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Allen Helton
Allen Helton

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Working Backwards: My Experience with the AWS Design Strategy

I recently participated in a Working Backwards session with AWS to discuss the potential for a new product. The product is still in its infancy, with nothing more than ideas floating around in the minds of several people around the company. The objective of a Working Backwards session is to help define scope, establish milestones, and get an official idea down on paper in the form of a press release and FAQ. This was the perfect time to hold a session, because we needed something tangible.

To get the most out of a Working Backwards session, you need to host it with the right people. Ideally you want representatives from every side of the organization, including development, support, sales, and product. Feel free to include any other stakeholders in the product as well. Getting input from different departments helps give depth to the definition and deliverables. In my session, we had a representative from all the different org units.

Getting Started

The meeting starts off with every person working individually to answer 5 questions. While answering these questions, use facts whenever possible, avoid any over-the-top statements, and avoid adverbs at all costs.

Your objective here is to answer these questions the best you can while maintaining the voice of the customer. Think about their needs, not about what you want. You can build the best product ever, but it will fail if it’s not what the market needs.

1. Who is the customer?
There are no limits to this question. This could be scoped from your MVP all the way to the long-term vision. It can be the end users or, if it’s a B2B application, the people who purchase the software. The point here is to not limit yourself on scope. You’re trying to define the product vision, so every little bit counts.

2. What is the customer problem or opportunity?
An accurate depiction of the problem is key to building the correct software. If you build software to address the wrong problem, your application is irrelevant. Think about your target market and what is holding them back. Are they currently users of one of your products? What do they think is the worst thing about their current process? Are you trying to address a new market? What is the industry lacking in this space? Think about the opportunity you have to correct these problems. Are they the problems you want to solve?

3. What is the most important customer benefit?
Try to limit this down to a single point. You can’t have multiple things that are MOST important. As we all know, “if everything is a priority, nothing is.” There is a driving force behind the product, it’s your job to find it and expose it with this question. What are the benefits to the end users, are there benefits for the CIO, or is a motivating factor to lower IT costs?

4. How do you know what your customers need or want?
This can be a tricky one to answer. We need to stay fact based with this exercise, and it’s easy to bring in intuition to answer the question. If someone tries to pass off their intuition as fact, call them out on it and ask clarifying questions. Sometimes the most valuable responses can come out of a follow-up. If you struggle to come up with facts, think about yourself and your competitors. Are you losing business because your current product isn’t keeping up? Are your competitors doing one thing better that gets a positive response from the customer? Will your existing customers upgrade to this new product?

5. What does the customer experience look like?
This is your opportunity to think specific. Get down to the nitty gritty details here. Are you developing a web app? Maybe the customer really needs an installable desktop app? Is your new product a kiosk? Put yourself in the customers shoes and think about what you consider to be the ideal use case for your product. Don’t get down to the level of where to position a button on the screen but do think about the customer journey.

After everyone has answered the questions, go over them. As you hear the group’s opinions on the product, iterate on your answers. Come up with an accurate depiction that expresses the idea well.

Overview of the Product

Next, have the primary stakeholder of the product get up and talk about their vision. Tell the group how it came about and what their expectations are. Use this as your opportunity to either define or vet your core application tenets, intended customers, and external stakeholders.

As the primary stakeholder talks about the vision, write down the tenets, customers, and stakeholders up on the board. This will start painting a picture of scope and help everyone remember what the principles are.

To set your product apart, you need a game changer. Something that makes your product soar clearly above the rest. Look at the tenets, customers, and stakeholders on the board. Peek at your answers to the 5 questions. Somewhere in there lies a game changer. As a group, identify the defining aspect of your product that will make it succeed beyond all expectations.

With all these ideas flying around, mental pictures of the application are sure to start forming among the members of the meeting. Take some time to discuss how the application is going to flow. Are there any specific criteria that need to be implemented in the user experience to make your game changer a reality? What about for your core tenets?

Build the Press Release and FAQ

By now, everyone in the meeting should have a similar idea on the primary objectives for this new product. With everyone on the same page, it’s time to split up again and work as individuals or in small groups to write out the different sections of the press release. The press release contains the following sections:

This should be a short and sweet introduction for your new product. Avoid any buzz words and keep the message clear.

Customer Testimonial
Obviously your product does not exist yet, so you do not have any customers to get a real testimonial from. Remember, this is just an internal exercise, so try to put yourself in the customers shoes and come up with a quote from their perspective on how your new product benefited them in some way.

Problem and Opportunity
Come up with a short explanation of the problem you are trying to solve. Remember to avoid exaggerating the problem and to explain the issue clearly.

No, this does not mean write down any architecture diagrams you have already thought up. The solution is in here to represent how your product has provided the most important customer benefit from your 5 questions.

Quote from a Company Leader
This needs to be a real quote from a leader in your company. The higher position, the better. Ask the leader to come up with a quote that would accurately describe how they feel if the product launched and hit every goal.
Customer Experience
Use the customer experience section of the press release to describe exactly how customers will use the new product. Draw from the 5 questions and include your game changer for a big hook.

Call to Action
After being inspired by your press release, the reader is going to need something to do. Direct them where they can go to test out the product or give them a point of contact to get in touch with to get started.

Try to sum up everything you have discussed so far in the meeting into 3 sentences. Establish who you are making the product for, why the product is necessary, and how it is going to solve their problems.

As you write the pieces of the press release, document any questions and answers that arise. People will be asking specific questions, and they are all important to write down! As a group, do your best to collectively come up with answers to any pressing questions. All the dialog here will go in the FAQ section in the bottom of the press release.

Assemble the PR/FAQ

To make the press release flow well, the sections we wrote above must be rearranged in a specific order. We take all the sections as-is, and assemble them in a word doc in this order:

• Summary
• Problem and Opportunity
• Solution
• Quote from a leader
• Customer Experience
• Customer Testimonial
• Call to Action

The intro is not added into the press release. It is intended to get a high-level idea of the product down on paper and is primarily used for reference going forward.

After the sections are assembled in order, take all the questions and answers that were written down during the drafting of press release and add them to a FAQ section at the bottom. That’s it! You have assembled a document that should accurately describe your intentions and define the overarching goal of your product.

Process Flow

What to Do Now

Now that you have a representative document of your vision and goals, and all the primary stakeholders and representatives from around the organization are aligned, you can now start planning things like the technical architecture, ideas for a POC, and milestones for deliverables and the MVP. Remember, this exercise is meant to be done early in the product’s lifecycle, so at this point you should have some concrete details to work from.

It is encouraged that everyone involved in the Working Backwards session print off a copy of the press release and review/mark it up. It’s ok to go back and iterate on your sections if they don’t make sense or portray the wrong idea. A primary outcome of this session is to have something down on paper. This is your launch point. With something written down, you can start iterating. Begin the software development process. Come up with a product definition that you love.


This is a fun and powerful meeting. You can talk about something until you’re blue in the face, but until it’s written down and in front of you, it’s just a thought. You can’t build a thought. Hold one of these meetings as early as possible while the idea is still young and fresh. We had been working on architecture diagrams and even had started a POC when we had ours, and it proved that the earlier you hold the meeting, the better.

At the end of the day, a clear and concise vision for a new product is one of the most valuable assets when defining a new product. Instead of spending weeks attempting to define it, get some stakeholders together and develop one as a team in 90 minutes. You not only get your vision, but you also get alignment with sales, support, product, and development.

What do you think about Working Backwards? Have you tried it before? Will you try it now? Let me know down in the comments what you think!

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