Category Archives: Requirements

The Importance of Perspective

Steve Johnson has a video on his site that shows a wonderful optical illusion. I’ve embedded it here for your viewing convenience.

This video is a great example of how important a role perspective plays in how we interpret our environment.

Perspective is also incredibly important for people when researching, designing or building products.

Specifically for Product Managers, it’s important to be conscious of how your perspective (your background knowledge, assumptions and existing viewpoints) on a situation influences how you interpret it.

To maximize your perspective, and avoid false assumptions and conclusions, try to get as many inputs as you can when researching requirements. This does not simply mean talk to more people, but make a conscious effort to to improve your domain knowledge, document and validate your assumptions clearly, and talk to different types of people in different roles, in different types of companies and with different needs.

It’s actually quite amazing how much insight you can gain by consciously broadening your perspectives on a given situation.

Saeed

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Product Management in Pictures #5: If Hardware was built like Software

Questions for Product Managers

It started with an interview on Red Canary, talking to Product Management leaders in Toronto, including Alan Armstrong, Stephen Pollack, Lee Garrison and Roy Pereira.

Interestingly enough, I know all of these people personally. I have worked with  Lee & Alan, worked for Stephen, and know Roy through very close common contacts.

In the interview, they each answered the following six questions:

  1. Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?
  2. How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?
  3. What’s your favorite interview question?
  4. When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?
  5. What has been the defining moment in your career?
  6. Mistakes. What was your biggest?

Steve Johnson took up the challenge and posted his answers to those questions on his blog, and most recently Scott Sehlhorst did the same.

I thought it was time to join the discussion myself.  So here are my answers to those same six questions.

Tell us about the best product you’ve ever encountered? Why do you like it?

I’m a big fan of any product that “just works” or surprises/delights me in some way. I don’t have a “best” product, but here are a few that I really like and use regularly.

  • The Blackberry – It does what it promises,efficiently and in a very compact form factor. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it can take a beating like no other device I’ve seen. I’ve dropped my Blackberry many times and it is no worse for wear. To quote an old advertising phrase — “it takes a licking and keeps on ticking”.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaner — I’ve blogged about Dyson previously, but after 3 years, the thing still sucks more than any other vacuum and leaves it’s competition in the dust. Sorry couldn’t resist. 🙂 What really amazes me about it is that their customer service is also really great. A small part broke on the bottom of the machine. I called the toll-free number clearly visible on the cleaner itself. The person on the phone quickly confirmed which part was broken and they shipped me a replacement free of charge a couple of days later. The cleaner was clearly designed for this kind of diagnosis and service. Awesome.
  • The Honda Civic — We’re a Honda family so I don’t have experience with other brands of cars, but then why would I need to? I love the Civic because it just works. I’m terrible when it comes to maintenance and oil changes etc. but even with minimal attention it gets me where I need to go.  It’s both totally reliable and easily affordable. That’s what I want in a car.

How do you know a great product manager when you meet one?

If a product manager adheres to all of these rules, then they must be great! 🙂  Certainly product managers need to be smart, analytic, understand technology and markets, and be great communicators and leaders.

But if there is one thing that I think really defines a great product manager, it’s the ability to “connect the dots” in seemingly unrelated or conflicting contexts.  Perhaps another way to say this is product managers need a strong mixture of creativity, curiosity and intuition.

Steve Johnson answered this question with the line:

A great product manager sees patterns.

Scott wrote:

Great product managers are polymaths, with several areas of deep expertise and skill.

While written differently, these are similar answers and tie in well with the ability to connect dots.

A lot of times product managers need to find solutions to problems that are highly constrained — usually WRT budgets, resources or time. Finding solutions that satisfy business, technical and market requirements, and being able to sell those solutions to executives or other doubting Thomases are hallmarks of a great product manager.

What’s your favorite interview question?

The one I like to ask potential product managers is:

What one word best describes Product Management?

I’ve asked that question on the blog. Here are the results.

It’s always interesting to observe interviewees struggle with the question as it usually catches them off guard. And of course, once they come with an answer, the obvious follow up question is “Why?”

When is the best time for a start-up to hire a product manager?

This is a great question and core to how our industry understands and values Product Management.  I’m clearly biased here, but I have to agree with Stephen Pollack’s response:

Thirty days before you start the company.

This answer also lines up perfectly with what Bill Campbell of Intuit said about Product Management.

Too many people don’t actually realize the full scope of the Product Management role. It’s not just about product requirements, even at the very earliest stages of a company. I’ve seen too many founders of companies create offerings (I won’t call them products), that didn’t completely address market problems, that weren’t differentiated from competitors, or  that didn’t target specific market segments and problem domains.

And what happened then? They brought in “a product manager” to help address the issues. Sorry, way too late. Why spend another year and potentially millions of dollars to fix problems that you could have addressed right at the start?

What has been the defining moment in your career?

I’d say it was leading the Product Management efforts of the flagship product of a public company in Silicon Valley. The release was described by the CTO as “the biggest, most ambitious release in company history.”

That effort consumed my focus  for almost 2 years, and I learned so much during that period. I’ve shared some of it publicly.

I ran a large beta program during that release and used that experience to write this article on betas.

I gained a greater understanding of how to optimize cross-team communication.

I also gained some insights into leadership, particularly when dealing with people across departments, geographies and areas of focus.

Mistakes. What was your biggest?

I’ve certainly made my share.  My biggest was probably not understanding (for far too long) the impact personal motivations and politics played in Product Management. I’ve written that for product managers,  “Every activity is part of a sale.

Virtually everything we do in Product Management relates to influencing others to support our goals. In most companies, Engineering won’t simply do what the PM asks.  Darn. 🙂  And certainly in larger organizations, with significant constraints, misaligned objectives and even compensation conflicts, people will focus on what is of benefit to them. They will optimize locally (i.e. what’s best for them or their team).

A lot of what Product Management is about to get teams to optimize globally (i.e. what’s best for the product or the business), sometimes at the cost of local optimization. This is where selling becomes important. The sale is in getting other teams to agree to do what you need, and to get that, you have to understand their motivations, drivers, goals and objectives. Once I understood that, life became much easier for me as a product manager.

Saeed

P.S. I’d love to see the Cranky PM’s answers to these questions.

Google Buzz Fail

Tom Grant has a great article today on Google Buzz: “You Do Not Understand Collaboration“.

Tom sums up the mistaken approach thusly: “It worked for us inside the firewall, so we never thought it’d have a problem outside the firewall”. Well put. He goes on to talk about the differences between enterprise collaboration and social networking, and some interesting observations about requirements for collaboration tools. Another quotable phrase: “not everyone is using collaboration tools to solve the same problem”.

My question is whether Google will learn key PM lessons from Buzz, or whether Buzz foreshadows an inside-out approach from Google that could severely limit the success of its future products.

– Alan

Guest Post: Web Product Management 101 for “Offline” Managers

NOTE: The following is a guest post from Thomas Fuchs-Martin. If you feel inspired to write a guest post of your own, click here to find out how to submit it to us.

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You are an experienced software product manager and you are thinking about developing your first web product?

Great! This blog post is written especially for you!

Be aware: The fact that you are about to manage a web site really changes a lot in your product strategy and the management processes that you know from “offline” products. I have prepared a crash course for you – defining terms and phrases that you will need to understand as part of your web product management role:

CPC, PPC etc.
Due to the fact that there are many different kinds of business models that exist in the web world, a lot of abbreviations have become very common (I am not really sure if that is a good thing…), particularly when it comes to advertising!

Most common is PPC (Pay per Click) which describes a model where the advertiser is charged only when a user clicks on their ad. Google Adwords is the most well known example of this. The payment amount or CPC (Cost per Click) defines the price paid by the advertiser for each click.

Even if your business model will not be advertising-based, the day will come that you either want to advertise your product on other sites or that you want to implement some advertising model on your site. You will need to understand the common models to avoid (expensive) mistakes.

Emergency Deployment
A website has to be up and running all the time, and there can be numerous backend servers and database needed to do this. You’ll need to schedule regular maintenance time to handle patches and upgrades. But, if you encounter a large bug on your production site or the site is not working at all, you might need to interrupt the usual release cycle and schedule an emergency deploy to fix urgent problems. In the worst case you will have to adjust the timings of your product plan because of these events.

SEO
In “offline” product management you basically have to think about how to create a great user experience. In web product management you have to think about search engines, too. Unfortunately users and crawler bots don´t always have the same needs which makes SEO (search engine optimization) quite interesting. SEO is the process of improving traffic to your site from search engines.

Important: Do not get the idea that you can completely outsource this! The majority of modern internet business models are based on good SEO, and your product planning will be affected by SEO requirements right from the start!

Private Beta / Public Beta
That is possibly one of the biggest luxuries that you will have as a web product manager. You can launch your product while it is still in beta-state. You just put a “beta” label beside your logo and a feedback-button somewhere prominently on your page and see what happens – this is called “public beta”. If that is too crazy for you then you can password-protect your site and only share it with selected users – that is a “private beta”.

Very important: Get the idea out of your head that your product needs to be perfect before you can launch it! There are many minimalistic and half-backed products out there that are pretty successful. Early release beats perfectionism and the minimum viable product beats the over-featured product. Remember the early days of Twitter?

Cookie-Issues
Well this has nothing to do with food! In the web a cookie is just a piece of data that will be saved at the client computer. A bunch of very common features rely on cookies such as online-shopping or login-sessions etc.  It’s important for you to know that features that rely on cookies can be very painful to test because the features can behave differently depending on the client´s configuration of browsers etc.

“See you at 2 am!”
Well, in theory you can release a new version of your web product at any time you want. But maybe you don´t want to risk downtime during the peak periods of the website. So for bigger releases and maintenance operations, the early morning might be the only time-frame of the day with low traffic …and you and your team are working hard while everybody else is sleeping! If your website has a huge amount of traffic you might even consider to launch at the weekends, because usually the traffic is lower during those times.

Browser Issues
Creating a useful user interface for websites is a hard job. In the offline world you “only” have to think about which operating system and screen resolutions your target customers have. In the web you also have to worry about different browser versions, browser security & privacy settings, pop-up blockers etc. It is almost impossible to create a complex website that will work with all browsers.

My recommendation: Focus on the most popular browsers and be minimalistic with the product features. The best way to figure out which browser your web product needs to support is to take a look in your web analytics. The diversity of browsers can vary significantly depending on the target group or target-country of your website. At minimum, your site should support Firefox, Internet Explorer (even the old IE 6 is still a common browser) and Chrome.

Web Analytics
You will have lots of information about the users of your product – for free! Google Analytics is the most common free web analytics tool that will provide interesting information about your users. For example: number of visits, pageviews, average time on page, country, browser version, screen resolution, bounce rate, top landing pages and much more. Get familiar with these analytics tools and identify the strong and weak points of your product!

Website Speed
Even in the age of high-speed internet connections you need to have a fast website! Not only do users like fast websites, search engines love them as well! Listen to what Matt Cutts from Google says about this:

[Youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muSIzHurn4U]

I hope this crash course will be helpful for you to kick-start your web product manager career!

Thomas Fuchs-Martin is web product manager & SEO at the Spanish internet start-up nuroa.es – More articles about web product management can be found at his blog: www.webproductblog.com

Product Management in Pictures #2- Feature Requests from Sales Reps

Product Management in Pictures #1 – Requirements and Reality

Going to try something a little different here. Perhaps this will become a regular feature on the blog.

Saeed