A FlashBuild – the Flash Mob for product development

Customer involvement and user feedback is at the core of building great software experiences that people want and love.

It’s a bit old now, but I just stumbled on this impressive way to build an app with customer feedback at the core. Nordstrom innovation lab built an iPad app in just one week to help people pick sunglasses. To better involve customers and user feedback in the development process, they built the app in a sunglasses store!

Check out the vid:

This is how you involve customer feedback in your development cycle!

The Product Owner – the poster

Being a Product Owner sure is a lot of work!

Following my talk at the recent ALE unconference in Barcelona, I re-made the iconography used in my talk and turned it into a poster: The Complete Product Owner Poster.

The poster is available in three colour combinations, and is printable on any normal office or professional printer. It also looks great pinned up on the wall next to your desk. 🙂

Click the version that you would like to download below to download and print the PNG file.



ALE 2012: My presentation: “The Product Owner – The Accidental Profession”

The Stork and the PO

Here you can find the slides from my presentation at the Agile Lean Europe 2012 Unconference in Barcelona this week.

Download the slides

Thank you to everyone who attended and gave feedback!

The Product Vision

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

The centre-piece for any product team – the guiding north star – is the product vision. Where are we going? Why? What do we do when we get there? How will we know when we get there? These are all aspects of a compelling, motivating product vision.

A product vision is more than just a consumer value proposition, and it’s certainly more than a roadmap. It’s an idea, a mission. A pilgramage.

A product vision brings together the product proposition, the core values and beliefs as well as the mission and goals of the company. It answers the question “what”, “when” and, most importantly, “why“.

Sony TR-55 Transistor Radio
The Sony TR-55 Transistor Radio

In their great book on developing and communicating vision, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath describe a great example of a clear, motivating product vision. In post-war Japan many companies were struggling to return to profitability. One small electronics manufacturer, Sony, set out to do something different: they would be the first company to produce a radio that fits into your hand. (Remember, this was a time when radios were pieces of furniture, and electronics manufacturers employed cabinet-makers to construct the elaborate wooden housings in which the electronics were assembled).

The vision was audacious and heavily motivating for employees, and it was clear. It was something everyone could understand and get behind, from the CEO to the factory assembly workers.

If the vision isn’t understood by everyone, it ain’t a vision.

The product owner as a visionary

The best product owners are visionaries. They have a clear idea where their product is going and how it will get there. They can see into the future and understand how various trends, innovations and technologies will come together to create the environment in which the product will succeed.

In his biography of the first years (and 500 million users) of Facebook, “The Facebook Effect“, author David Kirkpatrick reveals how Mark Zuckerberg carries a small notebook with him everywhere he goes in which he writes, in impeccable, tiny script, his thoughts and dreams about Facebook and building the social web. Mark had first imagined the ‘Timeline’ feature as far back as 2007 – a time when his users were still coming to terms with the idea of a news feed – and describes plans to turn facebook into the “social operating system” for the web. Zuckerberg not only understands his product today, he understands where he wants it to go.

Where do you want your product to go? What is the future for you?

The future can be years away. It might never happen. That’s not the point. The point is to understand in which direction the road goes: to have one north star which you share with everyone in your team, so everyone works towards the same goal and in the same direction.

Communicating the vision

What do a product vision, common display advertising and that monster under your bed when you were eight have in common?

Answer: If you stop paying attention to them, they lose their powers.

A vision is only half as useful if it is only stuck inside your head and not being discussed and used by the team on a daily basis. A vision is the most powerful when you share it with the team, discuss it, debate it; let it evolve. You want your team to have a shared understanding about the future as you do. For that, you need to share and communicate your vision.

The vision you have in your head might seem clear enough to you, but if you want to communicate it effectively to a wider audience, you will probably need to spend some time breaking it down into something more clear and succinct. Try writing your vision on paper in one or two sentences.

Here are some other techniques to help you refine your vision in written form:

The one-line mission statement

Mission statements got kind of a bad rap in the 90’s, but there is still value in boiling your vision down to one line so simple that everyone can understand it. Like Google’s mission to “organise the world’s information”. The goal is simple enough to understand, but it has majesty and scope (the whole world), ambition, and purpose.

Or the previous example from Sony “to build the first radio that will fit into your hand”.

The Story

Often, a great vision is best communicated with a story.

Take the example of Tom’s shoes from the previous post. Toms’ vision is to bring shoes to needy children in third-world countries. Tom’s communicates the vision with a story of how their founder, Blake Mycoskie, befriended some children in Argentina while he was traveling there, and found they had no shoes. He decided then and there to start Tom’s shoes company to raise money to send shoes to needy children. He returned to Argentina later that year with 10,000 pairs of shoes that he had produced with proceeds from his Tom’s shoes label.

The story not only describes the facts of what happened (he started a company and gave away 10,000 pairs of shoes), but it describes clearly the why. It describes the mission of the company and the core values of generosity and giving, in addition to the mechanics of how the proposition operates.

A fantastic resource on communicating with stories is the book The Story Factor.

The Manifesto

A useful tool for communicating a vision is often the manifesto. A manifesto can be 1 page long or 50. The important thing is that it describes clearly your position, your beliefs, and where you want to go.

Videos or slideshows

If you have some budget or time available you can put together a short video that describes your vision.

A nice example is this video from The North Face showing their brand manifesto.

Regardless what form you use to communicate the vision, remember that the core objective is to communicate a message that us clear, understandable and that will stick. For more tips on communicating a vision that sticks, I can strongly recommend Made to Stick.

A shared vision

Every product team can tell you how important it is that the product owner is available and accessible to the team. That’s true… but no product owner can be everywhere 100% of the time, and there will always be situations where decisions need to be made without you. The best teams work effectively and efficiently when you’re not around. In fact, the more good decisions the team can make without you, the more independent, engaged and effective they will be.

If the vision that you communicate to your team is short-term and focused purely on immediate deliverables, then the team cannot see ahead to know what’s coming next. It’s impossible to know what’s important if you don’t know where you’re going. Teams in this situation will always find themselves relying on the product owner to make all the product decisions.

On the other hand, teams who share your common vision of the future and the product have the same context as you to make product decisions. They understand where the journey is going, and as a result can more easily figure out how to get there for themselves.

It’s unrealistic to think that you can make every product decision yourself, and product owners who try usually fail; especially in medium to large-sized product teams. But when the team can make decisions for you, not only does it lead to more empowered and motivated teams, it frees up your time and attention to focus on more important things. Effectively communicating the product vision is the key to ensuring the team has the same idea as you about where you need to collectively go.

Live the vision

The last thing to remember about the product vision is that you, as the product owner, need to live the vision through more than just words. Make the vision a part of everything you do. This doesn’t mean just putting a poster up in the hall with your mission statement: it means making the vision the core of what you do.

During the development phase of the first Palm Pilot handheld organisers, co-inventor Jeff Hawkins went around for months with a block of wood in his pocket shaped roughly like what became the first palm device. At every appropriate point in a meeting or a conversation, he would pull it out and pretend to enter or retrieve some information from it, to test what it would be like to use one in real life. This not only helped him understand his product at a much deeper level, but it helped his team, observers and onlookers understand what they were there to achieve.

Keep your vision close to your heart, and live it with every decision and discussion.


The product vision is your north star. It guides you and your team towards your collective destiny. The product owner is responsible for defining and communicating the vision to the product team, and remember: if it’s not understood by everyone, it ain’t a vision.

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series, we’ll look at setting product goals.


The Competitive Landscape

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

Products never exist in a vacuum. Products live in a world of competitors and partners, of peripherals, networks and enablers. Products live inside an ecosystem consisting of companies, governments, regulators and consumers.

To understand what your product does, what value it adds and how, it is crucial to understand the competitive landscape around you.

A classic ecosystem
A “classic” ecosystem

Who else is doing what you do?

The first thing to understand is who is doing what you do. There may be companies offering the same or a similar value proposition as you, or companies in a similar space offering slightly different propositions.

For most industries a quick search on Google can usually reveal most of the competitive landscape. Additionally, talking with users and people from your target group, either as part of formal user research or casual conversations, can reveal other products and companies who are operating in your space.

When you have your list of main competitors, break them down one by one and take a close look at what they do. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses?

A useful tool is the old, tried and tested, SWOT framework (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats). If you’ve ever picked up a book on business then you’ve seen this tool, guaranteed. As cliche as it is, it is actually a useful method for breaking down the differentiation between you and your competitors. (For information on the SWOT tool, here is a pretty simple explanation with examples.)


The first and most obvious place to start is by examining the product itself. How does their consumer value proposition differ from yours? Do they offer the same product features? The same user experience?

The differences between two products can be both subtle and large. Take for example these two products: Get Satisfaction, and User Voice. Both have a similar overall proposition: they are online tools that software products can use to get real-time feedback from users. Both are hosted solutions (meaning the integrating product does not need to add any code or infrastructure within their product; they just provide a link to the hosted feedback collection product), and both have similar price points. On the surface, they seem the same: but a level deeper and the differences begin to emerge, as described here. (Note on this thread the way the CEOs from each company compare their products against each other. Each CEO is acutely aware of the other company, but describes in detail, and with respect, the positive differences in proposition first, rather than focusing on negative elements of the “competition”. Admirable.)

Business Model

Differentiation against a competitor company does not always come purely from the consumer value proposition: the entire business model plays a role. Examine your competition’s business model and ways of working. How does their business model differ from yours? How do they organise themselves?


How and where do your competitors talk to their users/consumers? What kind of messages do they use?

Values and beliefs

What do your competitors believe in? Do they believe the same things as you? What do they see as important, and how do they view the world, compared with you?

Consider the example of Get Satisfaction vs User Voice above. Although both products offer similar features at a similar price, the fundamental difference between the two products is what they believe is important. User Voice believes that the aspect of collecting suggestions and ideas from users is the critical axis, whereas Get Satisfaction focus more on the user forum aspect, where users can exchange knowledge, tips and report problems.

Both products offer nearly the same actual features, but what sets them apart is a core belief about what is important.

Learn from your competitors

Steve Jobs is often quoted as having quoted Picasso when he said:

“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”

You can learn a lot from watching and analysing competing products carefully. Don’t be afraid to leverage knowledge, experience and solutions from other companies and products. If that other product has the perfect user sign-in experience, then take it, re-work it to fit your needs, and use it.

Remember, it’s not about having the pride of having “designed it all ourselves”. It’s about getting things done. Being (and remaining) successful as a product team is all about how quickly you can bring user value to users. The longer it takes, the more risk you pile up. (We’ll discuss this in much more detail in later chapters of The Complete Product Owner). If you can save a few days on the design of a peripheral flow, then do it.

Why should I buy your product over theirs?

One of the most common questions you will be asked as a product owner is: “why should I use your product over theirs?” In other words, as a consumer, why should someone pay you (with either their cash, their time, their clicks on ads, etc) for your product over your competition’s? What have you got that they don’t?

Here, a detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses will not help you answer this for a user. What you need is a story that not only reveals how you are different, but that encourages the use of one over the other. It comes back to your consumer value proposition: what value do you offer, and how?

This is another little “pitch” you should practice often, as I promise you, you’ll get this question all the time.

Broaden your scope

Also keep in mind it’s not just about your direct competitors. Broaden your scope to look at companies and products that operate in the same space as you, even if they are not direct competition. You can leverage ideas and knowledge from similar companies, or also look for interesting opportunities to partner with other products or companies for mutual benefit.


Your product and your company do not exist in a vacuum. You need to constantly watch, review, and analyse your competitors, your partners, and your industry. Know how you are different, and how you are the same. Also think about companies and products that operate peripheral to you; how can you leverage them or partner with them?

And always have a good answer ready to the question that will frequently come: “why should I buy your product instead of theirs?”

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series, we’ll look at the product vision.


The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

The Product Definition

The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

A product owner is the owner of a product: so it makes sense to start our exploration of the product owner role with defining the actual product. What is it? What does it do? What value does it add? Who is it for? These are some of the questions that you’ll need to be able to answer. It seems obvious, but it is surprising how many product people I meet who cannot answer some of these questions convincingly.

The best product owners know their product inside out, but they can do more than simply recite a list of features… they can answer the core questions of: what are you building, how you are building it, and why. You are the product expert.

The Consumer Value Proposition

A very useful tool for expressing your product is a consumer value proposition (CVP). A value proposition is a statement that addresses the key questions: what does the product do, who is it for and, most importantly, how it adds value for a consumer.

As an example, consider the following two pairs of women’s shoes:

Shoe 1
Tom’s Catino Ballet Flats
Shoe 1
Giuseppe Zanotti boots

While being obviously very different shoes for (presumably) very different occasions, the specific value propositions set them apart even more.

The Tom’s ballet flats cost a fairly standard $79, are designed to be comfortable and made from sustainable resources; but unique to Tom’s shoes is their “One for One” program: for each pair of shoes sold, Tom’s gives a pair of shoes to a child in need around the world. The unique value proposition here is that when you buy Tom’s shoes you can also help needy children in third world countries.

The Giuseppe Zanotti boots have a very different value proposition. At around $1,400 they set a very different expectation in terms of price. Here the value that the consumer purchases is prestige, glamour and exclusivity. The core function of a shoe (comfort and protection of the feet) takes a total backstage in this proposition to make way for luxury and glamour.

Note that the CVP is more than just a simple list of features. The Tom’s proposition describes the what (shoes, comfortable), and describes differentiation (how they are different from other shoes) by creating a resonating focus on the aspect of giving shoes to needy children. The best CVPs are not only factual, but emotional as well.

The Consumer Value Proposition is a very useful tool and will help you explicate the core value of what you are producing.

What do you stand for?

A good question to ask in any product team is: “what do we stand for?” When a consumer hears about our product or company, what do we want them to think about?

Tom’s shoes stand for helping children in need. At Nokia we stand for connecting people, and empowering people to live adventure everyday. One level deeper, at Nokia Maps, we stand for putting you and your neighbourhood on the map, allowing you to be a local, anywhere.

Understanding what you stand for as a product team helps align the vision for the product and sets a common direction within the team. The most productive teams have the knowledge and context to make good decisions at all levels of the team, and when everyone has the same beliefs about what you stand for as a team, everyone can make better informed decisions that continue in the best direction for the product and the team.


Closely related to what you stand for is the why. That is, why you are building this product in the first place: what are the core beliefs that you have that lead you to invest in building this product? What is it that you believe in that makes you do this?

When “Tall” Tim Pethick started the phenomenal fruit juice brand “Nudie” in Sydney in 2003, he believed that bottled fruit juices should be produced with 100% fruit: no preservatives, no additives, no concentrates. This desire for pure, fruit-only juice enjoyment and the story behind it became a core part of the Nudie brand image.

Simon Sinek gave a fantastic TED-talk on the topic of why, which is highly recommended viewing.

Who is it for? Market Segmentation

As important as what is who. In order to create a product that solves the needs of your users/customers in the best way, you need to understand who your users are. This starts with understanding your market segment.

Segmentation is all about understanding your target market; or in other words, about breaking down the world of people into smaller sub-sets that define more specifically what kind of people are your actual potential users. My wife doesn’t play video games and isn’t in the market for a new PlayStation, for example. She is not the target market.

The Nintendo Wii is the most successful game console of the current generation, and the third most successful console of all time (in terms of units shipped, having shipped over 95 million units as of March 2012). At the heart of the innovative business model that enabled the success of the Wii is the segmentation strategy: Nintendo chose to focus on a very different demographic than other consoles: instead of focussing on the traditional (and extremely competitive) “hardcore gamer” market, Nintendo targeted the Wii towards a broader demographic of “casual” gamers. This allowed them to decrease the focus on cutting-edge performance and graphics required to compete in the “hardcore gamers” segment and allowed them to produce a more family-friendly and cost-effective device that has been decisive in their success.

Once you understand your specific market segment, you can target your designs and services directly for these people. In a later post we’ll look at building user profiles to represent your target market to help in this process.

The Elevator Pitch: sell your product in 30-60 seconds

We’ve all heard the expression “Elevator Pitch”, but here’s a short bit of revision: the idea is to imagine you find yourself in the elevator with your CEO, and she asks you: “What are you working on?” In the time it takes for an elevator ride you now have to pitch your product.

The point is that you have only 30 seconds to make someone understand what you do and be interested or excited about it. It’s a nice exercise because it forces you to focus on what is important to engage someone with your story. In nearly all cases reciting a laundry-list of features will not cut it: you’ll need to tell a story that highlights what value you bring to users.

My tip is to really practice your elevator pitch. Even if you never end up with your CEO in an elevator, you’ll have forced yourself to consider what is important.

For a nice example of an elevator pitch, check out Evernote CEO Phil Libin, present his 50 second elevator pitch for Evernote.

The spur-of-the-moment demo

As we used to say in the boy scouts, “Always be prepared”. You should always be ready with your elevator pitch, and likewise you should always be ready to give a demo of your product. Have a couple of different demo scripts ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. I have three that I use for Nokia Maps based on how much time I have to demo: 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 15 minutes.

You never know when you’ll be called on to demo the product spontaneously, and every demo counts: so being prepared will ensure you give a great demo, always.


Know your product, as you know yourself. Never forget that you’re the expert in your product.

One important thing to remember is that knowing and communicating are two very different things. It doesn’t matter how well you know your product if you are not able to communicate it to your team, your customers or your partners.

In the next post in the Complete Product Owner series we’ll look at the competitive landscape.


The Complete Product Owner series - Act I: The Product

The Complete Product Owner
Act I: The Product

This post is part of the “Complete Product Owner” series.

The Complete Product Owner

The Complete Product Owner - photo of many post-it notes with product owner themes

The product owner is possibly the most misunderstood, or at least the the least understood, role in agile software projects. Just about everyone you talk to, whether a current practitioner of the role or just someone who works in agile projects, will give you a slightly (or greatly) different description of the role, its scope and its value.

A colleague recently asked me to write down for him a brief description of everything I thought a Product Owner should be, in terms of role and responsibility as well as personality and competencies. As I started considering what this would be, a few things occurred to me:

  • The list of responsibilities is very broad. The better product owners understand all aspects of a product from the value proposition and business model to design to development.
  • The predominant literature on agile product management focusses heavily on the agile process and toolkit: working with scrum or other agile methodologies, continuous delivery, refinement of user stories, etc.
  • The traditional (non-agile) literature on product management as a profession is plentiful, but fails to address how the broad scope of product management skills and competencies relate to an agile environment.

I’ve now set out to produce a series of posts which will form my personal description of “the complete product owner”. I’ve chosen the word “owner” intentionally to relate specifically to the field of agile product management (as opposed to, let’s say, “traditional, waterfall” methodologies. More on product owners vs managers soon.) The word “complete” refers to the intention to provide a complete, end-to-end view of the scope and responsibilities of this role.

It is also important to mention at this point that what follows will be most relevant to the traditional home of agile methodologies: in software development. It is interesting to observe how agile techniques are being adopted by industries as diverse as medical research or construction, however the experiences, analogies and resources in this series will be exclusively focussed towards software product management.

What’s in a name? Product Owner versus Product Manager

The traditional industry title for those in the business of managing the product development life-cycle is the “Product Manager”. Agile methodologies, specifically Scrum, introduced the term “Product Owner” to refer to the member of the scrum team (ie, the product team) who is predominantly responsible for the product itself (predominantly, as in agile teams we strive to embed a feeling of product responsibility in everyone, throughout all levels of the product organisation).

Some people misinterpret the difference as a reflection of the scope of the role, assuming that the “Product Management” discipline is broader or more “senior” than an owner. I take a very different view, and argue that there is no difference. It could be perhaps said that within the Product Management discipline, a Product Owner is one who practices within an agile context; however there is certainly not, in my view, an assumption that the scope and responsibilities of a Product Owner are necessarily any different to that of a Product Manager.

In my writings I use the two terms interchangeably; however it is useful to remember that in certain circles the title “Product Manager” is often understood differently from an “Owner”. Specifically in non-software product industries (fast-moving consumer goods, among others) the term “owner” is less relevant.

What is a Product Manager/Owner?

In his famous 1955 work “Designing for People”, Henry Dreyfuss, considered my many as the father of modern industrial design, said the following about the role of the industrial designer:

“The successful performer in this new field is a man of many hats. He does more than merely design things. He is a businessman as well as a person who makes drawings and models. He is a keen observer of public taste and he has painstakingly cultivated his own taste. He has an understanding of merchandising, how things are made, packed, distributed, and displayed. He accepts the responsibility of his position as liaison linking management, engineering, and the consumer and co-operates with all three.”

Although he was talking specifically about the industrial design discipline, I think he has equally perfectly described the role of the modern product manager. (You’ll forgive his gender bias, but it was the 50’s after all). The complete product manager is a jack of all trades. It’s someone who can keep the big picture in mind while obsessing over the smallest details. It’s someone who can, on the same day, discuss or consider engineering process, marketing strategy or interface design – all in terms of how it relates to the core consumer value proposition.

A complete product owner:

  • is a technologist,
  • is a marketer,
  • is a strategist,
  • is an entrepreneur,
  • is a risk-taker,
  • is a visionary,
  • is a leader,
  • is passionate,
  • 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 software experience, language and technology,
  • understands user experience/user interaction paradigms, and
  • understands software development methodology and software development tools and processes.

Where do product owners come from?

The next time you meet a product manager, as an experiment, as them how they became a product manager. If you are a product manager, think about how you became one. If they attended university, ask them what they studied. The answers may surprise you.

Nobody will tell you that they studied “Product Management” at university. Some will have studied Computer Science, others design, still others psychology, business or even philosophy. Nearly nobody will tell you that they “always wanted to be a product manager”. Many of the product owners that I know say they kind of “fell into” the role. I sort of did, too.

Steven Haines calls it the “accidental profession”. The interesting mix of backgrounds and motivations does result in a healthy range of experience and perspectives in the product management world, but it has, I think, the side-effect of producing a problematic diversity in product management approaches and levels of training.

What’s next?

The Complete Product Owner series is broken into four acts. Each act is centered around a main theme: The Product, the Business, the Team, and you.

Some topics don’t fit neatly into a single act. In fact, most don’t. You can’t discuss product strategy without discussing design; you can’t think about market segmentation without thinking about the competitive landscape; and so on.

Within this series, I won’t be able to teach you everything you need to know. I can’t teach you how to do brand marketing or search engine optimisation, for example. The purpose of this series is to discuss the scope of areas, skills and knowledge a Product Owner should understand, what they are and why they’re important; and then potentially provide some links to resources for those who want to know more.

The Complete Product Owner series overview: Act I: The Product; Act II: The Business; Act III: The Team; Act IV: You.

Act I: The Product

Much of the books or literature on product management tends to start with the process and definitions, and leave the actual product to the end, almost as an afterthought. To me, everything starts and ends with the product itself – so we start with the product here. We’ll look at defining what the product is, what it does and who it’s for.

Act II: The Business

The next aspect is the one that I see most often neglected by new and experienced product managers alike. The business is, if not the core element of a product team, the surrounding ecosystem that enables and supports the product development. Smaller teams and startups are intimately familiar with the importance of such business tasks as raising capital funding or developing a competitive business model, but these can go unseen or be neglected in larger teams.

Act III: The Team

This is where most product owners, particularly those new to the profession, spend a disproportionate part their time. The team is where things get done, or “where the rubber hits the road”. Having a functional, efficient and self-organising team is a critical focus for teams. For Product Owners, it’s critical to understand how the team supports you and how you support the team to ensure the greatest success.

Act IV: You – the Product Owner

Once you know what you need to do: the tasks, the responsibilities, the focus areas; how you actually do it is up to you. We’ll look at a number of key skills and competencies that you should focus on developing to be a complete product owner.

Here we go…

So let’s get started. In the first post in the series, we’ll look at defining the product: what it is, who it’s for, and why the heck you’re building it anyway.

I would love for this to be as interactive as possible. If you have questions or comments; if you agree or disagree with what we discuss here, please let me know in the comments.