The Impact of Product Management

Archive for the 'Product Management' Category

Warning Labels on your Product

There are many ways to warn customers about issues with your product. “Known Bugs” for software, age recommendations for kids toys, or “uncommon side effects” for drugs. All are designed to minimized concern for the unaffected majority, while providing key information for the affected minority. This warning: “SEE NEW WARNINGS” – seems to miss this subtlety. If you want to inspire 0 confidence in your product, use this warning.

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The Most Recent Customer Effect

I was chatting with my friend Chris Harrick a few weekends ago about B2B vs. B2C. He has been working at SugarCRM for a while (B2B) while I was at PlayFirst (B2C) before joining RightScale (B2B). He had a few good B2B tips from his experience there, but one that struck me in particular was “don’t just build the thing that the last customer you talked requested.”

In a consumer company, you’re usually talking to groups of people – either through a survey, in a focus group, or via a series of forum posts. Through this, you get a good sense of what is requested by most of your customer base vs. what just a single person is requesting. While it’s much easier to call up a customer in a B2B company (or perhaps they called you with a burning request), you should make a concious effort to avoid the recency effect.

Here are some potential ways to do so:

  • Keep a common list of questions you ask every customer and take notes. Later, you can go back and scan the answer to one question across multiple customers.
  • Um, surveys. Yup, these work in B2B too. In fact, define your customer lifecycle flow and stick a short survey at each step of their evolution.
  • Keep a wish list that acts like a pareto chart. When you hear a request, scan this list and give the request an extra tick if it is there, and add it to the bottom if it is not. Every once in a while, sort by count. Have your sales team do the same.
  • Get 12+ of your customers who are attending your next industry conference to sit down with you for an hour and tell you about their experience. Since they are probably thought leaders, ask them what they’d like to see next. Bring your wish list to add tickmarks to.

Overall, just avoid the temptation to add something to the backlog because a customer just asked you for it. Seems obvious, but it’s hard in practice.

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Using a Start/Stop list to keep your Product from becoming Stupid

Our new CEO at PlayFirst recently introduced a concept that I’ll keep in my swiss army knife of product tools: the start/stop list. Basically, you and others in the organization write down projects you would like to stop and other things you would like to start doing. Then you compare the lists and see what is repeated most. This method can get around some of the groupthink that keeps some projects moving forward that should otherwise be canned.

Joel Spoelsky recently posted a great example of how this tool might have helped a company survive. First, read his post on how Clear shut down. Then, imagine what a start/stop list would have looked like from most of the employees throughout the organization:


  • Figuring out what people would pay just to skip the line (not to skip screening)
  • See what kind of business this price point could support


  • Doing onerous background checks on people when we can’t actually let them skip the security line

Try this list out in your organization – it’s fun! Then, question the status quo if a little crowdsourcing seems to “clearly” point in a different direction.

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The Better Your Product, the More Powerful Your Switching Costs Become

In reading that Citibank needs an extra $10 Bil in this weekend’s WSJ, I was reminded of the power of switching costs. It occurred to me that I would rather stay with the bank through some government takeover than to try to extract myself from the web of accounts and Quicken links and auto-pays I have set up there.

Here’s the rub though – if I wasn’t mostly happy with the product (I like their online banking, iPhone app, high-interest accounts, credit card link, global access, etc. etc.), I’d be out of there faster than you can say “bank run.” So, a few things to learn:

  • Once you have a good product in place, set up switching costs to make your customers stay around longer.
  • Get your customers who are using only one aspect of your product to use as many as possible. If they are not getting the full benefit, it will be easier for them to leave.
  • If you feel like you are at a point in some business cycle where your customers are more likely to leave, perhaps you should give them an add-on product for free or at a discount (ahem, Citibank). ;-)
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Exceptions are the Pain, Not the Rule

Edge cases are typically deprioritized by product managers – there is usually little gain for the amount of work necessary to meticulously handle every case. After all, that’s what customer service is for: to hold the hand of the customer through those dark times when software is not responding. Right?

To add lemon juice to the cut, engineers typically thrive on thinking of and handling every edge case – that’s what makes good code. The opportunity cost is usually too high though, and writing a giant try { } catch statement usually allows you to move on to the next big thing that will acquire users / make more money / look flashy.

However, what if those edge cases cause make your customers want to leave?

Here’s two stories of where I was taken to wit’s end:

Today, I wanted to open a savings account to be held under a trust (you should make one if you have kids!), so I walked into a branch since I figured it would be *somewhat* complicated. The agent said I would have to open a checking account first, then apply for the linked savings account online since the high interest savings accounts all required online registration. I asked “Are you sure I can open it online if the account is in a trust?” “You should be able to,” was the answer. Good enough – I opened the checking account at the branch.

I got home tonight, and tried to open the savings account online. No dice, I couldn’t seem to select the trust credentials as the primary account holder. I called customer service: “Sorry, you can’t open a trust account online, you’ll have to open it in the branch.” “But the branch ones have super-high minimums I can’t meet,” I said. “Sorry, nothing we can do from here.”

So, even though I’ve been a Citibank customer for 10 years, I started browsing Vanguard’s site.

Money Management
Not too long ago, I purchased Quicken for the Mac after ditching my PC. [Hmmm - another money example. Perhaps I feel the pain most when it involves money.] I then tried to download my transactions from Citibank only to find that they don’t support Mac. Turns out, Intuit charges banks more for the Mac connector – which most banks don’t buy. I don’t know who to mad at, Intuit or Citibank.

Well, off I went to Mint, an online money management site where I had been collecting transactions for a few months already. Perhaps now was the time to switch. Unfortunately, I found that I could not enter arbitrary categories. I also couldn’t exclude items from Mint. Both of these ‘exceptions’ ended up making the categorization and charts pretty useless. Frustrated, I switched back to Quicken after taking a whole month to sign up for Direct Connect with Citibank. [Kudos to Mint: turns out Mint added these two features later - perhaps after they received lots of feedback.]

What to do?
After you launch a product:

  • Watch your customer feedback carefully to find any repeated edge cases
  • Have customer care keep a pareto chart of issues
  • Fix them quickly. Customers you lose b/c of them will likely never come back.
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Can your Product back up your Marketing?

I was driving to work this morning and talking on the phone. A pretty regular occurrence. Another pretty regular occurrence for me: Cingular’s network dropping my call. In my opinion, Sprint dropped my call far less than Cingular. So how can Cingular’s tag line be “fewest dropped calls”?

As a product person, I’d be pretty upset with marketing for choosing this stance. How can I reasonably assure that we can have the fewest dropped calls? How can we measure it? The connection depends on the phone, the environment, the age of the equipment, the weather… The minute you can’t live up to it – is the minute that ad campaign starts to backfire (and people like me and this guy start posting on their blogs).

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Requirements Gathering, Part 2

Following on the previous post, I just gave a guest lecture at Haas on requirements gathering. Here’s the presentation on product requirements gathering. It’s lacking some of the necessary verbal context – mainly that there are so many standard processes around requirements gathering that people miss the basic premise…

You have an idea, you gather as much information as possible from as many stakeholders as possible, then you convey the idea to others.

Often, during requirements gathering (building giant “product requirements documents” or “feature lists”), you forget what it is you set out to do. Because of this, you don’t know what you’re explaining to other people – so your team is not sure what to build. Then you launch something that doesn’t really meet any of your stakeholders objectives.

I’ve learned this both the hard way and the good way: set a vision, keep it simple, and be ruthless in cutting out everything that doesn’t meet that vision.

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Remember the Blind Men and the Elephant

Requirements Gathering is one of the more important skills of a good product manager. The sooner you can lose your ego and ask as many dumb questions as needed from as many different stakeholders as possible, the sooner you will see the complete picture of what it is you need to build. Or, better yet, the sooner you will find the elephant to hunt that will feed your village for years to come. To help drill this into your brain, I’ve republished John Godfrey Saxe’s version of The Blind Men and the Elephant here, for your reading pleasure:

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -”Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

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Listen to What Your Customers Don’t Say

Toyota Highlander Seat InnovationSometimes your customers don’t tell you exactly what they want, but if you read between the lines, they tell you what will make your product stand out. I always hear people say two things: 1) “Minivans are so uncool – I’m going to buy an SUV with a third row seat.” and 2) “Minivans are so convenient if you have a lot of kids and carseats – it’s just too hard to ignore – I have to buy a minivan.”

According to this WSJ Article, Toyota and other car manufacturers are successfully reading between the lines. Toyota’s 2008 Highlander has a middle seat that can be removed and stored under the center console (see picture). What do you get with this? Two kid carseats in the captain’s chairs and the ability for people to get in the back without having to do any fancy chair-lifting acrobatics.

Toyota’s press release says “On the outside, Highlander moves away from traditional SUV styling cues with a statement of strength instead of ruggedness; of intelligence over toughness. Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, Calif. sculpted clean, crisp lines, a wide, stable stance and muscular contours to give Highlander an advanced, contemporary, forceful and dynamic personality.” In other words, you get the minivan without the minivan image.

Brilliant. I predict a long waitlist for this car when it comes out later this year.

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Document Mistakes, Not Unknowns


Originally uploaded by GotreK.

In the traditional waterfall approach of software development, people document unknowns. Specifications are written at the beginning of the process. The team attempts not only to lay out the features they want to build, but also to posit the most efficient manner of development. By doing so, the team draws on the past mistakes of its members. Next, the team guesses what mistakes they might encounter based on the features requested and attempts to prevent these mistakes. The PRD and TRD are complete.

Why not just rely on your team members to recognize these mistakes if they encounter them?

What do we gain if we skip the unwieldy specifications process and only document the mistakes we see along the way? First, if your team members do not recognize the mistake when they see it appearing, then they didn’t have enough experience to predict it in the first place. You save time by not thinking about what might never happen. Second, design errors are now clearly visible and can be discussed and addressed. Normally these mistakes go undocumented (except the bug report which is the symptom, not the cause). Finally, while your PRD may be useless to other teams in the company, a database of mistakes and solutions is pure gold.

Let’s consider one of the most basic ‘user needs’ as an example: “I need to go to the bathroom.”

When the first bathroom was designed, the Neanderthal architect did not say: “For version 3 of our bathroom, we will have large common rooms with privacy stalls. To prevent theft of the materials that compose these stalls, we should begin making screws now that cannot be unscrewed.”

Instead, it went something like this:
“I need to go to the bathroom, so I’ll dig a hole.”
Mistake: No privacy with hole outside. Build shack.
“Our workers should wash their hands, let’s attach a sink to the outhouse.”
Mistake: It’s freezing outside in the wintertime. Attach shack to shop.
“It smells in the shop now, let’s add a vent.”
Mistake: Flies come in vents. Use fan to make forced air vent.
“The fan sparked an unnoticed fire and burned the block down.”
Mistake: Bathrooms are seldom visited spaces. Install fire detectors and sprinklers.
Bathrooms are boring. Let’s put up funny pictures.”
and so on…

These mistakes and solutions were recorded and now comprise a county’s “building standards.”

Now, imagine if you had this “database of mistakes” within your company:
Mistake: TCP does not work well for voice applications on our proprietary servers. Use UDP for voice applications.
Mistake: If you install company_widget_g and company_widget_f together, people can break in to the system. Have your application use one or the other, or make this modification to company_widget_f.

By doing a quick search for ‘company_widget_f’ when you are about to install it, you’ll avoid a few weekends at the office. By looking at another project’s PRD or TRD, you wouldn’t have discovered this bit of gold.

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