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.
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.
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.
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:
Heading. This could be the product’s name, preferably framed in a way that makes it appealing to customers.
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).
Summary. As the name suggests, simply summarize what the product does along with its main benefit.
Problem. What is the specific problem this product exists to solve?
Solution. How does the product solve the problem?
Quote from you. Create a fictional spokesperson and ask for a one-liner explaining why this product is a must-have.
How to get started. Explain why it’s so easy to hit the ground running with this product.
Customer quote. Break the cardinal rule, and knowingly invent a customer testimonial. Again, this brings the focus back to the customer.
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.
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.
The Amazon working backwards method is incredibly simple to perform. You just need a team with a solid imagination.
Your starting point is a mock internal press release. That means your press release needs to focus heavily on customer value.
The team will draft a press release similar to how they would at the end of development. The document should contain everything a customer would need to know about the product, which gives your project some starting points.
This process will involve identifying the following:
Who is the customer?
What issue does the customer need the product to address?
What is the most important benefit to the customer?
How does the company discover customer wants and needs?
What does the customer experience look like?
One of the biggest issues with the working backwards model is that it can be extremely time-consuming. Even Jeff Bezos has spoken about how intensive this method can be.
However, it can save teams a lot of work later in the development process. This will become clear once you write your first press release. You’ll likely find yourself experimenting with, refining, and reworking your press release before actually getting started on a project.
Once these questions are answered, it’s time to look at solutions. How can you address the customer’s issue? How will you build that most important benefit? Once you have defined your solutions, you can take them to stakeholders for approval.
When you have your problems, solutions, and approval from stakeholders, it’s time to build a high-level roadmap. The press release should be used as a reference during roadmap creation to ensure you include everything.
All that’s left to do now is create the product backlog and start assigning tasks!