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Gap Inc. has dozens of subsidiaries (Old Navy, Banana Republic, Athleta, etc.), thousands of product lines, and millions of products. It’s a bit of an organizational nightmare.

Or at least it would be if they didn’t have a strong, logical product hierarchy.

Drilling down to a specific periwinkle blue polo shirt is as simple as climbing down their tree structure, navigating through well-defined brands, collections, product lines, categories, and product attributes.

Organizing a scalable product hierarchy doesn’t just help you maintain your sanity. It establishes a shared, cross-organizational language, guides product growth, eases the sales process, and drives positive customer experiences.


Step 1 - Identify Your North Star

Identifying your North Star can be tricky, but it’s a worthy exercise that will help focus your business and accurately position you for success. Think of it as the theme of your entire business. It’s what guides you in the night, and what everything in your business should point toward.

Let’s pretend that Gap Inc.’s North Star is “affordable, everyday clothing and accessories for men, women, and children.” It sounds basic, but it’s an effective filter for vetting every new product that they might consider adding to one or all of their brands. They wouldn’t sell upscale watches because they aren’t affordable, and they’ll never sell candy bars because they aren’t clothing.

Guiding Questions

  • What are you trying to solve for the user?
  • What sets you apart from your competitors?
  • How do you want someone to describe your business?

Step 2 - Organize Your Features

In retail, product hierarchies are usually easier to define because there are discreet collections of products, each with one or many attributes. Consider the clothing categories under Women’s Apparel – Suits, Pants, Dresses, Sweaters, Coats & Jackets, etc.

A trick for organizing digital products and features is to look for shared functionality, then categorize them by the pains that they solve.

Ideally, the buckets you define should mimic the way the end product is sold to the customer.

Fair warning: This will be a pretty grueling process. Treat it like cleaning out your garage; empty everything out onto the floor, then start packing things into boxes. It may take some trial and error, so if it’s not right the first time, don’t get discouraged.

Guiding Questions

  • Do you have one product or multiple products?
  • Is your product broken into multiple features or modules?
  • Do any features share a common goal? What are they?
  • How would these products or features be sold to the customer?

Step 3 - Scale Your Hierarchy

As your business grows, your product hierarchy will evolve. New products and features might provoke a hierarchical restructuring, and that’s okay. But be protective of your existing categories. If something doesn’t align to your North Star, then it might not even be worth pursuing in the first place, so when you conduct roadmapping and brainstorming workshops, keep your North Star front-and-center.

If you do need to create new categories, keep in mind that you’ll likely have to add or update the website, marketing materials, and sales assets. New categories have a lot of gravity, so be prepared to treat them thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Guiding Questions

  • Does this new product or feature point toward my North Star?
  • Does this new product or feature fit logically into the hierarchy?
  • Does this new product or feature deserve its own classification or bucket?
  • Will this addition affect our market positioning?

Summary

A product hierarchy will take time and care to craft properly, but it’s a worthwhile exercise for adding structure to your business and its future. Revisit and reference your hierarchy often. The clarity it will offer you and your business will be palpable from day one.

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