Strategy

Product Management lessons from my newborn


It’s been a while since I blogged but I’ve been keeping busy since my last post… officially moved to the Bay Area, settled into the new job and, on August 30th, became a proud father of a healthy, beautiful baby girl. As a first-time parent, I realize that there is an infinite amount of learning ahead of me – this is merely the beginning. However, as I was spending yet another sleep-deprived night trying to decipher my daughter’s cues I saw some great product management lessons staring me in the face… literally. I’m finding lessons from my newborn and Mother Nature about how to launch a new product or business, nurture it and see it grow.

As a species, we’ve had the time to perform billions of iterations to come up with just the right handful of skills a human newborn needs to survive and thrive. It feels like there is a profound lesson here to guide those of us who struggle with new beginnings in other realms – like products and businesses. Mother Nature isn’t shooting for a ‘full-featured’ person at birth but it is very clearly setting the newborn up for success – with innate attributes and abilities (however few) to advantageously use its environment.

I just have a strong hunch that if most mere-mortal Product Managers were writing a Product Requirements Document for a human being… it would detail out the abilities of a well-adjusted, able-bodied 21-year old and explain why most of those skills are essential. That’s why I want to get this post out while all of these thoughts are fresh in my mind so I can look back at it someday when I am confronted with planning and launching something brand new.

Be irresistible
Babies are designed to be ‘cute’ – with their big eyes, large foreheads and chubby cheeks they tap into deep evolutionary programming in the adult mind and compel grown-ups to care for them and protect them. In fact there is ample research that points to the fact that all women (not just Moms) and Dads tend to be more attracted to a baby’s cuteness – talk about precise target marketing. Babies may not be able to impress with insightful speeches, physical feats or sharp wit but they can and do mesmerize their own parents and caregivers. The lesson here is that, in the early days, being irresistible to the target demographic is more important than being ‘full-featured’ (quick side rant – as with people, products and businesses have to constantly learn and grow so there is no such thing as a full list of features on day one). Find the target customers of your product and business and understand them well enough to build something basic but truly irresistible – nothing else will do. This means minimizing the features to a point of discomfort and maximizing the beauty and elegance of the user experience to a point of obsession.  

Fixate on the early adopters
The apparently underdeveloped senses of a baby are in fact highly tuned to identify and bond with their parents and primary caregivers. At a very early stage, babies make strong associations with the smells and sounds of their parents/caregivers and use this information to create strong loving bonds. There is scientific evidence that every time an infant feeds it reinforces the olfactory association to Mom in its brain. Even though babies are handed a set of underdeveloped senses, their focus on identifying and bonding with those who sustain them is pretty awe-inspiring and instructional. Early-stage products or businesses need just as much TLC as a newborn infant in order to survive, so it’s essential to fixate on the early adopters who will provide support and sustenance. There will always be critics who will seek to diminish your brand-new product by making comparisons to mature alternatives but, in the early days, you must ignore them. Once you have a relationship in place, the early adopters will help you grow stronger and become more capable.

Have an open mind and learn
Babies aren’t born with a lot of experiences to draw from but they are wired to learn – every waking minute they are soaking up information about their new surroundings, their parents and their own bodies. As a new parent, I am constantly doing things (some of them rather silly) to feed this insatiable desire for learning. It seems like Mother Nature is urging us product people to build products and organizations that are designed to learn from the get-go. Since all product groups and businesses operate with precious few resources, why waste them on building a few more premeditated features that may or may not resonate – why not spend the effort to instrument your product to be aware of when, where and how it’s being used and by whom? You can then use the data to spur deeper conversations with your users, understand why it’s being used the way it is and grow the product to make it more relevant, easier to use and more delightful.

Without a doubt, parenting is the most joyful and the most challenging thing I will ever do but I’m glad that this process is teaching me as much as it’s teaching my baby daughter. I am convinced that I can couple my insights as a parent with my renewed caffeine dependence to become a better Product Manager – I have a feeling that there are more posts like this in my future.

Strategy

When and why is ease of use important?


This post is spurred by a few thoughts that have recently crossed my mind. One, it’s been an eternity since I’ve posted and the ideas for posts are now stacking up, withering and dying off… it’s time for some action. Second, I’ve recently moved from a quiet suburb of Portland, Oregon to San Francisco… life is not as easy(logistically) as it used to be but the energy of this big, busy, noisy city is exhilarating. And third, as part of this move we got rid of one of our cars and kept the Subaru (which I have mentioned in a previous post)… the Subie has a manual transmission and despite the traffic and the hills in our new town, we are happy it’s the car we kept.

How does any of this relate to a blog that’s apparently about Product Management? Well, these thoughts got me thinking about the value people place on ease of use – more pointedly, I am wondering if ease of use is the highest virtue to seek in products and services – in life?

Let me make it clear at the outset that as a Product Manager who admires products that people buy, use and love, I am not advocating for making things hard to use. No, no, no – I am merely wondering about the questions that need to be asked to understand if (when) ease of use is deemed valuable by customers and markets. I’ve writing about the questions that came to me but I’d love to hear your opinions…

Who is the target customer/user?
Early adopters (all Product Managers have met a few) love new products and services; they love figuring things out when they are difficult and duct-taped together. This makes them feel a sense of pride and they may gain credibility in their community for tackling a new product first. These users demand greater control so they can configure, customize and morph the product or service into sheer coolness. Of course, the more this demand for control is satisfied by the product creators (think massive options dialogs or unending variations on coffee drinks) the harder and more intimidating adoption becomes for the novice. I realize that it’s extremely challenging to peel away from the early advocates but, just like indie bands do every day, sometimes it makes good business sense to appeal to the masses. If the masses are the target customer, focus on ease of use – to these users easy is cool.

In what context is the product being used?

I recently read a great article that urges product creators (designers and managers) to empathize instead of trying to quantify ease of use (clarity) and value (usefulness). Empathy comes from identifying and understanding the scenarios of use and then building the product or service to fit these scenarios. Consider for example how quick service and cheap prices are more important at lunchtime on a workday and possibly a negative when you are trying to impress someone on a dinner date on the weekend. Understanding the real use cases makes it very clear that sometimes being easy isn’t the most pressing need.

What are the alternatives to your product?

In the early days of a product category, there might not be an alternative for a product or service. Soon enough, competitors will emerge and start outdoing each other with features/functionality and be rewarded by customers (the incremental value of each new feature is still high). It is truly a time when you build it and they come. Of course, at some point the various offerings become virtually indistinguishable. Then the easiest way to compete becomes price and we all know where price competition takes the market – the eroded margins make it impossible to fund innovation and slowly the most eager price droppers start hemorrhaging into obscurity. This is precisely the time to focus on the customer experience and ease of use. In a landscape of indistinguishable alternatives, how good a customer feels (or how little they are annoyed) becomes critical.

Just to be clear, ease of use is always a good thing but product management is about making tough trade-offs. And as we debate these trade offs, it seems helpful to keep in mind that products, like people, grow and the priorities one sets will need to change with that growth. For now, here’s to noisy cities and manual transmissions – check back with me in a couple of years.

Companies

Netflix – Flicks directly on the net… at last


Lately, I’ve been running errands to tie up the loose ends of a construction project at home and I keep driving past the now defunct ‘Hollywood Video’ store in my neighborhood. As you might expect, the Product Manager in me looks at this abandoned store and can’t help thinking about the innovation and creative destruction delivered to my neighborhood by… you guessed it… Netflix.

I have to admit that, over the years,  I was only a sporadic member of the videos-by-mail, no-late-fees Netflix service. That’s because I was always able to find time to watch movies in the theater and so waiting for movies to release on video and be shipped to my house didn’t make much sense. However, all that changed recently when I discovered the instant gratification of Netflix’s video streaming service.

Of course, like the rest of Netflix’s instant-streaming customers, I would like the catalog of content to grow by leaps and bounds. The growing rate of adoption of the streaming service is a great win and a great challenge for Netflix – it’s now up to them to turn these buyers and users into vociferous lovers of their service. In the meantime, there is enough geeky PBS and National Geographic content on their catalog to keep me satisfied for weeks, if not months.

I recognize that it might be a little too soon to add Netflix’s streaming service to the annals of buy, use, love greatness but my study of their strategy might interest fellow Product Managers because it reveals the makings of a blockbuster – no pun intended. Here’s what I learned…

  • If the data contradicts your business model, reconsider the business model –

    Over the past few years, Netflix noticed the downward trend in the number of DVD shipments per user and an increase in the amount of streaming content. This unadulterated market data has driven the company’s transition to streaming from the DVD-by-mail business model that built its initial success. As with any transition, there will be challenges – lower monthly subscription fees, higher content licensing fees, heavyweight competitors etc. but Netflix is clearly committing to the future instead of rabidly defending the past. As Product Managers, we’re often confronted with a choice – tweak the parameters of a known model or explore the uncertainties of new ones. To help with this choice, let’s commit to seeking as much true market data as possible. In the absence of data, self preservation drives PMs and companies towards the tried and true instead of risking the path of tomorrow’s breakthrough.

     

  • Focus on eliminating the pain of change – 

    The triumph of the internet as a means of serving entertainment content seems like a foregone conclusion to folks like me, but it represents a significant transition away from traditional TV for a large majority of Americans (even those with access to high speed internet). Netflix (and the competition) is working feverishly to reduce the pain of this change by offering it’s streaming service on a wide range devices that are already plugged into their customers’ TV screens. Like all good Product Managers, the folks at Netflix know that introducing an innovation that is dependent on a change in customer behavior requires a keen understanding of current behaviors. There are no guarantees of success, but fitting seamlessly into the current ecosystem and eliminating the switching costs will definitely help the odds.

     

  • Customer satisfaction is your best defense – Netflix has been astute about intimately understanding customers’ interactions with the service to drive greater satisfaction. In fact, they even spent a million dollars to crowdsource a better recommendation engine to improve the customer experience. This focus on customer satisfaction will serve Netflix well, especially as their power as a content clearinghouse spurs competitive reactions from content creators. Netflix’s strongest defense will remain it’s ability to offer a service that customers prefer. Competitive pressures are a constant for companies and Product Managers and it’s critical to remember that customer satisfaction (more so than feature wins, pricing or promotions) is ultimately the strongest defense.

     

Netflix is charting a bold course to redefine not only it’s own business but also the larger entertainment industry. I cannot predict today if Netflix will emerge on top but I can tell that it won’t be for the lack of a sound strategy.


People

Agatha Christie – Murder, She Sold – Two Billion and Counting


Over the past week, I have been mulling over a post by Scott Anthony that in innovation, there are no points for difficulty, it’s all about results. So I went looking for other lines of work where it’s all about success and not effort. One profession that came to mind, is writing; it does not matter how many books an author writes, what matters is that they come up with a bestseller every once in a while.

Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap by http://www.flickr.com/photos/aroberts

So I looked at great authors in history and found one that has sold over 2 billion copies in over 45 languages. Her success, in sheer numbers of books sold, is beaten only by the Bible and Shakespeare. I’m talking about Agatha Christie, ‘The Queen of Crime’, the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.

Agatha Christie’s products, her 80 novels and several plays, are prime examples of the buy, use, love ethos. So, as always, I had to investigate her life and work to see if there were lessons for Product Managers like me who are striving to create their own bestsellers.

  1. Play to a big audience: Over the years, Agatha Christie’s style of writing has come under criticism for being… sub-literary. However, I believe it is this very style that underpins Christie’s wide appeal, wrapping universal themes (murder and intrigue) in heart-stopping plot twists using simple, approachable language.  Her commitment to her style and her subsequent commercial success is an important example for Product Managers. All PMs seek lucrative problems (many potential paying customers) to solve but, we can all recall products that amazed the experts and underwhelmed the actual customers. To emulate Agatha Christie’s success, PMs must ignore the ivory tower long enough to seek, find and understand the largest possible market. And, with market success, the ivory tower does eventually come around.
  2. The solution must be innovative not the problem: Agatha Christie’s novels were formulaic whodunits centered around a murder in parochial settings; typical for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. The basic structure of the stories was pretty consistent, however, she delivered each story with an uncanny finesse. Christie’s ability to create magic while staying within the bounds of a genre hold great insights for a Product Manager. Most PMs, who spend enough time listening to customers without prejudice (focusing on the ‘whys’ not the ‘whats’), stumble upon a familiar set of problems and needs. The challenge then, is to create a solution that meets these needs in new and innovative ways without being too alien and unfamiliar to the customer. Let’s not conjure up innovative solutions to innovative (read irrelevant) problems that never get off the ground.
  3. Creation is a process of discovery: Writing books seems like abstract, creative work that can only be done by uniquely gifted individuals who are wellsprings for fully-formed masterpieces. At least in Agatha Christie’s case, this is anything but true; the recent discovery of her secret notebooks reveals her non-linear process of writing. She used her deep understanding of the readers’ state of mind to iteratively refine her work till it was ready to publish. In the technology and software world, there is similar mythology that some people just ‘get it’ and can create market-dominating products through the power of sheer genius. Studying Christie’s process makes it pretty clear that, in most situations, the winning solution lies amidst a myriad sub-optimal options. The only way to discover the winning solution is having many possible approaches and then weeding through them with an intimate understanding of the problem, the customers and the market environment.

I am intrigued by the parallels between the world of writing and the world of innovation; including the low success rates in both fields. Agatha Christie’s life and work reiterates a recent post by Vijay Govindarajan, “Innovation is not creativity” – innovation is creativity multiplied by execution. Her success is testament to her ability to consistently execute; here’s hoping we can bring that execution excellence to our work.

Introduction

Don’t forget to ask yourself…


/ponder by striatic; http://www.flickr.com/photos/striatic/

When I first thought of starting this blog, I didn’t realize that it would take a day with 25 hours (thank you daylight savings) for me to publish my first post. All the advice I’ve received about blogging has been “just do it”… write it, publish it and then learn from the reaction (if there is one).

Let me start by describing this blog and the subject matter I hope to cover in my posts. I decided to call this blog is called buy, use, love because I felt the need to create a place to analyze and hopefully, discuss products and services that…

  1. Customers buy in droves
  2. Customers use all the time and miss when they can’t
  3. Inspire customers to proclaim their love to everyone who will listen

I have a hunch that if I study and write about such products and services, from many different domains, I will stumble upon some universal themes that underlie true product/service greatness. I also figure that even if no one ever reads this blog, I could look back at these posts whenever I need some inspiration to inform my daily decisions as a Product Manager.

I also wanted to write today about something that I feel all Product Managers have to confront and reconcile at an early stage. PMs are constantly making decisions about strategy but most often, they need to ask someone else in their organizations to fund and execute on their vision. This often leads to a strong pressure to decide by committee in order to guarantee the support of stakeholders.

Well, I read this HBR blog post by Peter Bregman today that made a powerful argument to resist the pressure and trust oneself and one’s instincts. There is no question in my mind that all good Product Managers shun hubris and seek out the data to inform their decision making but unfortunately, there is never enough data in the past to accurately predict the future. Sometimes the data points to a ‘faster horse’ approach which inevitably leads to an also-ran product. I’m reminded of this blog post from tynerblain.com that talks about understanding your customers instead of merely listening to them.

I am a consumer myself and I desire products that are easy to buy, use and love. So, as I publish this inaugural post, I sincerely hope that the Product Managers of the world can find a way credibly bring their own insights and instincts to the table and avoid the pressure to merely collate requests from customers and internal stakeholders. Making magic takes more than just making peace, don’t forget to ask yourself what the solution ought to be.