Do Product Managers need Domain Knowledge?

As part of the second Pragamatic Marketing blogfest, I’m responding to Steve Johnson’s post: “Everyone needs to know what we do here“.

In it, Steve writes about the need for domain knowledge for technology workers, particularly in regards to the business they are in and the needs of their market. Whether talking about engineers, marketers, sales people or product managers, everyone needs to understand the company’s strategic objectives as well as some aspect of market dynamics.

In this case, I can’t really argue too much with Steve. If key people in a company don’t have domain knowledge, then the question “Why not?” must be answered. Do your competitors have domain knowledge? Most likely, especially if they are leading you in the market. How can anyone run any kind of successful business without domain knowledge?

For technology companies, the questions to consider revolve around defining exactly what “domain knowledge” is, and how best to acquire and maintain it.

Domain knowledge, particularly in B2B technology companies, can be quite complex. Not only do Product Managers need to understand the overall market, but also market specifics that vary from geography to geography. They need to understand overall trends in the market, as well as technology and economic trends that could impact product performance. Then come the questions related to competitors — who are they, what are their strengths/weaknesses, and where are they heading? Finally, Product Managers need to understand their target customers in detail — what they do, what they find valuable, how they currently use your product (or one of your competitors), and why they would value yours.

All of these areas of knowledge constitute domain knowledge. The reality is, very few individuals can have a full understanding of all of this information. I believe there is a myth that the lone Product Manager can collect, analyse, understand and then react to all of this information. The reality is that technology companies should look at the Product Management function as opposed to the individual Product Manager, as the locus of this knowledge.

Clearly other teams in the company also have domain knowledge, but Product Management needs to collect it and put it all together to make a coherent picture out of it. To do that well, it can’t be the responsibility of a single individual. Companies should be thinking about Product Management teams for each of their products or product families.

Some companies seem to succeed in spite of themselves. You’ve all heard of (or maybe even worked for) at least one of these kinds of companies. They had an innovation that lead to a successful product, but couldn’t repeat that success. Why not? One of the principal reasons is lack of sufficient domain knowledge to make the leap to a second successful product.

Case Study

delrina-logo.jpgRemember Delrina Corp? The makers of WinFax? Back in the early 1990s, WinFax was the clear market leader for faxing on Windows operating systems. Everything in the company was focused on the Windows operating system.

I was a technical writer at the time, and was hired to join the “small but growing” Macintosh team at Delrina. The goal was, as I was told, to build out a whole product line of Macintosh products, with the first product being fax software. And who knew fax software better than Delrina, the people who invented it?

At the time, the core Macintosh development team consisted of three people: the lead (and sole) developer (Don), the QA engineer (Mike) and me (the tech writer).

During the development cycle of the first version of Delrina’s Macintosh fax software, a number of things happened that made me wonder if I’d made a good choice coming to Delrina.

Given that the three of us (Don, Mike and I) were virtually the only people in the entire company who had actually used a Macintosh, most people there only experienced the product through the documentation that I was writing (on a Windows PC using Ventura Publisher nonetheless — not my choice!).

On the Macintosh, the software worked by setting the fax-driver as the target for print jobs. This was done via the Chooser in the Macintosh environment.

At one cross-team meeting to review the development and documentation status, someone, I don’t recall who, asked:

“What are these Chooser and Finder things? Who named them that? Can we change them?”

I kid you not. I couldn’t make that up. Almost immediately Don looked at the person and stated, almost robotically:

“No we can’t change them or rename them. They are fundamental to the operation of the Macintosh.”

I gathered that this was not the first time he had uttered that line.

Later on, the issue of the product name came to light. At another cross-team meeting, it was announced that the naming committee had decided on a name for the product, and all software, documentation, marketing materials etc. should use the name. The name was….hold your breath: WinFax Mac.

Now, if you recall back to the early 1990s, it was the height of the Macintosh vs. Windows fight. Users in the Macintosh community were pretty vocal about their disdain for Windows.

Mike and I looked at each other and waited for Don to say something. Don made an attempt to hide his frustration and then tried to calmly explain why the prefix “Win” as in WinFax was not an acceptable name for a Macintosh product.

The Product Manager would have none of it. He explained the enormous brand equity “WinFax” had, and how strongly attached the name “WinFax” was to fax software and that the plan was to leverage it in this new foray in the Macintosh market. Mike also tried to explain the issues with using “Win” in the name of a Macintosh product and was also shut-down.

A couple of months later, at yet another cross-team meeting, the PM announced that feedback had been received from a large number of beta customers indicating their dislike of the product name, and thus a new name would be found without the prefix “Win” in it. Mike, Don and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

Once the project was complete, I decided to leave the company and find employment elsewhere. Even back then, early in my career, I could see the dark days ahead if I stayed at Delrina. I found work at a startup, but continued to track Delrina and their Macintosh product line. A few months later, I saw a review of the product in a computer magazine. The review was OK, but the documentation got a 4 out of 5! 🙂 I still have a copy of that manual.

As it turned out, the fax product was Delrina’s first and last Macintosh product. Aside from Delrina’s lack of knowledge about the Macintosh computer and user community, they also didn’t understand the dynamics of the Macintosh fax market. Delrina had succeeded in the Windows market by being first to market with an innovative product, and then controlling the channels by signing OEM deals with virtually every PC fax hardware manufacturer. In short, virtually every PC faxmodem that shipped at the time came bundled with a copy of WinFax Lite.

The same strategy had already been executed by other Macintosh fax software manufacturers. So when Delrina entered the Macintosh market, it not only was a late entrant, but the channels were all tied up by competitors. Their strategy, leveraging their Windows dominance to enter the Macintosh market was completely useless. And why? Quite simply because they had no real domain knowledge or true understanding of the market they were entering. Decisions made in a vacuum always look pretty good at the time.



9 responses to “Do Product Managers need Domain Knowledge?

  1. WinFax Mac. What a stitch. You couldn’t make this stuff up! The difference between truth and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. 🙂

  2. Vicki Ziegler

    Very interesting case study, Saeed!

  3. Very interesting post. I was one of the Delrina developers on the WinFax side at that time. Although I don’t know much about the Mac side of things at that time, I did heard about a few funny things about Mac product. WinFax Mac was one of those 🙂

  4. Unfortunately, this anecdotal account of Delrina’s early 1990’s Mac fax product is based on the author’s short contractual stay that occurred long before Delrina Fax Pro actually shipped, and arrives at completely inaccurate conclusions about Delrina’s marketing savvy. Had the author remained at Delrina, he would have witnessed the arrival of experienced Mac “domain knowledge” and the exponential growth of Delrina’s Mac team in the areas of development, product management, and tech support. He might have shared in the satisfaction of Delrina Fax Pro earning winning product reviews and endorsements from top Mac luminaries including MacWorld columnist David Pogue, former Apple USA president and Mac celebrity Jean-Louis Gassée, and other Mac influencers. He also would have been pleased to see Delrina Fax Pro stocked in all mass retailers and Mac mail-order houses, and selling well to Mac users right up to the moment when Symantec bought Delrina.

    Delrina Fax Pro was indeed a late entrant into a Mac fax market that was dominated by the DoveFax and Global Village products. However, those bundled hardware/software products suffered two serious weaknesses: their bundled fax software was notoriously unreliable and delivered mediocre quality fax output. In contrast, Delrina Fax Pro was rock-solid reliable and was the only fax software capable of sending ultra high quality “grayscale” faxes—a key feature immediately popular with the Mac graphics crowd. Discontented DoveFax and Global Village users seeking a reliable fax software alternative also discovered that Delrina’s Mac tech support was fast, informed, and friendly. And I must commend the author for creating the top-quality documentation that got a “4 out of 5” for Delrina Fax Pro in that MacUser magazine review.

    Claiming that Delrina lacked “real domain knowledge or true understanding of the market they were entering” makes for an entertaining case study conclusion almost a dozen years later—but it’s not true. Yes, a WinFax product manager wanted to name the Mac product “WinFax Mac,” but wiser heads prevailed. Yes, Delrina had earlier hoped for OEM bundles with Mac faxmodem makers, but Delrina’s leadership was fully aware that the OEM window of opportunity had closed. A better conclusion grants Delrina some credit for intelligence, and makes the case that Delrina accurately assessed the Mac market at that time.

    Sales were slowing and margins dropping on faxmodems with bundled “lite” fax software in both the Windows and Mac markets. Conversely, there seemed to be a real market opportunity for feature-rich, high-margin standalone fax software. The success of WinFax Pro proved this proposition in the Windows market, and Delrina reasoned that the Mac market was also ripe for a Mac equivalent to WinFax Pro. Delrina never “misunderstood the dynamics of the Macintosh fax market.” Delrina Fax Pro was an calculated attempt to enter a new market category dominated by no single player, get in quickly with a feature-rich product that defines the category, influence the key Mac influencers and win decisive reviews to win mindshare dominance, ensure that the product was advertised and available in every single Mac sales channel, and employ every trick in the book to promote sell-through.

    Unfortunately, the terms of the Symantec acquisition didn’t allow Delrina to continue this foray into the Mac fax software market. In fact, the Symantec acquisition of Delrina was the high-water mark of the entire PC fax market, eclipsed shortly afterward by the popularity of Internet-based email. The author says, “Even back then, early in my career, I could see the dark days ahead if I stayed at Delrina.” Too bad he didn’t stick around, because all of us at Delrina enjoyed a wild ride while it lasted—and had a heck of a good time!

  5. David,

    Thanks for the detailed comment. I’ll reply in kind. 🙂

    Clearly you had quite an emotional stake in Delrina. I’m sure it was a wild ride for those at Delrina, both the ups, and the downs, given the impact of Win95, the layoffs and lawsuits that occurred there in the mid 1990s.

    To correct one of your points…my tenure at Delrina was not “long before Delrina Fax Pro actually shipped.” Given that I know precisely when I left and that I completed the documentation project and was there when the product went RTM, it could hardly be called “long before” the product shipped. 🙂

    Thanks for giving me credit for the docs. There were people internal to Delrina who reviewed it certainly, (Vicki who posted a comment was one of them) so it was not 100% a solo effort, but it was my primary deliverable and focus in my time there. I also wrote the balloon help, did a UI review and provided suggestions to improve the usability. An axiom from my tech writing days: If it’s difficult to document, it’s difficult to use.

    Also, thanks for verifying the fact that at the time, there was little if any Macintosh domain knowledge in the company. Others as well, not simply the PM, had decided that WinFax Mac was to be the original product name. The “wiser heads” you mention were the beta customers who gave negative feedback on the name and thus prompted the search for another name. This despite protestations from those few inside the company who were actually Mac savvy, when WinFax Mac was originally proposed.

    In those days, for any company to have to wait for beta testers to tell them that Win-anything Mac was not a suitable name for a product, indicates a clear gap in basic domain understanding, which was the whole point of the blog posting.

    Bringing in “domain knowledge” after the fact would be the correct thing to do, and as you state, that’s what Delrina did. Had that knowledge been there earlier, who knows what decisions would have been made. The original plan had been to create an entire product line for the Macintosh, not simply a single fax product. What happened to that vision? It never materialized.

    In fact, after Fax Pro was released, Delrina invested in what they knew best — Windows software. They released WinComm as a standalone product in 1994, WinFax Scanner in 1994, Cyberjack (a Web browser, ftp client and Usenet reader) for Win95 in 1995, and a full communications suite (CommSuite) for Windows, also in late 1995. This suite included TalkWorks, a Windows product based on technology Delrina acquired earlier.

    There were no other Macintosh communications products released by Delrina in that time. I wonder why, given the “exponential growth of Delrina’s Mac team” during that period.

    BTW, WRT the product and awards, I never made any aspersions against the product itself if you read what I wrote. I worked closely with the development team and Don and Mike certainly knew what they were doing.

    In fact, those who were closest to the actual product, myself included, knew that it had some functional superiority to other products. The grey scale sample image in the original manual was taken from one of my own photographs. But functionality and awards don’t always win markets.

    In the end, the question comes down to business success. Was the product ultimately financially successful? If it was, and I don’t have data one way or another, it’s interesting that Symantec wasn’t interested. Also, why didn’t Delrina release other Macintosh communication products? Instead they focused on the core Windows business, and then dabbled in screen savers (Dilbert, Bill & Opus), and electronic scrapbook software (Echo Lake).

    Regardless, thanks for reading the blog, and posting the comment. Constructive comments and clarifications are always welcome. And after 14 years, which in technology is like a few generations in human terms, there will always be several sides to each story.


  6. As the lead developer on the Delrina Mac Fax project this exchange brings back a flood of memories – most of them good. Saeed and David both remember the same events from slightly differrent perspectives as do I. I have worked at several companies since that time where the Mac culture was secondary to the Windows one and it is no easy feat to accomodate both in a single corporate entity – perhaps this is why so few Windows to Mac ports have been successful.

    I do know that by the time we got to market – Delrina Fax Pro was a Mac product with the look and feel of a Mac product. The fact that there were bumps and crashes along the way in no way diminishes the hard work or the sense of satisfaction that we all shared.

  7. As the third on the project, I will agree that Delrina FAX was a very good example of the need for all team members to fully understand the market, the customers and the role of the product. While a lot of what Saeed said is true this was rectified when a mac focused product marketing effort was brought in. In general product marketing was brought in very late however the team working on the project early on (don and myself) understood and lived up to what people especially folks with fancy MBAs in the 2000s call customer-centricity. This buzz word is used a lot more in the 2000s but we lived it in the early 90s without knowing it and it was the prime reason for the success of the project. On the other hand I would now argue that Winfax was more product focused. Delrina paid attention to customers but did not have a customer-centric focus.

    Delrina Fax was not a port of the Windows app, it was developed for the Apple zealots. Features, manuals, demos, ads, pretty much all of the product was tailored for the Mac audience which was large in the “graphics/publishing ghetto” and an audience that had a large portion of female users. Our demo was to fax a famous painting (at least I think as I am no art expert) of a young girl in her Sunday dress in a nice summer scene in full grayscale that appealed to graphics folks and to people of the fairer sex. We compared it to the output from Winfax and our mac competitors and said which painting would you buy. Do you want to fax your work and have it look like Delrina-fax output or the other software. Worked well with our audience. Our other test was a picture of a Mariah carey showing some cleavage which would have worked better than a painting if our audience was mainly in prison.

    I would argue that customer-centricity is what is lost in the PC software of the 2000s whether out of Redmond or Cupertino and is better illustrated by websites such as Facebook, Myspace or Youtube. One only has to look at Vista and office 2007 to see the lack of customer-centricity.

    Delrina Fax also is an example of a project that was not driven by marketing. Delrina Fax was a success and it was not driven by marketing who are supposed to be the only folks who understand the market. Saeed shows that in some cases marketing can be a detriment. Marketing folks need to understand the benefits of educating the full team.

    The Mac product was a Skunkworks project and like any project, everyone will have a perspective and a memory of a project, however one thing I will agree with Steve Johnson on and I am sure all will agree, we could not have made this up. The other take home is everyone on a project needs to know the customer, the market and the role of the product.


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