Many years ago, I worked on Microsoft Encarta. For those too young to remember, Encarta was sort of like Wikipedia, only instead of on the Internet it was printed on shiny plastic plates called CD-ROMs.

Each year, when the new version of Encarta was finished, Microsoft would hire an agency to design the box. Looking at the finished product, they’d try to figure out how to convince people to buy the darned thing. It wasn’t pretty. Feature checklists and yellow stickers abounded. Imagine our chagrin when the features promoted on the box didn’t match up with where we’d put the most effort. Why had we bothered to build them in the first place?

The technology has certainly changed, but “build first, market later” is still a common approach. Hard work is still wasted on features that don’t make the marketing headlines. Instead of the icing on the cake, I like to think of marketing as the sugar in the batter. You’ve got to get it in before the cake gets baked.

Fire up the flux capacitor

Okay, let’s pretend I grab you and stuff you in a DeLorean. We time travel a few weeks into the future. Your latest project has just been released.

Imagine you can see the launch page. It has a nice simple headline explaining the appeal of your product, with a couple of secondary call-outs. You print the screen, hop back in the DeLorean, and return to the present.

With this glimpse of the future in hand, your team will be better at focusing on the core of the product. If it’s on the launch page, double down! If it isn’t, think hard before spending any time on it.

An exercise you can do with your team

Here’s a quick exercise to design the launch page before the rest of the product. It has all the benefits of the DeLorean without the risks generally associated with time paradox.

1. Download and print a template

My template is available here, or you can make your own. The formula is simple:

  • One headline and three subheads, max 12 words each.
  • No pictures. I don’t want people getting distracted by drawings yet.

2. Gather examples

Pick some good real-world examples to set the bar. A couple of my favorites are Basecamp by 37signals and pretty much anything on Apple’s product pages — you’ll find great writing with concise, focused headlines. You can find even more great examples of launch pages in this article from Smashing Magazine.

3. Get others to help

Designers should not do this exercise alone. Include product managers, engineers, and anyone else who’s opinionated. Ideally you’ll have your marketing person and CEO involved too. (Spoiler alert: those two are probably really good at this.)

I like to do this exercise as a group. Depending on your team’s appetite for group exercises, you may prefer a casual approach to recruiting: just drop a template on their desks. You can say something like: “Hey, I’m working on project foo and thinking about how we’re going to market it. Would you fill this out? Just imagine you’re creating an advertisement from the future.” For these anti-social types, you can skip the next couple of steps and just pick up their finished template later.

4. Set the stage

Before starting to write, show the examples, and give people 15 minutes to individually brainstorm or mind-map their ideas.

5. Write headlines

Give everyone two or three blank templates. Set a timer for another 15 minutes while you each fill out the templates.

Describing the key value proposition of your product in 12 words or less is really hard. I ask people to think about these questions:

  • Why should anybody care about your product?
  • Why would they want to tell their friends about it?
  • How would they explain it to their friends?

If you’re doing this on your own, 37signals has great advice on writing an opinionated headline. I also like Braden Kowitz’s “Come for the x, stay for the y” where he talks about which features are the hooks and which grow on users over time.

6. Silent critique

Launch pages have to stand on their own in the real world, so don’t have everyone describe their design. The most realistic way to get feedback is to shut your trap and let the headlines do the talking.

I like to have everybody pin their templates on the wall. Then you can do a silent critique where people put dot stickers next to the headlines they like, and maybe add comments with sticky notes — see an example exercise here. When you finish voting, discuss as a group.

Although groups are great at generating different perspectives, don’t let your group pick the winner. That decision should be made by one or two opinionated product-oriented people. Groups, no matter how talented, tend to make watered-down decisions. Compromise won’t make a great product.

7. Now, start designing

You’re likely to find more than one promising direction. You may want to spend some time exploring different paths before you pick one. Either way, you’ll be armed with a concise, opinionated description as you go.

In the rare case that you don’t come up with anything, you’ll still learn something valuable. I once ran this exercise with a team who couldn’t come up with a reason why their product would matter to users. They actually stopped working on it and did something else instead.

That’s painful, but it’s much more efficient than finding out nobody wanted it after the product was finished.

Have you ever started a project with marketing? How did it go? Are there other exercises that help you and your team focus?