Better Product Managers, and Product Management

It doesn’t really matter where you worked before. If you worked at an amazingly successful company, congratulations!  You managed to get yourself hired at a successful company.  This tells me something about you, but not enough.  (In some companies, all this tells me is that you got really good grades at a top college.)  Most people are coming from companies I’ve never heard of, or that I only have superficial TechCrunch-esque knowledge of.

It doesn’t really matter what products you worked on before. If you got stuck on a crappy product that failed or never launched, that was probably your manager’s fault, not yours. Or maybe you worked on a product that I use every single day and love — but I have no way of knowing whether you were the brains behind my favorite micro-interaction or someone who followed orders.

It doesn’t really matter how many years’ experience you have. Does anyone think that 1 year working in a mature, stable company as part of a large design team is equivalent to spending 1 year as the lone designer in a startup where you’re forced to figure out everything on your own?   (The meanest — but true — back-channel feedback I ever gave about someone was to say ‘some people have 10 years of experience, and some people have the same 2 years of experience, repeated 5 times’.)

It doesn’t matter what your degree was in (or if you have one). My design and research teams currently include a college dropout, a landscape architecture degree, a business degree, a folklore and mythology degree, and a couple of literature degrees, as well as the expected psychology and design ones.

It doesn’t really matter what your bullet points say you accomplished in your past jobs. How well you promote yourself on your resume has more to do with your resume-writing skills (or ability to hire a resume consultant) than it does about you.  It doesn’t even have much in common with your everyday communication and presentation skills – I’ve hired plenty of people with mediocre resumes who can own a packed meeting.  I’ve had to prompt interviewees to “stop being modest and take credit for your contributions” — and then had them totally wow me.

What matters is the public persona that you have full control over. No disappointing job or office politics or bad manager is preventing you from contributing out in the world.

Maybe you maintain a public portfolio on Dribbble or Cargo Collective; maybe you keep a personal blog.  You can answer questions on Quora or curate content on Twitter.  You can upload presentations to Slideshare or join meetups in your area of expertise.  You can contribute to open source projects or share code on Git.  At the very least, you can write a knowledgeable and personalized cover letter — yes! if they’re not form letters, people read those — to show your energy.

Popularity: 12% [?]

I’ve worked on products that were great and ones that were kind of atrocious.  And through both ends of the spectrum, I can confidently say that if you’re doing research right, what you learn will make you cringe.

  • You’ll learn that the person who rates you a 10 out of 10 uses less than a quarter of your product’s functionality.
  • You’ll watch someone struggle and mutter under their breath as they try to complete a task that is both critical and (YOU THOUGHT) simple.
  • You’ll see that, even when individual tasks are easy to do, it’s tricky to string them together.
  • You’ll see people who don’t struggle with your app at all — but also are politely but utterly disinterested in using it.

This took me by surprise the first few times I conducted my own user research, because I had seen other peoples’ slide decks, and those decks always painted wholly optimistic pictures: 6 out of 8 participants completed the task without hesitating! 7 out of 8 would ‘definitely’ use this app!   Quotes like “really easy to figure out” or “would allow me to work a lot faster” sprinkled throughout.

Was I just doing it all wrong?

I can’t blame those early researchers: they feared (probably correctly) that their clients would shoot the messenger.  If research brings unwelcome news, well, do we really need researchers after all?

It’s a sign of the maturity of a company — and I don’t mean maturity as in series B startup or Fortune 500 — how they conduct research and how they accept it.

About a month ago, one of the researchers on my team at Yammer shared a presentation on how mainstream users use our product.  It was depressing.

It signaled that, for all the progress we’ve made, we have so much farther to go.  And yet it made me proud to see that the engineers and product managers in the audience asked respectful questions and encouraged follow-up research so we could learn more.  I didn’t hear mutters or complaints in the hallway.  We might not have been happy to hear the feedback, but we didn’t attempt to reject it, either.

Of course there is an art to delivering bad news: one can’t simply dump a bunch of negative quotes and failure rates and drop the mic.  But when I hear usability test readouts/see slide decks/read blog posts where every bit of news is good news, I cringe.  Those are companies that have much bigger problems than a probably-unusable product.

Popularity: 7% [?]

When companies talk about their new product or service, they talk about what it does. Features, bullet points, checkboxes.   Maybe, if they’re particularly enlightened, they’ll shift a bit and talk about what problems it will solve.

What normal people tell their friends about a product or service, they talk about what it replaces:

  • Now that I use X, I’ve stopped using Y
  • Using X means I no longer need to do Y
  • X is much easier than Y
  • I used to do Y, but I haven’t since I discovered X

It’s something I’ve heard a lot lately when listening to people talk about using Yammer – and specifically, people trying to explain to a coworker why he/she should try it.  They sometimes talk about value they’ve gotten, but more often it’s in terms of how it’s driven a (positive) behavioral change away from something else.

This has me wondering if there’s a technology equivalent to Dunbar’s number.  Dunbar’s number is the idea that we have hard-wired cognitive limits to how many people we can maintain social relationships with — not just names and faces, but remembering that Allison reports to Sally and has an interest in localization or that Don is dating Kate but doesn’t care for her brother Jim.  So when we meet new people and start interacting with them more, it’s only natural that our weaker connections fade even more.

Does the same principle hold for technology?  It seems likely, given that we have a limited number of hours in a day, and we incur switching costs whenever we change context.  So (to pick an arbitrary number), if we can be productive regularly using 6 solutions, then the addition of a 7th would mean that something would have to drop off the list.  Certainly, we might try to add a 7th solution, but we’re probably more likely to feel overwhelmed and abandon it.

6 is a guess, of course.  But I think it’s a useful lens for looking at what you’re building: if people will only adopt it at the price of ditching an existing solution, are you building something great enough?  And are you helping them to see the benefit of replacing their current behaviors with what you have to offer?

Popularity: 9% [?]

Your customers don’t complain enough.  (I know, that can feel awfully hard to believe sometimes.)  If they did, you’d know all the interactions that frustrate them.  You’d know where you’ve inadvertently forced them through three extra clicks every single time they need to use that feature.  You’d understand why they were wary of upgrading to the paid plan and what information would change their minds.

Most people don’t complain (to the source, anyways) because they haven’t been given permission.  They may believe that an awkward workflow is their fault for not better understanding.  They may believe that they’re making errors because of their own lack of understanding.  You need to tell them otherwise.   And then you need to put them in a situation where they have no choice, by asking a question with no positive answer options.

  • What was the most frustrating part of completing that task?  No, please, assuming you HAVE to pick one step, which one did you find most frustrating?
  • What do you wish you were able to do at this point, that you’re not able to do?
  • Other people have said that they were confused by step 2.  Did you find step 2 or step 3 more confusing?
  • Do you have a friend who has a really hard time learning new technologies?  If you were forced to teach him how to use this site, what would you be most worried that he’d stumble on?

People want to make you feel good by giving you the “right” answer.  By framing your questions like this, you’re making it clear that “no, it’s great” is not the right answer.  It may be diplomatic, but it’s not what you’re hoping to hear.  And that seems to spur people into shrugging and throwing some honesty your way.

Popularity: 7% [?]