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Working Backwards (the Amazon Method)

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What is working backwards (the Amazon method)?


Definition of working backwards (the Amazon ethod)

The “working backwards” method, also known as the Amazon method, is a methodology pioneered by product teams at Amazon. Its unique take on product development suggests that teams start at the end, by drafting an internal-only press release announcing the final product.

But why?

Amazon workers argue that by visualizing a time when the final product is ready for launch, the team is more able to focus on a product’s benefits — not just its features. 

What’s more, once described in the format of a press release, any feature which doesn’t sound appealing or doesn’t help deliver the core user benefits, should be considered for the cutting room floor.

What are the origins of the working backwards method?

The working backwards methodology actually has rather humble origins.

The working backwards methodology wasn’t written out in a textbook, or outlined as part of a keynote speech. The Amazon method was actually first described publicly as a response to a question on Quora.

The question “What is Amazon's approach to product development and product management?” was in fact answered by Ian McAllister, at the time the director of AmazonSmile, and the person who went on to lead the Amazon Day and Alexa teams globally.

In his incredibly detailed (and revealing) response, McAllister described the precise methodology the Amazon product team uses to guide their decision-making and development planning.

What should be included in a working backwards press release?

McAllister’s Quora answer was not just thorough, it was in fact very useful for any product teams looking to replicate the working backwards method. In his explanation, he laid out the exact necessary structure for a working backwards press release (which we’ll touch on in just a second).

But before we do, it’s worth highlighting another of McAllister’s assertions: that despite press releases being an externally-focused form of communication, this version is meant specifically for internal use as a means of improving the process.

That said, the product team should still be clear about who the press release is aimed at retail customers, internal users, and so on. Having a good sense of the target audience will ensure that teams don’t over-explain features that most customers wouldn’t be interested in anyway. 

To them, it’s all about the benefits. In a nutshell: “What’s in it for me?”

Okay, so how does the “working backwards” press release help product teams to answer this question?

Here’s the structure Allister suggested in his original post:

  1. Heading. This could be the product’s name, preferably framed in a way that makes it appealing to customers.

  2. Subheading. What is the core benefit of the product in a single line? (This can be a tough one, but it’s a very powerful way of refining a product vision).

  3. Summary. As the name suggests, simply summarize what the product does along with its main benefit.

  4. Problem. What is the specific problem this product exists to solve?

  5. Solution. How does the product solve the problem?

  6. Quote from you. Create a fictional spokesperson and ask for a one-liner explaining why this product is a must-have.

  7. How to get started. Explain why it’s so easy to hit the ground running with this product.

  8. Customer quote. Break the cardinal rule, and knowingly invent a customer testimonial. Again, this brings the focus back to the customer.

  9. Closing and call to action. Finish up the press release by letting the reader know how to find out more or start using the product.

The benefits of the Amazon working backwards method

While it may feel counterintuitive to start a project at the end in this way, the results can actually be remarkable.

Here are some of the core benefits you could realize if you choose to give the Amazon method a shot:

  • It keeps the team focused on the customer experience. The single most important benefit of the working backwards method is that it effectively forces a product team to look at the product through a customer lens. Product teams can be overly focused on features, so writing a press release in this way ensures everyone knows why they’re developing a product — not just how.

  • It sums up the goals of a product in a concise way. As part of McAllister’s description of the working backwards method, he recommends the press release exceed no more than half a page. That ensures the team stays sharply focused on the customer benefits.

  • It serves as a guiding light during development. We all know about scope creep, and how easy it can be for development to veer away from the product roadmap. With the press release to hand, teams can refer back and ensure the features they’re working on match the original vision.

  • It’s a quick way to assess product/market fit. In his original post, McAllister states, “My rule of thumb is that if the press release is hard to write, then the product is probably going to suck”. The takeaway here is that product teams often find out late in the game that a product doesn’t really solve a need. With the working backwards method, such a mismatch can be identified early on — and the course-corrected.

General FAQ

How do you solve problems working backwards?
According to the working backwards method, product teams should begin development by drafting a press release announcing the final version. This allows the team to deliver on genuine customer needs and a meaningful customer experience, rather than features alone.
Who created the working backwards method?
Working backwards (the Amazon method) was first described in 2012 by Ian McAllister. In a response to a question on the website Quora, Ian explained how Amazon product teams work backwards to keep the focus on customer wants and needs.
How to apply the working backwards method?
Product teams apply the working backwards method by drafting a press release for their yet-to-be-developed product. The press release should include descriptions of the problem being solved, an explanation of the solution, and even include fictional customer testimonials.
How can product teams use the working backwards method?
The working backwards methodology, also known as the Amazon method, flips product development on its head by challenging teams to focus on the product’s benefits rather than the features.

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