customers from sticking with your product? Maybe AI can help you solve that?

What’s a problem you dismissed as too hard to solve previously? Maybe AI can help you solve that?

Identify where the friction lies, and then assess if AI is the right tool to address it.

Incorporating AI should always be driven by a clear understanding of the customer’s needs and the specific challenges they face when interacting with your product. It’s about enhancing functionality, simplifying complexities, and delivering a seamless experience.

Creating two Problems

There’s also plenty of problems that don’t need AI at all, and many reasons that adding AI to your product might cause even more challenges for your customers.   

There’s an old quote by Jamie Zawinski that goes, “Some people, when confronted with a problem, think 'I know, I'll use regular expressions.' Now they have two problems.” We're starting to see AI take on a similar flavor in the product management world. It’s becoming the go-to solution, sometimes without proper consideration of whether it’s the right fit.

AI might be the answer to your problem, but it might not be. It’s crucial to focus on your customer and the problem you’re trying to solve. Trust me, most customers don’t care if you’re using AI. In fact, over-emphasizing AI could lead them to question the validity of your product. They’re looking for effectiveness, not trend adoption.

Before we start renaming everything, AI this or that.  Before we start, plugin AI in here, there and everywhere. Take a step back. Examine your product through the lens of user experience. Identify the friction points. Then, and only then, should you ask whether AI can play a role in resolving these issues. This approach not only ensures a more thoughtful integration of AI but also aligns with the ultimate goal of any product: to solve real problems and deliver tangible value to the user.

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