Note: This doc serves as a template for creating Amazon-style Working Backwards PR/FAQ documents and running PR/FAQ review meetings. To use it to help you launch your own products or create business proposals, you’ll need to make your own copy by clicking on this button:
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Most of Amazon’s major products and initiatives since 2004 have one very Amazonian thing in common— they were created through a process called Working Backwards. Working Backwards is a process to vet ideas and create products or services. Its key tenet is to start by defining the customer experience, then iteratively work backwards from that point until the team achieves clarity of thought around what to build. Its principal tool is a written narrative called the PR/FAQ, short for press release/frequently asked questions. The PR/FAQ is written for the customer in a language a customer can understand. The process ensures that the customer is top of mind throughout the entire journey of turning an idea into a product or service for the company. You start with the customer and work backwards, rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it.
To the uninitiated, Working Backwards can be frustrating due to repeatedly having to write and review PR/FAQ documents before writing code. This is not a defect of Working Backwards, it’s a feature. The process forces you to slow down and define, in unambiguous terms, the problem you are solving for customers, the solution you are proposing, and why customers will use it.
Teams that use Working Backwards may not set speed records from idea conception to product launch. But they fare pretty well when judged by how quickly the product delights customers in a meaningful way. For example, AWS was one the first business units to adopt the Working Backwards process at Amazon for all of its services such as S3 and EC2. Using the Working Backwards process, by slowing down to achieve clarity of thought on the customer problems to be solved and defining what solutions to address those customer needs, AWS was able to quickly grow in a business generating tens of billions of annual revenue. Amazon’s 2015
Letter to Shareholders
mentions that AWS “was bigger than Amazon.com was at 10 years old (and) growing at a faster rate.”
What are PR/FAQs?
PR/FAQ stands for Press Release (PR) and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). The PR/FAQ is a written document Amazonians use when proposing a product idea in its early stages. Like most press releases and FAQ documents, PR/FAQs accompany the launch of new product or features.
What’s unique about Amazon’s PR/FAQs is that they’re written from a future perspective—describing a hypothetical launch of a yet-to-be-released product.
The PR/FAQ is divided into three parts:
A Press Release(PR)
A hypothetical press release that might be written when the new product is actually released. Much like a litmus test for the product, if this write-up doesn’t convince someone to buy the product, then it needs to be rewritten.
An External FAQ
A list of potential questions customers or the press might have about the product along with their relevant answers that would accompany the PR.
An Internal FAQ
Similar to the external FAQ, but much longer and with hard questions internal stakeholders may ask the Product Development Team—including all kinds of concerns, challenges, and potential risks. Mockups are optional, but useful where products have a UI component, or where the service could be more clearly understood with a storyboard or illustration.
Why bother writing a PR or FAQ for unreleased products?
PR/FAQs serve as a forcing function and concrete way for product teams to think about new product ideas from the perspective of the customer. The PR must clearly identify the customer, define the problem or need the customer has, describe the solution that will solve the problem or address that need, and finally convince the customer why they should adopt the proposed solution.
The process requires thinking through the customer’s experience with the product, including their motivations for using it or any potential concerns they may have—before the team gets too attached to their own designs and plans. The process of writing a press release and FAQs, in and of itself—before any code is written, any budgets are set, an any headcount is given—helps product teams identify features the team should invest in, and potential issues that may arise before they occur.
So even though, at first glance, this approach appears to slows down the product development cycle, it usually results in saving a whole lot of time and money in the long-run.
In an internal Amazon meeting, Jeff Bezos was asked, “Is the Working Backwards process optional? Is sounds great, but it seems like a lot of work.” You can find his full answer starting 1 minute 57 seconds into the video below. He aptly described the value of Working Backwards in this way:
“Done correctly, the Working Backwards process is a huge amount of work. But, it saves you even more work later. The Working Backwards process is not designed to be easy, it’s designed to save huge amounts of work on the backend, and to make sure that we’re actually building the right thing.”
Watch the video clip (YouTube May 22, 2018):
To get the most out of PR/FAQs, it’s helpful to have a deeper understanding of the Working Backwards process—something my coauthor I walk through in much more detail in
, a book that Bill Carr (another former-exec and longtime Amazonian) and I published. The book gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into how the Working Backwards process came about, and how it fueled the launch of products and services like the Kindle and Amazon Prime, and provides practical insights on how you can adapt them to your workplace.
Fun fact: Bill and I are such advocates of the Working Backwards process that we even used it ourselves when embarking on our book-writing project. One of the first things we did was go write the Press Release and the FAQ—asking ourselves the important questions about the intended audience, the specific needs this book would address for them, our goals for the project and what we personally wanted out of it.
The PR/FAQ review meeting
Getting the PR/FAQ written is only half of the challenge. Next, you’ll have to take it through a bandwidth-heavy, internal review process with your stakeholders and leadership team.
The review process
This review process takes place in (what Amazonians refer to as) a ‘Narrative’ meeting, where a group of stakeholders are invited to a 60 minutes session to read the PR/FAQ, then provide the Product Development team with high-quality feedback.
Narrative meetings are divided into 2 basic parts:
Silent reading (20 min)
Everyone is given time at the start of the meeting to read the 6-page, PR/FAQ in silence. At Amazon, the practice of not sending out the document as a pre-read is intentional. It ensures that everyone has had a chance to read the document in detail and that everyone is reading the same version (including any last-minute updates that were snuck in before the meeting). Note: The time allocation of 20-minutes is based on the fact that people typically take around three minutes to read each page.
Discussion (40 min)
This is core component of the session—when high-quality feedback is solicited and challenging questions are encouraged. If the PR isn’t clear enough or wouldn’t incentivize someone to buy the product or service, it needs to be rewritten and resubmitted. The same holds true if there are questions that haven’t been satisfactorily answered or new questions are identified.
The objective of the meeting is to leave the room with a better understanding of what you want to build for customers and why. It’s about the collective audience focused on truth seeking and eventually deciding whether the idea needs more investigation, is worth building, or should be set aside.
Gaps will be found! A PR/FAQ under serious consideration for implementation will typically require multiple drafts and meetings with the leadership.
If the benefits listed don't sound very interesting or exciting to customers or the Total Addressable Market is not big enough, then perhaps they're not (and shouldn't be built). Instead, the author(s), typically product managers, should keep iterating on the press release until they've come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself.
During our time with Amazon, most PR/FAQs never made it to a stage where they were launched as actual products. What this means is that a product manager will put in a lot of time exploring product ideas that never get to market. This may be because of the intense competition for resources and capital among the hundreds of PR/FAQs that are authored and presented each year within the company. Only the very best will rise to the top of the stack and get prioritized and resourced, whether the pool of capital comes from within a large company like Amazon or from a startup investor. The fact that most PR/FAQs don’t get approved is a feature, not a bug. Spending time up front to think through all the details of a product, and to determine—without committing precious software development resources—which products not to build, preserves your company’s resources to build products that will yield the highest impact for customers and your business.
Try PR/FAQs with your team
This doc serves as a template for creating PR/FAQs and running Narrative meetings. You can create a new copy of this template to accompany each new product launch or business proposal.
Start by making a copy of this doc (if you haven’t already):
- Schedule 60 minutes for this ‘live’ review and discussion session with a group of cross-functional stakeholders
Key Themes of the Working Backwards Process
It’s customer obsessed - The process forces you to understand the customer experience at a very deep level. Also, when you relentlessly discover and follow customer needs, it can take you places you didn't anticipate. A skills-forward approach does not do this.
Go slow to move fast - Working Backwards typically maximizes your velocity by first making sure the direction is correct.
Takes discipline to do right - Writing a PR/FAQ document can take several days or weeks. Show drafts early and often to others to get feedback before your formal Working Backwards meeting. Be patient. You’ll need multiple iterations before you can make the greenlight decision.
Embeds leadership principles into an everyday process - Whether you agree with or adopt the Working Backwards process, it’s a good example of weaving one or more of your leadership principles into a common company process.
It Can and Does Work in Tandem with Agile - Once you have a solid PR/FAQ, it’s time to sprint! This Harvard Business Review
has additional info on how the Working Backwards process and Agile can be used together.
About the author
Colin Bryar is an Author, Advisor, and Amazon Insider. During his 13 years at Amazon, he served as a Vice President at Amazon and held various roles including Chief of Staff of Jeff Bezos and Chief Operating Officer of IMDb. He and Bill Carr, also a former executive at Amazon co-authored a book entitled, Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon.