There is a lot of valuable business insight to be gained from observing the natural world. The form and function that animals and plants have evolved over millennia not only inspire us with their beauty, but their efficient structures as well. Sequoias and Redwood trees for example are some of largest organisms on the planet (50 feet tall, 8 foot diameter for an average 20 year old Redwood). Trees can reach the incredible size of a Redwood due to a strong base and roots, and an efficient branching system to transport water to the leaves.
Branching into the business concept, I want to talk about a product development tool known as a Product Tree. A product tree mimics tree structure to create an aesthetic visual tool that can be very useful in the design and long term development of a product.
A product tree is useful for almost any type of product across a wide range of industries as the principles discussed are universal. The basic concept simulates a tree’s roots, trunk, branches and leaves. The roots represent the base components and moving up into the branches and leaves alternate varying features can be listed. The act of “pruning” this tree is a fun and interactive exercise to get rid of redundancy and excess features.
Product Tree Structure
The Roots represent the core technology. For a software company this can be something such as the base algorithm that the product is based off of. For a physical product such as a car this would be a combination of core technologies such as the unique design frame and engine choice.
Moving up into the trunk are some core features already available in the product. Think in terms of primary features or base models.
Stemming out into the branches of the product tree are catalogued alternatives. Alternative car engines and horsepower models for example – optional power locks/windows etc.
When designing a developmental product tree, the branches are where the pruning will take place.
Pruning your tree
Pruning the tree can be an interactive activity among a team of designers as well as customer research groups and beta testers. Available for exactly this purpose are printable product tree templates. “Leaves” can be added to the tree in the form of post it notes.
Ideally a group of 8-10 people is enough to canvas a tree and see which features are more essential than others. The product development process can then be shaped in accordance to feedback received.
It is especially important to do this activity with customers as it really elucidates which features are important. Something thought to be essential by the development team may be expendable to the consumer.
Dynamic Tree Structures
A product tree can serve multiple purposes for both developer and consumer and as such there are alternate tree formats to use as well.
A developer’s tree is going to be much more detailed. A car manufacturer is going to need to document the mix of colors used in the blue paint of a car coming off an assembly line. The sales team at the dealership as well as the consumer is more concerned with just the final shade and color of the finish.
One strategy is simply to construct separate trees for each distinct entity. A developer tree may opt for a simpler flowchart style tree as opposed to the aesthetic tree printout popular with user end customers. Master list of materials are commonly catalogued this way. Biologists also have used flow chart trees in classification schemes of organisms for centuries.
An interesting alternative is a hybrid tree that is split down the middle between developer and user. This can be a useful format as it directly contrasts developmental details with user demands.
Hopefully this article was enlightening as to the potential uses of visualization in organizing your product plan. It is never too early to employ a product tree. Even when just planting the seeds of your product. Strong base features and organization of details allows a product to grow in complexity relative to the size of a Redwood.