Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Product Managers Should Know Their Customers - No Excuses

Product Management is usually a role that is customized to the organization in which it exists. As such it's extremely hard to explain a product managers role. I usually share this link to friends and family who ask the famous "so you're 'in computers', what do you do?" it's written by Martin Eriksson. Here is the simple version of you as a product manager:

Product Management

That's right, the pinnacle point of the cluster f--k.

Many people read this diagram as the product manager being involved in the decisions as it relates to UX, the tech decisions, and where the business is going. While this is very true, a product manager is also a supportive role. What that means is the designers, developers and business leaders will have questions, a lot of questions, and it's the product manager's job to answer them or find an answer, somewhere. 

Finding that answer may come from inside the company, but as a company grows, it'll be harder and harder to find the right person, or worse, answers may differ between different business leaders. Having multiple opinions will create a broken user experience in the product. The product manager normalizes the feedback, collects more, and combines it with long term direction creating a cohesive story for end-users using a product.

So if not all the answers come from inside the company, where do they come from?

Customers, Customers, Customers.

A product manager should know exactly what their customers want, at all times, about each key feature in their ownership. There is no excuse, except perhaps for initial for ramp-up periods. A product manager brings the voice of the customer to the table. It doesn't matter if the product is supposed to make millions (a.k.a. "Business"), it looks beautiful (a.k.a. "Design"), or is a masterful architecture of tech-greatness (a.k.a. "Tech"). If it's not targeted towards a market and a set of customers, it'll end up in the bit bucket.

So a product manager needs to know their customers, deeply. How is this accomplished? Research, and lots of it. I particularly like this article about the breakdown of Qualitative and Quantitative research, to help you once you get the data. I like to get my data from many different sources, here are the top methods for getting data, in order of most often used:
  1. Telemetry - Data-mine the heck out of the product as it provides daily insights! What are customers using,? What are they not using? How long is it taking customers to go down a funnel? Where are the drop off points? What does A/B testing tell you?
  2. Support - Current customers are calling to tell you what's broken, what they want, what they need. Pick up a phone and listen. Follow up with some of the more interesting ones that align with business the business direction.
  3. Sales - Potential customers are on the phone as well, what do they want? Why didn't they choose your product? Why did they? What would make it a slam dunk for them next time around? What competitors are they considering and why?
  4. Round Tables/Advisory boards - Get your key customers in a room together, or on a webinar and let them voice their favourite features (don't mess with this, or improve incrementally for low-hanging fruit), and their feature wishes and hated features. Let them talk to each other as well.
  5. Conferences - Not yet potential customers who could be potential customers, who may have never heard about the product or company. Get their reactions, what do they like, what don't they like. Are they extra engaged on key features, do they call out features that should be there? And my favourite, let your customers sell other potential customers on the product and see what they think are the key features.
  6. Site visits - Just like a lion safari, watching the users in their natural habitat is irreplaceable. Watch where they get tripped up, ask them why they chose one way over another way. There is a lot to learn. The caution on this one is to make sure you do multiple site visits so there isn't an overly tailored and specific request for one customer, geographic or vertical.
  7. Calling or E-mailing - Calling works better than email (less noise these days), but simply calling a customer with a question or two, and potentially a perk to get their attention (1 month free for example). A ton of insight can be gained by talking directly to a customer.
  8. User Studies - These are expensive, but super informative to study behaviour. It's like bulk sight visits sitting behind one-way glass. You often need a person or company to find and orchestrate the study on behalf of your company. If you do this, attend a number of sessions, it's completely eye-opening.
There are many ways to connect to customers, these are my favourite eight. The absolutely key thing in all of these is to listen, and then listen some more. Then take notes before the memory fades.

Lastly, once the customer is understood, to help other disciplines understand the customer, it's not a bad idea to put together a single page for the persona(s). This single page is an "average" customer that takes the 100s or 1000s of customers met, and makes up about 80% of their needs, wishes, and thoughts. 

I like to print these out on a piece of paper and stick them up around the office. They have a "fake" name and picture, details about what they do and care about, enough to get the other disciplines aware of who they are building for. The plus is if an engineer needs to make a snap decision while the product manager is at a conference or site visit, they can do just that and get it 80% correct!

Got a suggestion on how you like to connect to customers? Drop it below.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

When Should a CEO Hire a Product Manager?

A company usually starts with an idea, or a couple of people getting together over an idea. That idea percolates and becomes the center of attention for the founder(s) or CEO. Obsession over details and getting things just right is the norm. This is all goodness. Hopefully that obsessive effort takes off and the CEO is forced into running a business, instead of nursing an ember of an idea.

I have never been a CEO of a company, but I've watched them. The responsibilities seem endless. Build the right team, which means hiring and interviewing. Keep the VCs happy, which means flights and travel and presentation prep. Go find the customers and evangelize, more travel and more presentations. Make sure the company can make payroll, reviewing the finances and financial planning. Prioritizing the companies limited resources to get the biggest bang for a buck. There is a lot more than that, but even those alone seem like full time jobs. Some of this is easier if there are co-founders and division of duties is forged. But often co-founders have the same vested interest in knowing all the details of the business, and thus never fully leave the other to handle their tasks without at least being in the know.

All this, then a developer wants to know what should happen if a user taps the help button. The product needs help, but who's going to write all that content and figure out the user flow back into the app?

The CEO's job is to focus on the big picture, the big moving parts and the future of the company and product. You've heard the phrase "Hire to your weaknesses", but the CEO often doesn't accept that a lack of time is his or her weakness. Or often feels that since the idea was theirs, no one else will understand it. Building a software product and worrying about the details takes time, and lots of it. It's not accepted today to ship something where the details aren't thought out, a single bump in the user experience can cause 1,000s of users to jump to your nearest competitor. Moreover, that bump is what they remember about your product, it'll take a lot of work to convince them to come back as they think of your product as unpolished.

The CEO needs help, but how do you know when? Here are some signs a CEO should look to getting a product manager as soon as possible to help build your product:

  1. You find features in your product that you had no idea were even in planning
  2. You haven't used your own product in the last 2 or 3 releases
  3. When you do make it into the office, there is a line developers outside your office waiting for you to make a business decision for your product
  4. Each email you get from internal employees starts with "Sorry to bother you again, but ... "
  5. You feel the momentum of development has slowed down, and developers don't have butts in seats coding up a storm
  6. You find a product request from an important client that's three weeks old and you haven't mentioned it to the team yet
  7. Your development team is telling you which features they want in the product and most of them are over half completed
In many of the above examples, the development team is missing the product direction, the answers to what's next, or what business decision happens at this stage of the user experience. The day-to-day of product management!

One thing I've learned about developers, is they like to code. If there is nothing to code, they will make something up to code. This doesn't help the company, and it doesn't help the end user. My worst nightmares are when developers don't have customer features to build, so they wish to re-architecture the product. While a refactor is necessary from time to time (future post on this topic), it's a lot of development and engineering with very little end value for the end user.

Without product direction the direction of the product turns from a targeted, to shotgun approach. The long term vision of the product that customers can visualize disappears. You end up with a lot of features that are indeed nice to have, but don't add a lot of value to the end user. Such as:
  1. A forever changing foundation of the app or service bent to whichever developer has the more convincing argument at the time
  2. A set of unpolished quasi features that loosely fit together, instead of a cohesive vision of intended value
  3. Broken flows across pillars in your organization (aka, the org chart is showing) making users stumble around inside the product
  4. A lack of investment in larger customer requests
  5. Slick animations in areas of the product that are rarely used
... to state a few.

When a CEO finds themselves too busy to keep the product moving along at an acceptable pace, with features directly targeted to the customer, it's time to think about a product management role. Essentially, as soon as the CEO can't spend more than 50% of their time worrying about product direction.

Find a product manager who shares the vision of the product, and spend a lot of time with them. Initially, a huge amount of time. Let them play with the product, then spend more time with them. Lastly, bestow them on your dev team and watch the magic unfold. The CEO will walk away with more time, and a better product as a result.

Once hired, it's important to keep the Product Manager and CEO in sync at a minimum on a weekly basis. I could write more on that, But The PM Mind Meld by Ken Norton tackles exactly that.