What makes a good Product Manager?

I was thinking recently about the relationship between UX experts and Product Managers, which got me to thinking about what a good product manager is – especially in the world of web products.

I think a good product manager needs to understand the whole scope of his or her product. In the world of web or mobile software, this means he or she:

  • is a technologist
  • is a marketer
  • is a strategist
  • is an entrepreneur
  • is a risk-taker
  • is a visionary
  • is a leader
  • is a networker
  • is a communicator
  • is a presenter and speaker
  • is a thought-leader
  • is a product expert
  • is a salesperson
  • is fluent in web and mobile language and technology
  • understands user experience/user interaction paradigms
  • understands software development methodology and software development tools and processes

(Anyone have anything to add to the list? I’m sure it’s not complete…)

This list, incidentally, looks pretty similar to a list of attributes for a successful startup founder. Is this a surprise? Not really, considering that building a product is just like building a little business, and to be as successful as possible you need to run your product like you would a business.

For what it’s worth, a product manager is NOT (at least exclusively):

  • a requirements manager
  • a project manager (glorified or otherwise)
  • a scrum master

Recipe for a good SEO strategy: content worth linking to

The beauty of Google’s search algorithm is that it lets you find what you’re looking for, and it gets better all the time. Because Google is one of the most important ways to ‘get found’ on the web, a whole industry has arisen around how to “beat” the Google search algorithm: Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

SEO is all about how to get your webpage to the top of the list. The algorithm itself is, of course, a secret – but hundreds of self-proclaimed ‘experts’ believe they can reverse engineer it enough to understand what factors influence a page’s SEO ranking.

What a lot of SEO experts forget to tell you though is that the best way to get a high ranking in Google is to create content that people want. Sure, you can tweak things like the page title and the URL to make sure the right things get noticed first, but if you have content or a site that people don’t want to link to or don’t want to view, than no matter what SEO tricks you pull, you’re not going end up on Page 1 of a Google search result.

Instead of spending 70% of your time working on your SEO, try putting 70% of your effort into your content… because at the end of the day, that is where your traffic is going to come from.

Teamwork: The product manager and UX designer

A discussion came up today on one of Nokia’s internal social discussion forums about how Product Managers should interact with User Experience designers. I was shocked to read that quite often not only do the Product Manager and UX Designer not really work together, but they don’t get along well at all. This is, to me, a very bad omen for the product…

My view is that the product manager and UX designer/design team need to a) work together on the product design and development, and b) understand and respect each other’s skills and strengths.

The product design is at the end of the day a compromise between the ideal user flow/experience, what is possible in terms of technology (eg, is that flow possible on this device or in that web browser?), and what is possible in terms of schedule or budget (eg, can we build that with the resources and time we have available?).

The UX designer should be an expert at building delightful experiences within certain constraints. The development team should be experts at building lean and fast software. In this landscape, it is the role of the Product Manager to pull the pieces together, make priority calls and find the balance between what is ideal and what is possible. (Striking the right balance is an artform).

The UX designer is not a customer of the Product Owner, or vice versa. If the UX designer ever utters the words “the requirements are not clear”, then the UX designer has missed the point and misunderstood their role.

The lead UX designer for a product should be like the Product Manager’s right brain. They need to work question each other, to challenge each other, to push each other. But most of all, they need to work together to create the best product possible. This means they need to share the same vision and have the same ultimate product goal. Continue reading

5 product management lessons from the MacBook Air

The first MacBook Air was, while another impressive piece of industrial design from Apple, not a fantastic computer. It was positioned as a normal laptop replacement, with a pricepoint to match, but specification-wise it was somewhere in between a normal laptop and a netbook, without the real power for anything more than email, web browsing and word processing. The focus on small led to functional issues like not having enough usb ports, and it suffered from frequent heat problems.

But was the MacBook Air a failure? Absolutely not. With the second generation Air models Apple has taken everything they have learned from two years of MacBook Air sales and usage and redesigned the Air from the ground up into a smooth, fast, delightful experience.

So what can we learn from this?

  1. Apple released a product that pushed the boundaries of expectations and that was probably ahead of its time.
  2. Apple decided to focus on one thingsmall – but refused to approach ‘small’ in the way that other manufacturers did.
  3. Apple took risks with the MacBook Air – it was not only ahead of its time, but it was risky in terms of its positioning and price point (high end) and also its specifications: would people really buy an expensive computer that could not handle processor-intensive applications like photoshop and final cut, etc, and that doesn’t even have a DVD drive? And supplying only one usb port was challenging everything consumers expected from computers (more ports, more storage, more RAM, and so on…)
  4. Apple got an idea out, watched how it evolved, how it was used, and what their users said about it, and they used that information to build a better, more targeted version from the ground up. They didn’t let consumer expectations drive their product innovation, but they did listen and include valuable inputs from user feedback and user research into their product design.
  5. Apple allowed themselves to fail on their first MacBook Air launch, in order to learn and succeed later. The best winners know how to lose…

Remarkable products take risks, push the limits of what’s possible and challenge incumbent perceptions and expectations. Is your product remarkable? Are you?

Chasing rabbits

If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.

You can’t run in two directions at once, and you have no way of controlling where the rabbits are going to run next. You can maybe influence the rabbits by setting up boundaries; you can maybe predict the rabbits by knowing the terrain, but you can never fully forsee how or where the rabbits will end up fleeing.

Many products fail or run into troubles when they try to do too much at once, try to grow in too many different directions or try to keep too many options open. Too many markets, too many users, too many options. Hedging your strategy is sometimes clever, but the problem is too much hedging and too many plan B’s not only increases your complexity overhead but creates noise and distraction – whether you’re prioritising user stories or defining corporate strategy.

The most successful startups and products in recent years do one thing, but do it really well. Twitter is the best micro-blogging platform. Foursquare lets you share your location with your friends. Evernote lets you take and organise notes. What are you good at? Where should you focus?

When you try to move forward with the most risk-averse strategy, you’ll end up moving nowhere. The project with the least likelihood of failure is probably the most likely to fail.

The Lexus Response

In 1989 Toyota launched a brand new series of luxury cars designed to compete with the likes of Mercedes Benz and BMW. After 9 years and over a billion dollars in investment, the first Lexus vehicle, the LS 400, was launched. Three months later, two owners contacted Lexus to complain about an overheated brake light.

Lexus’s response was quick and decisive. They launched a voluntary recall of every single vehicle sold to date (over 8,000). They sent technicians to pick up, repair and return cars completely free of charge. They even flew in technicians to customers who lived in remote areas and rented garage space nearby to conduct the repairs, to minimise the amount of inconvenience to the customer.

The cost of the recall probably came close to the entire profit from all sales, if not more. I’m sure other car manufacturers were chuckling as they saw Lexus throwing away so much money. But the result? 8,000 very impressed and happy Lexus owners, and an astonished market. It was this move that gave the Lexus brand the image of quality and care which it still carries today.

This is a great example of how you can turn a potential quality problem into a perception of good quality.

At a previous company we modeled our customer support strategy on this. We called it ‘The Lexus Response’, and the strategy was basically to overwhelm customers with helpful, timely and empathetic support so that they had no choice but to feel supported and looked after.

You can turn a frustrated customer into an extremely delighted customer by how you respond to their problems or concerns. This often leads to customers who have experienced quality issues with your product having a better overall perception of product quality than customers who have experienced no quality issues, just like the 8,000 Lexus LS 400 owners.

In a recent post, Cindy Alvarez has some good points about how to respond to customers, which ties in will with the Lexus Response. She says when customers take the time to complain to you, respond with the 4 A’s:

  1. Apologise
  2. Admit
  3. Ask
  4. Appreciate

If a customer or user of your product is passionate enough to take time out to give you feedback, good or bad, then consider the Lexus Response.

Quality is boring

I’ve had an iPad for a few months now, but only recently I started using it to read eBooks. Although for me an electronic device will never replace the texture of paper and the smell of the freshly pressed ink, using the iPad to read books is a delightful experience. I enjoyed it from the first moment.

Where the iPad excels in general is in the delight factor. It’s not only functional, but it’s pleasurable, even fun to use. You want to interact with it. You want to touch it!

The kindle, for example, has two buttons – a back and a forward. What else do you need? What else can you do with a book other than turn the pages? iBooks for the iPad has these buttons, but you can also pick the page up with your finger and drag it to the other side. You see a quaint animation of the page flipping, complete with a rustling paper sound effect. Not only is it slower to turn the page with this method, it’s also more cumbersome, as you have to move your hand that is holding the iPad, move it to the screen and make the swiping motion that turns the page. A book reader certainly doesn’t need this. You can’t do it on the kindle. But there it is on iBooks.

Why? Because it’s delightful. Because it’s fun to do; because the act of using your hands connects you emotionally to the book as you subconsciously reminisce on using a real paper book; and it’s fun to show people. “Look, you can even flick the pages with your finger!”

This, to me, is the difference between quality and delight. Quality is making the product work – flawlessly. If the software solves your key use cases in a predictable, intuitive and consistent manner, then it’s quality software. But people don’t buy quality – they buy an experience. They buy delight. When you buy an iPad you don’t just buy the aluminium, glass and engineering – you buy the right to show your friends how the pages turn on iBooks. You buy the ability to interact with software in a new, exciting and emotional way.

Pure quality is boring – but delight sells.

Are you designing a delightful experience? Unless you are writing software for insurance underwriters, you probably should be.

The focus manifesto

Do you ever feel like you’re rushing from one thing to the next, without really doing any one thing properly? Are you running from one social appointment to the next without taking the time and attention to enjoy each one? Is your desk like a constant fireworks show of new emails, instant messages, phone calls, sms notifications, flashing lights and pinging noises, all begging for your attention?

This is sadly all very, very familiar to me.

I just finished reading Leo Babauta’s Focus Manifesto. It’s all about “finding simplicity in the age of distraction”, which screamed out to me straight away. His basic premise is that distractions and noise are killing your creativity and limiting your potential. He argues that the best way to get more done is to do less. Leo talks about being constantly connected to the cloud as an addiction, one that must be treated just like any conventional addiction.

I think I’m often trying to go too fast, without taking the time to really take in what I am doing. This goes for both my work and personal life.

At work, I have a ton of different projects on at once, people coming to me all through the day needing questions answered, issues resolved, priorities decided, and a constant stream of emails, meeting requests, instant messages and phone calls. I quite often leave the office at the end of the day and I’m disappointed and frustrated that I haven’t gotten enough done, even though I know I was working at 110% the whole day. Now I realise that I’m not usually frustrated because I haven’t gotten enough done, but rather because I’ve not gotten the right things done. I can quite easily spend an entire day poring over emails, answering IMs, and sitting in meetings. In fact, there are so many emails that I feel like I’m moving at a hundred miles an hour just to read them all, let alone reply. And at the end of the day, I’ve written and read a lot of emails, but the important stuff hasn’t been looked at. The good stuff… and, you know what, it’s the fun stuff too! But it doesn’t get done, because it’s too easy to get trapped in the distraction trap.

Leo’s focus manifesto has a ton of practical suggestions on how to clear your mind and your desk (figuratively and literally) and focus on the right things. The things you want to be doing – the things that make you happy and satisfied. He also talks about solitude and time for reflection as being super important for recharging your creative batteries.

And best of all – Leo’s book is free!

Starting tomorrow, for example, I’m clearing off all the crap off my desk to create a bit of clean space – and then I’ll be on to my calendar with an axe…

Personalisation is not overrated

I came across this very old article about personalisation of websites from 1998: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/981004.html

The article discusses the fad of website personalisation that was sweeping the web back in the late 90’s. Back then, many websites were making the first efforts to personalise the web by giving complex personalisation options to users, through which the website could decide which content to prioritise and so on. He goes on to say that personalisation in this form is pretty much overrated, as the majority of users consider filling out large questionnaire type option screens far too unwieldy and confusing. He does give two situations where personalisation can work, that are characterized by being:

  1. very simple to describe in machine-understandable ways, and
  2. relatively unchanging

To this list, I would add a third characteristic: silent.

Flash forward to 2010: personalisation is alive and well all over the web. The difference today is that there are no more long-winded options screens to tell the website who you are and what you like and don’t like. All that information and more is available on the web, for free. Your Facebook account holds more personal information about you than anywhere else, and it’s almost certainly more than you think. Add to that your web usage habits, what you click on, who your friends are, and what other people who are similar to you did, and there is more information than ever to offer you a fully personalised experience. From the ads that you see on Facebook to the books Amazon tells you to buy; nearly everything you see on the web is specifically targeted at YOU. But it’s silent… you don’t even realise it’s happening – and that’s the beautiful (and scary) part of it.

So what does this mean for experience designers? Well firstly, we should realise that this extends beyond the realm of advertising. We have access to so much of this information, and we can design user experiences that are unique, personal and delightful. (And we can do it without compromising user’s privacy).

I think there are five levels of data that we can look at about our user when designing their experience:

  1. Who you are.
  2. Things you do.
  3. Things your friends do.
  4. Things the crowd does.
  5. External factors.

Let’s look at some examples:

Who you are:

  • where you live
  • where you went to school/university
  • your interests/likes/dislikes
  • relationship status

Most of this is available publicly through your Facebook profile. If your product has it’s own profile service, then it can be aggregated with the information available from Facebook to create a very healthy set of data about who your user is.

What you do:
This is relevant to the specifics of your service. Let’s assume we’re looking at an online mapping application.

  • What you search for (search queries – places, categories) – collect all categories and rank the most searched for categories/regions
  • What you click on
  • Where you check in (category, region)
  • What features of the service do you use 
  • What you ‘like’, rate or review

What your friends do:

  • Again, relevant to the specifics of your service. 
  • Places your friends have been to (category, region)
  • Places your friends ‘like’, rate or review
  • Combine with your friend’s ‘personal’ data amalgamation (see above)

Things the crowd does:

You can learn a lot by watching the behaviour of the crowd. We’re talking generalisations, yes, but these can be refined based on your user’s profile to form quite valuable predictions of user’s future behaviour.

  • People in this area also tended to go to these other places… or of the people who checked into Subway, 40% also checked in to Starbucks, etc
  • People who looked at this place, also looked at these other places (Amazon style recommendations)

External factors:

  • Where you are (this is the most obvious and necessary one)
  • Time of day (prioritise lunch places midday, bars in the evening, etc)
  • Time of year Weather (if it’s raining, snowing, sunny, warm, cold, etc)

By watching carefully what individual users do as well as what the crowd does, and combining this information with your user’s profile information, you have a powerful platform for creating a personalised experience. How to turn this data into something meaningful would be the topic of another post… 

The right to satisfaction

If you’re not happy at work, I think you have two choices. You can either:

  1. take an active role in making things better, or
  2. leave.

Everyone has the right to improve their own situation. If you see problems or difficulties at work, you can raise your voice and help find constructive solutions.

But if you’re going to respond to every initiative with innate cynicism; if you’re going to sit in every meeting and complain about your colleagues; if you’re going to spread rumours and dissatisfaction and nurture dissent, then I think you owe it to yourself to leave. Now.

Life is way to short to sit in a job that leaves you unsatisfied.