The role of the product manager, elusive and vague as it may be in definition, is particularly versatile and challenging. It is an infusion of human psychology, leadership, mathematics, strategy, engineering, and yet more. It brings great humility in its tendency to invite failure, and it’s a role I find particularly compelling, having historically struggled in my search for the ideal blend of the same qualities mentioned.
Build products that empower people and make them feel good.
As with all things in life, there is no definitive recipe for any given outcome, whether it be in maximizing the chances of success of a new product, or anything else. My goal here is to simply express an anecdotal memoir of the principles that I have found to be useful from my own experiences, as well as in my observations of some very strong product managers. These are the principles to which I hold myself to account in practicing, simply because they are borne out of common logic, and known human psychology.
PAINT A VISION
A vision is a picture of the new world; the changed world.
Humans have a uniquely remarkable capacity to imagine things that do not exist. The power of an idea, such an intangible concept, is that it is often used as the basis for mass murder, patriotic war as well as movements of co-operation. Millions of people have perished, and empires built and grazed, all for an idea (whether it be religion, an unsubstantiated belief, or other abstract concoction of the human mind); a phenomenon so intangible as to exist purely as transient electro-chemical states in the brain!
A product vision is similarly an idea that imprints in the human mind how people’s lives will be empowered and improved. It paints a vivid landscape of positive change, and it is the ultimate driver that inspires people to action. Nothing is perhaps more effective in inspiring people to action, not money nor fear, than a beautiful, visceral vision, especially one that they have partaken in cultivating.
Having witnessed teams that fell on both sides of the spectrum, the difference between a strong and weak vision is palpable. If the vision is strong, the world and your team will stand by one’s side. If the vision is weak or nonexistent, it may be difficult to get engagement, and you will face an uphill struggle. It’s not worth toiling in the name of an illustrous vision.
- Hitler burnt a hole in human history by painting a vision for German citizens. Trump is where he is now, not due to his diplomacy and political competence, but because he inadvertently paints a vision of a secular, safer and stronger USA.
- The strongest, fast moving and most influential companies have the most vivid visions (e.g. Self Driving Cars, Uber, Facebook’s internet for the world, etc). These visions are such that they inspire the smartest minds to partake in achieving them, not only due to the boost in one’s own identity and status that is achieved as a result, but also the gratification achieved in working towards a fundamental change in people’s lives.
Hence, a product manager’s first imperative is to paint a vision to inspire people to action.
BUILD feelingS, NOT FEATURES
People live to feel good.
Understanding human psychology is vital to product management. Despite human behaviour appearing seemingly unfathomable, and concealed behind a complex facade of emotional irrationality, humans are actually rather predictable. We all have similar wants, desires and psychological vulnerabilities. Ultimately, we all want to feel good, and we expend the majority of our time in pursuing good feelings (or trying to alleviate bad ones).
It follows that in order to drive people to use and share a product, a product manager needs to evoke good feelings. Furthermore, if one can evoke good feelings repeatedly and consistently, one has succeeded in building a product that will become an everyday component of people’s lives (think Facebook, Instagram, Netflix). I explore this topic deeply with examples in The product is the feeling.
The product manager’s second imperative is hence to build products and features that drive feelings; the innate currency of human energy and motivation. Examples of how feelings can drive favourable product behaviour include:
- Get people to buy (activation): Customers predominantly activate when faced with a vision of how the product will make them smarter, happier, easier, richer or more attractive. The stronger this promise of future or imminent gratification, the more likely they will activate.
- Keep people coming back (retention): Retention is primarily driven by feel-good loops and ‘anger management’:
- Reliable feel-good loops are simply a promise of future gratification on return to the product. For Facebook, this is in new Likes and Comments to ones’ posts. For games, this is in the promise of entertainment, further accomplishment or alleviation in boredom. For Netflix, this is in unraveling uncertainly in how a series or story will unfold.
- Anger management entails not betraying, frustrating or angering customers at any point in the product experience. This includes poor customer support, a dysfunctional product, not fulfilling promises and failing to provide a satisfactory experience at critical points in their lifecycle. A large proportion of churn is driven by poor experience and anger management.
- Give people a reason to share (virality): People share things that make them feel proud of themselves, makes them laugh, or makes them feel altruistic / gain a sense of gratification from sharing something that may help others. Intrinsic reasons to share are almost always more powerful and more effective than extrinsic reasons.
ECHO THE CUSTOMER’s VOICE
He or she who understands the customer best shall build the best product.
Any living entity (human, or otherwise) is biologically selfish, and understandably so. We do entirely what makes us feel good, and yes, even in the cases where our motives may appear altruistic. We vote for political parties that will favour us the most, we help others to give ourselves a sense of purpose in life, and we wave the flags which represent our own heritage and identity.
This inherent selfishness of the biological organism is what makes customer empathy so logical and necessary. Customers will never use your product for your benefit; only theirs. Hence, in order to understand what product to build, or how to drive favourable feelings in customers, one must dig deep into the their profile, wants, needs, lifestyle and problems. Few things are more effective in achieving this than talking to customers about their problems first hand.
Thus, we arrive at the product manager’s third imperative; to understand the customer best, and offer the most resounding echo of the customer’s voice in any meeting room. There are a vast array of methods to understand customers and who they are – but nothing beats just raw human conversation, where one can be receptive to their emotional expression, as well as have the freedom to ask for elaboration and dig deeper.
It is however worth noting what customers can and cannot tell you:
- Customers will tell you their past behaviour, their current problems, and how they feel about them.
- Customers won’t tell you what your vision should be.
- Customers won’t tell you how they would behave in the future, or whether your solution will work.
An excellent defining example of a customer centric product is Amazon (think competitive pricing, low cost and speedy delivery options and an excellent cancellation and return service that reduces the psychological obstacle to purchasing from a mountain to a molehill).
IGNORE ALL OPINIONS
Opinions are like gusts of wind; they appear to come from all directions, and leave a scene of clutter in their wake.
The world and the workplace is awash with the opinionated. These opinions are a product of the machine-learning derived from people’s experiences, and, due to the infinite permutations of experiences that any given human can have, such opinions in aggregation tend to amass to directionless noise. The fourth imperative of a product manager is to practice a strong level of discernment in dealing with opinions, and where appropriate, disregard them altogether.
- Opinions and perspectives: The perspectives and experiences of your colleagues will too often conflict and contradict one another, and will not serve an accurate representation of your target customers. Hence, internal opinions should be disregarded with a degree of ruthlessness, and be considered only when backed by sound reasoning or data. Customers come first, and last. (I dig deeper into the concept of perspectives in The Power of Empathy).
- Personalities: Don’t be fooled by the tendency of assertiveness, extroversion, or experience level of an individual to illegitimately inflate (or deflate) the validity of an idea. There is little correlation between the vigour with which one believes in an idea, or the forcefulness with which one asserts an idea, and the validity of that idea. Humans are remarkably susceptible to being influenced by irrational factors, such as strong personalities, that bear little relevance to what is right, or what matters [interesting reading].
- Meetings and discussions: Internal meetings are productive for brainstorming creative ideas, but decisions should never be made solely by committee. Shut down fruitless discussions and meetings in the favour of searching for actionable insights and learnings. There’s nothing more unproductive than sustaining discussions where personal opinions or “I believe” sentiments prevail as the basis of reasoning. (This includes your own opinions – see next section).
Nothing is more potent in shutting down unproductive discussions than being equipped with the numerical and qualitative ammunition to guide decision making. The product manager is mandated with leading the team in collecting and using this ammunition to guide product development (through activities such as customer interviews, user testing, and behavioural data).
This includes one’s own opinions…
Ironically, a product manager’s own opinions, often manifesting through confirmation bias and egotistical attachment to a solution (rather than the problem) can be one of the most blinding sources of noise. It is something I have witnessed in myself and others on numerous occasions in the past.
This is primarily solved by owning problems, not solutions. The psychological inevitability of owning a solution (rather than a problem) is such that it will always leave the product manager and the team biased to validate and defend that solution, rather than to solve the problem, which may have an entirely different solution.
GUARD THE EXPERIENCE FROM ALL FRONTS
No product is an island.
A product, where intended for humans, must provide an experience, and a product manager must guard that experience from all fronts. This means leading, challenging or taking ownership of all the underlying inconspicuous components that have the ability to influence that experience in some shape or form. This includes components that are buried deep within the turning cogs of a product or company, and those that may run across other teams.
The consequence of not taking full ownership is in building an experience that is broken, and that fails to meet the product vision or evoke the right feelings in customers. When discussing the second imperative of a product manager (to build feelings, not features), I mentioned that anger and anxiety management was crucial in preventing churn and keeping customers happy – you may find that the most inconspicuous components of a product are what influence anger management the most.
Here’s a few examples in the context of a financial technology product:
- Customer support; this entails both the propensity of your product to generate contacts to support, as well as the quality of the support itself. Often, what can drive virality in a product is in how excellent your support is in alleviating worries in scenarios where things don’t go to plan. And often, what drives anger is poor customer support.
- Operations; deep operational processes and technology can great influence the performance and speed of the service you provide to customers. Depending on the nature of the product, this may have an direct or indirect consequence on the customer’s product experience.
- Anti-Money Laundering & Fraud; humans have built remarkable structures of imagination, called “rules” and “regulations”. Often, these imaginary structures are borne out of good reason, but they can have a profound influence on customer experience, especially in the fintech sector. Where this is the case, the product manager must take ownership in correctly interpreting these rules, and arriving at a solution which meets both obligations with the minimum impact on customer experience.
Thus, the final and fifth imperative of a product manager, is to not build an island and isolate oneself to the boundaries of one’s team. Product managers with a strong vision, and conviction in building the best possible experience for the customer, may often be obliged to challenge and influence aspects of a company of product that may not immediately be in their control.
To conclude the principles of product management:
- Inspire people to action by painting a vision with the team.
- Set out to make people feel good with the features you build, what you say and how you present the experience
- Echo the voice of the customer, by understanding them better than anyone else. Get everyone in your team to echo the customer’s voice.
- Ignore all opinions not backed by sound data, including your own, and focus on customer feedback
- Guard the customer experience from all fronts. No product, team or man is an island.