Having a dedicated UX person or team is great for many reasons. They are experts in the different areas of user experience. They are another set of eyes on ideas, constantly thinking about how users are going to interact with different products and features. But that doesn't mean that UX should sit with a dedicated person or team. Everyone is responsible for thinking about what the user experience is going to be. I think that is especially true for product managers. We can't deflect the responsibility simply because there is someone else who does it.
So with that, here is a framework that I've used in my own product management experience. It is my four "F"s.
First off is function. Because you simply can't have a product or feature that doesn't function. For me, nothing else matters if this part isn't there. Of course, this is driven by the user's goals. What is it that they want to do? What problem do they have we are trying to solve? How are we best positioned to solve the problem?
When it comes to beautiful design, it's hard not to think of Apple products. And usually the function is there too. But in the case of the Magic Mouse 2, design clearly took precedent over function. While adding the ability to recharge it was great, the lightening port was put on the bottom of the mouse, making it completely unusable when you need to recharge it. Putting the port on the front of the mouse may have made it a little less beautiful, but it would have made it usable when it came time to charge it.
Fortunately most of the products and features I've worked on, especially recently, have always been about function first. But I do recall a time when that wasn't the case. We wanted to create a new web page for clients with lots of information that wasn't currently available. It had lots of nice looking charts and graphs and information, but unfortunately got pushed live before any historical information was available. So while it was very pretty, most of the information it promised wasn't there yet. Users got a snapshot of the current day, but without being able to compare that to other things it was useless. Needless to say, we had to pull it back down since it was causing confusion rather than helping users.
This is the next building block of the user experience for me. Once the function is there, the problem is being solved or the goal addressed, it has to have some aesthetic appeal.
When I first started my coding bootcamp, the idea of form was addressed by one of the instructors. He was teaching CSS and showing some cool tips and tricks. At the end of his lesson, he begged everyone to not forget about the look of their products. He said it happened in every cohort, all the time. People became obsessed with getting the functionality of their apps or sites or projects, only to run out of time to make it look good. So at the end of the bootcamp, people demonstrate their apps with awesome functionality, but they all look like crap. I tried to take that lesson to heart for my projects during my time there as well as after.
Products have to look good or people won't want to use them. There is a certain level of distrust we have if an app or site doesn't look professional. The alarm bells start to go off that it might not be legitimate. This doesn't mean that every product has to go out perfectly polished, but good form has to be there from the start so it can be improved upon.
Once you have the function and form, the next step for me is thinking about how a product or feature fits into the user's life. Solving a problem and making it look good are great, but if it doesn't fit into the user's life, they simply aren't going to adopt it.
This tends to be the problem with many fitness and weight loss tools. I think MyFitnessPal is a great app and I tend to start out using it periodically with the best of intentions. But unfortunately I just can't ever get into the habit of entering information after every meal. It simply takes me too far out of my routine to be useful.
I had this problem with a financial product that we launched. It was useful product, at least in our view, that people should have in their portfolio. But no one seemed interested and it didn't go anywhere. So I set out to do some customer research. Among a few other problems, we discovered that people just didn't see how it fit into their portfolios. So we addressed that issue with some new online tools to help them see where it would fit and we saw much more success after that.
Finally, it has to be fun. When I think of something "fun", I think of something that I want to come back to, something I want to do again. To me, the "fun" is the culmination of the other elements. When things are done right, you should have a product that makes people want to come back to it again and again.
Pinterest seems to have fun nailed down within its product. It's easy to use and a fun way to find new ideas for cooking, DIY projects, clothes, styles, etc. It's got the functionality, the form and fits easily into people's lives. Nothing is simpler than pulling up the home page of Pinterest, scrolling and pinning things. It is something that many, many people keep coming back to. Now I'm not an avid Pinterest user, but I can certainly understand the appeal.
Many of the products I've worked on recently aren't what you'd traditionally think of as "fun". But it is an aspect of UX that I've tried to always keep in mind. How can we make this product or feature something that people want to come back to again and again? An example is a redesign of an internal website that I created to help our sales and marketing teams. I took several sites and consolidated it all down to one, easy to use site with only the most relevant information. We added data that was useful and suddenly had a tool that people were checking frequently because it was the quickest place to find what they needed. Not a super sexy app, but fun enough to keep people coming back.
UX and product management tend to distinct roles at many places, but I don't think we can really afford to completely separate the two. Product managers need to keep the full user experience in mind as we design and implement new products and features. And by keeping UX in mind through the process, we will certainly always come out with better products.
Product management is as much an art as it is a science. And what is the right mix of those two? I don't know if there will ever be a right answer to that question. The role of product manager encapsulates so many aspects, from discovery to ideation to roadmapping to research to implementation and back around again, that there are no shortage of opinions on the best way to do the role.
So with that said, here's my overarching philosophy. It's not so much a process (though I've got lots of thoughts on process) but more a set of guiding principles as I go through the processes involved in managing a product.
The image at the beginning probably gave this away. Spoilers, I know. But for me this is one of the most important aspects of product management. We, as product managers, have awesome ideas. A lot. But not all of those ideas are the right ideas. And if you dig a little deeper, they may not even be that awesome (gasp).
I remember a team I used to work with deciding to adopt a new internal tool that was going to save all sorts of time for everyone. It was going to cut down on all manual work being done in Excel and whatnot, and ultimately free up people for a lot more strategic, value-add work.
All very awesome sounding stuff. Of course, no one who was deciding on purchasing and implementing the tool talked with most of the people who would have to use it. They assumed they knew the users well enough to make the decision. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), it was an ultimate failure. The work the tool could automate was a small fraction of what the end users actually did. And the time it took to set up things in the tool was often longer than it took to do them manually over the course of a few months, so adoption was nil.
Listening is really the key to understanding what customers and users need. So obviously this means having conversations with users and customers. often. We can't listen to them if we aren't talking and asking questions.
But it really needs to go deeper than that as well. We can't just listen to what they're saying, we have to listen to the issues that they're having, the problems they're encountering, the needs they may or may not be articulating.
And that leads to the next part.
It's not enough to just listen, we have to understand the problems and issues. That often means digging deeper into what users are saying to find out why they are saying it. Maybe a customer says that they are having an issue using a product. But before we can solve that issue, we have to understand what is at its core.
My son loves to play with little toy cars. He asked me recently to "come play race cars" with him, and I happily sat down on the floor and started pulling toy cars out to play with. He promptly grabbed them from me, threw them back in the bin and told me "that's not race car." So I tried again to choose cars that looked like race cars, but was met with the same result. Finally, he started pulling out cars for me, clearly disappointed that his dad didn't know what a race car was.
As it turns out, race cars are any type of toy car that have a stripe on them (whether or not they are even cars). I didn't know that. I thought I knew what a race car was, but my son's definition of race car is different than mine.
How often do we do the same thing as product managers? We listen, and believe we've understood, when in fact we may still have completely different ideas than our customers do. That's why digging deeper to really understand is so important.
Once we've listened and understood, it's time to take action. This part should feel pretty obvious after the last two, but it's really an important part. After we've listened and understood what the problem is, it's time to solve it.
Of course, this will mean different things for different areas of product management. If we're doing initial research, it could mean creating ideas or solutions. Or if we've already got solutions, it may mean creating prototypes and mock-ups. It may mean creating different tests to run to try out various theories or approaches. But no matter what, it's the natural outcome of really listening and understanding. Acting on what we've learned.
As easy as it sounds though, we all fall into the trap of not taking action. Even when we understand what the problem is and have come up with some great solutions! Sometimes setting up the right test can be difficult. Or prototypes could be pretty time consuming. Or maybe there is already a solution in place but we just don't want to rock the boat with a new way of doing things.
Years ago I worked on another internal product that was used to create marketing materials. Anyone could use it to put together slide decks or brochures based on information that was already there. Unfortunately it wasn't a well-loved tool, but I knew it could be better. So I started talking with all the teams who used it. They showed me what they did and gave me the chance to really understand how they used it and where it was lacking. I also talked with the people responsible for maintaining all the info. Once I had done that, I came up with several new features that would radically change the product and make it more useful and easier to maintain. I met with the developers to go over it and came up with a plan on executing.
Armed with all the information and my proposal, it was just a matter of getting management on board. Unfortunately, that is where things went wrong. They saw the benefit and loved the ideas, but held off on making a decision. So we waited. And pushed harder. And waited some more. Unfortunately, by the time we got approval to move ahead, the product was all but dead. Not taking action had doomed it to go unused. So even when we could improve it, it was too late to get people back on board.
It is crucial to not only understand the issues, but to move forward with solutions. If we don't take action, all the work we've done is for naught. And that's how good ideas, and good products, die.
So once we've created, it's really time to start over again with listening, understanding and creating.
So there you have it. My general philosophy around product management. It really starts with listening. Listening to customers, listening to data, listening to business stakeholders and even listening to competitors to understand how to move our product forward.
Listening, understanding and influencing are steps all along the product management process. Whether it is in analyzing the market, coming up with new product features, testing ideas, building and launching, or iterating, we have to be listening and understanding customers and team members.
And at the end of the day, if we've listened, understood and influenced correctly, I believe that the likelihood of a successful product or feature will be much higher.
At a recent Product Management meetup, we had the chance to hear some product managers from Overstock talk about their experience in conducting research calls. It was great to hear their experience as well as hear from other product managers.
A few things in particular stood out to me. First was the continued debate around the use of personas. While I'm sure we all have heard the debate, and probably have feelings one way or the other, it is always interesting to me to hear both sides. And especially when either side is passionate about their love or hate of personas. I still sit somewhere in between. I find them valuable as long as they're dynamic, but can certainly understand why they are hated in some corners. A persona is easy to do wrong. Or easy to let grow stale.
The second point was around recording notes from research calls we do. What is the best way to keep track of what we learn? I've had this question posed to me and didn't have a great answer. I've tended to use whatever is available, whether that is Excel (don't hate) or Google Drive or a handful of other tools. So when someone posed that question to the presenters, I was excited to hear their answer. But it turned out to be the same as mine. Either they just keep it in their head or write it down somewhere. The suggestion for recording the calls was made, but it definitely seemed like there wasn't a great answer. That's certainly something to think about.
So what are your thoughts? Love or hate personas? And how do you keep track of research calls? Is there a great tool to use? Or who among us is going to make the perfect tool?
I was having a tough week. Long hours working through some pressing issues. To the point I was even dreaming about work. So basically no mental rest day or night.
Now that's not to say I wasn't taking breaks. My evening routine almost always consists of spending some time playing with the kids and spending time as a family. And usually some time working out as well after the kids are in bed.
But those breaks were never really enough to help me turn the page. The stress of work was ever-present and really wearing me down. I could see it affecting everything, but felt almost helpless since I had to get things done.
Finally, toward the end of the week, I just couldn't get a personal project off of my mind. I had hoped to work on it earlier but decided it needed to wait until I had a better handle on the more urgent things. But there it was, nagging at my mind. And on Friday I finally gave in. I took a break for an hour or two to put together some creative ideas I had and work on some graphic design.
It took a little convincing. I kept thinking how I should wait until I had more done to work on anything personal. But once I was into it enough there was no looking back. I became fully immersed and lost track of myself for a little while. And that was exactly what I needed.
The stress of the entire week was gone. I realized how much I had been spinning my wheels on work without making a lot of progress. I had been too stressed and my mind too clouded to be effective at problem solving or really any creative thinking. And all it took was taking my focus off of work for a while and getting out of my own head.
I'm sure this type of scenario happens to almost all of us. Too busy to take focus off of work so we spin and spin until we burn out. I even know the signs in myself and still fall victim to it. I know that I should take some time to work on side projects to help clear my head and sometimes I just don't do it.
But those creative side projects can really be the fuel to keep you sane. They're invigorating and inspiring. They aren't just distractions from urgent work, but the key to actually being able to do good work. Being able to "get out of your own head" for a while not only helps clear your head, but also makes solving those work problems much easier.
So hopefully I'll keep that in mind the next time I've hit major roadblocks and can't seem to solve problems as effectively. But then, that tends to be the problem to begin with, isn't it?
My personal musings on a variety of topics.