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Spare Me From Blog Posts By “Product Guys”

Techcrunch, which is on a steep decline in the post-Arrington era, recently ran a guest post by Aaron Harris, co-founder & CEO of Tutorspree with the inflammatory title “Spare Me from “Product Guys.”  The title itself is actually terribly misleading, as the article isn’t the expected rant against product managers, but a “tutorial” for people who aspire to “lead product.”

Apologies for the liberal use of quotes in the previous sentence, but this post struck a nerve with me.  So much so that I wrote a hasty, and admittedly flame-ish, comment dripping with sarcastic condemnation.  I feel bad about that.  Even though I find Harris’ perspective sorely lacking and tone oddly condescending, it’s not fair to throw out the drive-by hate without a proper explanation.  So, here’s my take on the topic of “product guys.”

Harris states in his post:

“When I decided I wanted to lead product, I went and talked to friends who were product managers. If you don’t have friends that are PMs, try to stalk one on Quora until you can get a meeting. Make sure you have the questions you need to ask ahead of time. Pick their brains about what they read, how they think about feature design relative to user needs/wants/haven’t even thought about.”

If you can look past the silly initial statement “when I decided I wanted to lead product” (this is the BS tone I referred to), this is some obvious and harmless advice.  If you don’t know anything about a topic, ask people who do.  Sure.

He goes on to say that once you’ve talked to people who know about the thing you want to do, you should read some books and blogs about the topic too.  Good books and blogs, mind you, but unless you’re Will Hunting, you probably won’t get very good at something by reading about it.

Harris then states that you should “build, screw up, build” and:

You are not, fundamentally, a product person until you actually build products. In order to get to the point where you can build products, you need to do a hell of a lot of work, and you need to iterate on your own knowledge.”

Again, sure.  If there really are people out there calling themselves “product guys/gals” without at least some involvement in building a product, then yeah, those people are deluded.

Like Harris, I didn’t start out my career working in product.  I came to it mid-career after spending time as a researcher and marketer before landing my first first gig as a product manager.  In that first gig, I actually started off managing other product managers and was expected by the team around me to provide leadership pretty quickly.

I certainly read a lot, talked to a lot of people and, by the very nature of the job, I got products shipped.  Did any of that make me a competent, let alone great, product manager?  Nope.

Great product managers ensure the right things get built, at the right time and in the right way.  They also ensure those things make your company money by helping potential customers (or sales people) understand how those products solve their problems.  Oh, and they also make sure the teams building, marketing and selling these products feel great about what they are doing and confident they are building/marketing/selling something that is solving HUGE problems for customers.

Product managers are researchers, evangelists, project managers, marketers and sales people.  And yes, they guide the creation of products and experiences.

The core flaw in Harris’ assertions is that “doing product” is mostly about working with engineers to build stuff.  Really, his thesis boils down to this (my words):

“Hey, people who want engineers to work on your ideas.  I’m talking to you.  Make sure you read up and give coding a shot so that you know the right terminology so you don’t use the wrong acronyms when talking to engineers.  Oh, and don’t treat engineers like they are your bitch.  Then they will work on your ideas, and once they do, you will have built stuff and can more credibly call yourself a product guy/gal.”

Damn, there I go again with the sarcasm.

In fairness to Harris, there are LOT of people who think like him, and most of them are non-technical founders of start-ups, just like him.  These people are driven by their ideas and are largely looking for vessels to help them come to life.  I certainly appreciate that Harris is trying his best to be as knowledgable and respectful as possible when he asks people to build his ideas, but fundamentally he is no different than the “product guys” he criticizes, who choose the bull in a china shop approach to getting the products they want built.

Building great products isn’t, and never will be, about the idea.  It will never be about the “visionary.”  It will always be about building solutions for problems, validated through research, by teams who feel they deeply understand and want to solve those problems.  It will always about understanding how to translate those solutions to customers via great interfaces, marketing and the well-trained salesperson.  It will always be about happy customers.

When I started my career in product, it was understanding these principles that helped me get great products built.  I earned my team’s respect by demonstrating this, despite my lack of formal product management experience.  I earned engineers’ respect by demonstrating this, despite my embarrassing lack of technical knowledge.  I earned the respect of marketers and salespeople by demonstrating this & giving them the tools to be successful.  I earned the respect of the board room by making them money – they didn’t care about my product management rants 😉

If you want to be a great product guy or gal, read all the books Harris mentions, talk to lots of knowledgable people and treat engineers like humans.  Then spend the other 95% of your time on the being a great researcher, evangelist, project manager, marketer and salesperson part.

When Web Design Goes Bad…

Let the awesome terribleness of Ling Valentine’s creation soak in.  Be sure to scroll ALL the way to the bottom to maximize the awesomeness.  Would you give Ling your credit card number?

www.lingcars.com

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The rare branded Facebook widget that works

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American Eagle, a brand pretty much non-existent in my daily consciousness, just launched a terrific new widget that allows Facebook fans to browse items directly from their fan page or the user’s news feed itself. While not perfect (the product shots are less than compelling and some brief description would be nice), this demonstrates one of the rare times a brand has created something of real utility for a user via Facebook that stays true to their core business.

All too often, the contests and other gimmicks brands use to “engage” users, buyers and “fans” end up being mediocre attempts at achieving virality without really trying to connect that promotion or experience to their core brand message or, more importantly, a call to action to do something that will move the business forward.

Kudos to AE for the effort. It’s fairly obvious how such an approach could be valuable to anyone who is interested in showcasing, oh, say apartment listings to bring fans directly into the conversion funnel.

Oh, and I’m openly pleading to Banana Republic (a brand squarely in my daily consciousness!) to follow AE’s lead so that I can personally benefit from this. Sorry AE, not enough to get me to buy!

A Peek Into Netflix Queues

What did people rent most in your zip code last year? Are you in a Paul Blart Mall Cop or Benjamin Button sort of neighborhood? Interesting insight from Netflix & NYT…

When Product Suckage Is Ok

Ryan Singer at 37 Signals (the terrific Chicago-based start-up behind Basecamp, etc.) penned a terrific post “What’s the suckage to usage ratio?” which makes a case for purposeful product design imperfection.  In a nutshell, Ryan argues that imperfection is ok, even wise, in cases where you know a particular feature or experience is destined to be a fringe use case.  If you focus your energies on the elements of the product that will define that experience for your users, they will forgive the flaws around the edges that they rarely need to encounter.  In fact, they can still be passionate advocates.

 

I couldn’t agree more with this philosophy.  As a perfectionist myself, I found these hard words to live by, but ultimately they ring true.  I wish my iPhone could run apps in the background so I could listen to Pandora while banging out a text and before that I wished I could copy/paste, but neither beef stops me from loving the device and influencing others to buy it too.  Apple understood which things to get right and which things they could leave for future releases because they truly understand their customer needs and the market.

 

To that point, in order to find your optimal suckage to usage ratio, make sure you have an intimate understanding of your customer and their usage of your product/service.  Had Apple packed every possible feature on the market in the iPhone and failed to create an intuitive, elegant and innovative interface (or done it all and charged 2-3x more), the product would have surely failed.

 

For those outside of the tech product space, like my multifamily friends, this is analogous to what I’d call the “glamour amenities” at an apartment community.  Oftentimes, the investment you make in a renovated clubhouse or Fios infrastructure, etc. could be part of a well-constructed strategy and market positioning, and in those cases such features are likely used frequently and core to your brand essence.  But there are clearly times when these endeavors produce nice to haves and are created at the expense of core experiences, like maintenance.  Before getting into a feature race with the community down the road, take stock in your renter needs and be sure the everyday experience is great before dabbling around the edges of customer use.  It’s ok if some things aren’t up to your standards (or your renters), just make sure they are the right things and have a sensible plan for when you will eventually address them.

 

TG

The Customer Is Not Always Right

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For those who may not know, I started my career as a researcher and in that field, I got pretty good at designing studies using a variety of well established methods to extract insights from people on their emotional reactions to Hallmark ads, brand preferences for pickup trucks and optimal feature sets for their next PC.  I like to think my clients benefited greatly from our consultancy and that they became more customer attuned marketers or crafted more useful products as a result.  In fact, there are some cases where I’m certain it did.

 

That said, as I’ve come to deeply know what it’s like to create great products/experiences and attempt to demonstrate to people the value these products provide, my understanding of the role of research in achieving this has shifted.  When it comes to innovation and “blank slate” thinking, people simply cannot tell you what they want or what they want you to create for them with any reliability.

 

In a recent post, Karen Holtzblatt at InContext (supported by illustrations from David Rondeau, a couple of which I’ve included here) summarized my experiences and feelings on the topic much more eloquently than I could.  To summarize, she asserts that certain techniques (surveys, “typical” qualitative techniques such as focus groups, use of customer advisory boards, etc.) simply fail to uncover the universal truths about one’s experiences that is necessary for innovation.

 

While I strongly feel that research methods like surveys, traditional qual, etc. continue to offer us great value in areas such as satisfaction, feature/price trade-offs, message testing, etc. etc., I have to agree with Karen that they are insufficient in uncovering our deepest needs.  I can point to products, launched under my watch, that were developed using a large dose of direct customer feedback in their definition that simply did not deliver the way we’d hoped.  In these cases, I can identify specific features and key marketing messages that were core to these products that directly addressed needs expressed to me by customers…and failed to compel once the product debuted.  Of course, I’d be foolish to ignore the possibility that we simply failed to read those tea leaves properly, but even if some signals were crossed there’s no question in my mind that these users/customers simply weren’t able to state their needs clearly when asked pointedly.

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Karen further posits that observational research methods, like ethnography, can achieve what these other techniques can’t.  I agree with this, to a point.  I’m a big fan of observational research and have had past success in using those methods to uncover insights that must be seen, not spoken.  That said, I feel that this approach is easy to misuse.  When relying on your observations of others, it’s fairly easy to fall into subjective judgments that serve specific agendas and preferences even for the purest of heart.  Understand these biases in your analysis or better yet, hire someone with training to do so without the baggage of your pet feature (or your boss’s).

 

For my apartment industry friends reading this, think about this when determining the next amenity you plan to invest in or when your strategizing for what your unique brand position should be.  There is lots of data out there from industry surveys to search behavior on ILS’s (even from us at Apartments.com) that are only going to tell you part of the story.  Surveys will tell you want people say they want when asked and search data from Apartments.com will tell you what people tend to search for from the list we provide.  Valuable, to be sure, but I believe the winning companies will seek to understand the unmet needs of renters in the communities they serve in a way yet untapped.

 

TG