Product management is an obscure art. Many people, especially outside the tech world, have no clue what it is. When I tell someone what I do, they often reply with “You mean project management?” The lengthy explanation that follows sometimes falls on deaf ears.
In an effort to explain it effectively I realize that I have to use a few words that everyone understands, put into a succinct, easily digestible sentence: “product management is like x for y.” The object (y) is the overall experience or quality the product provides. Even if the product doesn’t have any user interface (like an API or a power supply) it is a part of something people use, and their experience is the ultimate goal. But what is the subject (x)? Before we get to that, let’s talk about taste.
a: critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation
b: manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation
After all the data is processed, customers consulted, competitors studied, and engineers brainstormed, the essence of product management is to use good judgment and make the right roadmap decision. In other words – and referencing the dictionary definition – a product manager should have a good taste. Not just general taste – a good taste in the subject matter and the market they play in. Good product managers are connoisseurs in their field.
an expert judge in matters of taste.
Outstanding product managers are tastemakers, setting a trajectory and influencing others to develop a good taste as well. This brings us to the ultimate definition: a product manager is a user experience tastemaker. Not all product managers are, of course, but it’s a noble goal to aspire to for everyone in the trenches.
a person who decides or influences what is or will become fashionable.
Crosscheck: Steve jobs is considered one of the best product managers ever. “User experience tastemaker” is an apt way to summarize his life achievement.
The technological revolution of the last decades created countless new products and services while burying many old ones. Things that once had physical presence are now done through software – documents (pdf), memos (email), pictures (digital), money (bitcoin), etc. Unlike previous revolutions in which one physical technology replaced another, this one is doing away with the physical altogether. Case in point: music moved from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to MP3s. MP3s were first stored on handheld devices (like iPods), but these quickly gave way to cloud storage and streaming, reincarnating through invisible (yet audible) services.
Software is eating more and more traditional technologies. The cloud is swallowing software that used to run elsewhere, and products are giving way to services. As these trends become more prevalent, the lack of physical presence can be confusing and frustrating. Some companies try to counter that by adopting visual cues that remind people of physical equivalents, like Apple’s skeuomorphic design style. These are bound to be short lived not only because styles evolve, but because fewer and fewer people remember the technologies they depict. Take the floppy disk for example: a technology that died 20 years ago but still lives in the Save icon. I bet that the majority of people who use this icon nowadays have no idea what it represents. The reason this icon wasn’t replaced yet is simple: it’s not easy to represent “save” – sending bits from point A to point B – in a universally understandable icon.
The constantly increasing abstraction of everyday products explains the renewed interest in user interface design. Graphical user interfaces serve as means through which we interact with products that lost their physical form. Since the UI is the only thing left, getting it right becomes ever more important.
Every recent technological leap requires us to be a little more connected to our devices and the services consumed on them, and a little less connected to things of substance. Our brains, capable of rich imagination, are well equipped to deal with this abstraction. People yearn for a physical form but can easily get by without one. I suspect that before long we’ll get used to the absence of drivers in cars and the disappearance of coins and paper money from our wallets. What we now call “the cloud” will eventually lose any hint of physicality and be accepted as an ever present storage, computation, and communication infrastructure – much like the power grid is for electricity. When this happens we will finally focus on function and learn to care less about form. It might take a while, but I’m sure that my grand children will find it strange to go to the grocery store to buy food, drive a car, or sit through a lecture in a classroom. Doing all these things “virtually” will be perfectly natural to them.
The following is a chapter from my newly published book Product Leadership.
“Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”
– Frank Zappa
At the top of the long list of terms describing a product manager is a deceivingly simple word: Curator. Like curators of museum exhibitions, product managers collect outstanding features into an assemblage that exceeds the sum of its parts. Identifying that combination is in itself a work of art. Finding the right product requires generous helpings of creativity, persistence attention to detail. A good curator can turn an otherwise bland group of objects into a sellout. Outstanding curation is the epitome of creative product management.
Before starting to put together your show, identify a problem worth solving. What will it focus on? What will make it unique? How many other museums feature similar ones? To zero in on the theme, sort through all the data you can put your hands on. You will encounter conflicting pointers and sometimes have to dig deep to find an elusive piece of information. You will have to learn new concepts and understand multiple disciplines. The more you study your target market and audience, the more clarity you’ll gain leading to a better product definition.
With the patience of a Pointillist, put everything together and create a cohesive offering. Not every item can fit in; moreover, the relationship among the ones that make it is crucial. When choosing the features that make up your final product, insist on the essential. Each piece of art must have a clear role in the overall makeup of your show. Needless to say, you don’t want to choose only low hanging fruit. Favor quality over quantity and ruthlessly chop out features that don’t meet your standards. Garbage in garbage out.
When your masterpiece is ready to be revealed, don’t hesitate and open it up for the world to see.
The following is a chapter from my newly published book Product Leadership.
“I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one.”
– Blaise Pascal
Simplicity is a design philosophy that prefers products leaner on features over loaded ones. The idea is that a simple product done right offers more flexibility and variety in usage options, and consequently more value to the customer. A simple product is more likely to become a platform for user creativity and extensibility, simply because the absence of certain features makes this necessary. It facilitates this by not fixating on specific features, leaving room for others to do so. On the business side, the hope is that a simpler product will enable upsell opportunities. Simpler products are also often (but not always) cheaper to build.
There’s something magical about simple products. They allow the user to focus on the essence with minimal distraction, thus making the product stickier and engagement deeper. They are often more elegant than their more complex cousins, and tend to have a longer lifespan.
As Blaise Pascal noted, getting to simple is complex. A typical creative process is additive in nature. People get attached to the features they have added and find it difficult to let go. Mature products are more likely to be elaborate patchworks than minimalist artworks. Add to that the ubiquitous engineering principal “If it works, don’t touch it” and you sometimes end up with an amalgam of old and new features held together with zip ties and duct tape.
How do you break out of this death spiral? By insisting on simplicity. Simplifying will cost you, but it’s worth it. Ruthlessly cut out deadwood. Redesign the product to be simpler. Refactor the code to be nimbler. Re-engineer your processes to be more efficient. Be the steward of simplification in your company. True to form, simplify your own (and your team’s) habits: write shorter requirements documents, hold fewer meetings with fewer attendees, and transfer ineffective employees to greener pastures.
Simplification is a constant battle, and too many people succumb to the complexity beast. If it seems too difficult to beat, it’s probably worth it. Don’t give up. Insist on simple.
The bookcase in the picture has been our my house for the longest time, and every visitor is impressed. I designed and built it after being inspired by a leaning bookshelf I saw at Centre Pompidou in Paris. Getting the shelves to dovetail into each other was an intriguing challenge. It is made of painted pinewood and the structure is sturdy, much like a bridge truss.
In recent years with the rise of ebooks I’ve been pondering the future of my bookcase. Are bookcases going the way of the printed book? Will they remain a common piece of furniture? and if I had no books to put on it, what would I do with it?
Then I came across this study, claiming that ebook sales have plateaued at 30% of the market. Seems like the reports of the print book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. If 70% of book buyers prefer print books, their future is not so bleak after all. Printed newspapers are clearly going away (or maybe not?), but the researchers think that this trend doesn’t apply to books.
As much as I’d like to believe it, I’m pretty sure that some future disruptive technology will eat away significantly at print books’ market share. I can’t imagine bookcases being much more than an obsolete relic 30 years from now. Like vacuum tube radios and fax machines they’ll be cherished by nostalgic collectors, but won’t have a practical use – at least not the slanted ones.
See also this creative bookshelf
What do product managers wish for? They wish they could decide what their product should be like without the burden of customer requests, usage data, management dictums, and engineering pushbacks. They wish they could decide what’s best for the customer and get it implemented with no qualms. They wish they could just do it. It’s a very healthy desire: an attractor that keeps them going. Yet it conflicts with 99.99% of product development processes.
Reactive product management goes with the flow, innovating here and there. Active product management, on the other hand, often goes against the axiom “The customer is always right” and sets the tone instead of following an unseen conductor. Active product managers operate by two rules:
1) I know what product to build.
2) I will do anything it takes to make it happen.
They are not slaves to data or subservient to customer whims. They know that while often right, the customer doesn’t always know what they really need. They understand the market and know intuitively what the ideal product should be. They create an action plan and execute on it, beating time and budget records. They don’t get discouraged by implementation woes. They push their vision forward and do whatever it takes to get customers to want the product.
This Holy Grail is rarely achieved by mere mortals. Stave Jobs, Elon Musk, and a few others come to mind, but that’s about it. Virtually all the literature about product management goes against this notion, touting instead how to “listen to the pulse of the market”, “nurture customer feedback”, and “believe only in the data”. Until you reach the level of the aforementioned demigods, you are bound to follow this advice. Or maybe the way to reach that level is to ignore it? Enough daydreaming. Now back to work.
Automatic pool cleaners, known as robots, are out of sight for most people. Even pool owners don’t care much about them – as long as they work. A recent experience with a broken one thought me an important lesson in product innovation and marketing. Although it happened in a niche market, this interesting case applies to other markets as well.
Traditional pool robots are complicated machines with dozens of moving parts. They roam around the pool floor and suck up water and dirt. Some filter out dirt right there, others send the soiled water to a remote filter for circulation. Legacy models of both types typically ride on wheels and have a mechanism that directs them to new territories across the pool, in addition to suction pipes and an assortment of other components. Most robots roam randomly and aimlessly, hoping to land on a new patch of dirt. Some even have a GPS receiver that guides them to places they haven’t been to yet. All in all, these robots have hundreds of components. Operating in a watery and sunny environment, they tend to break – sometimes very often.
And then there’s the Barracuda. A small player in the pool cleaning game, these robots’ cleaning power is as good as the competition if not better, but they have only one moving part. That’s right, one moving part and about ten parts overall. No cogwheels, no electronics, nothing that can break. And therein lies the problem – without parts that need to be replaced often, the business model is not very attractive. No razor-and-razorblade opportunity here.
The company that developed these ingenious robots was eventually acquired by Zodiac, the biggest player in the market. Barracuda robots are now a line of products in Zodiac’s arsenal, targeting the bottom of the market. It’s an interesting case of breakthrough innovation not backed by a solid business case, leading basically nowhere. Failing to make a dent in the market, I sure hope the founders ended up with a nice exit at the least.
“Risk more than others think is safe.
Care more than others think is wise.
Dream more than others think is practical.
Expect more than others think is possible.”
I love this quote attributed to a West Point cadet. I think Steve Jobs would have agreed with every word, but I couldn’t be sure about the “care more” part until I read the obituary Eric Schmidt’s wrote, where he quotes Jobs as saying “It’s your heart running around outside your body” when referring to his children. I often feel the same as a parent, but he stated it so elegantly. This, in my view, completes him image as the ultimate embodiment of this quote, which everyone in the tech field and beyond should strive to fulfill.
How tough must it be for Steve Jobs, Jonathan Ive and the other design-focused people at Apple to engage with everyday technology. Filling up their gas tank, getting cash from an ATM, using their car radio – all these involve interaction with often terribly designed pieces of technology. How will a gas pump’s user interface look like if Apple designed it? simpler. An ATM? cleaner. A car radio? beautiful.
Apple’s influence on product design is already significant, yet it’s reach has been very limited so far. Apple itself is not going to redesign every piece of technology or make their services available to others. Instead, the “Apple style” – simple, clean, and easy to use is going to gradually take over the desgin world. The reason: this style is so overwhelmingly better that by sheer evolutionary pressure it will inevitably propagate and win. This is a bold prediction as it deals with user experience in addition to the underlying technology. Unlike existing designs, this user experience style requires a substantial investment in design and manufacturing. Still, I believe that it will gradually push the old out.
The reason a strong player like Apple leads the way is simple – traditional design consultancy or in-house designers typically do what the customer wants: the customer being cost-conscious consumers or design-agnostic businesses. Apple is led by a fanatic, detail oriented, micro managing design bigot who makes all product decisions. This is not the case with any other major player I’m aware of. Small companies do innovate in this area, but only a few make an impact. One such company is Arc90 that created Readability, a program that turns messy web pages into readable articles. Arc90 did such a great job that Apple integrated the open source version into Safari.
This better species had now reached a critical mass in the technology ecosystem and is rapidly eliminating inferior variants or transferring it’s genes to them. How long will it take for this superior species to kill off all the others? It might take a while, but the evolution is unstoppable.
In late December I was awarded US Patent 7,860,673 – Distance Measuring Device. I essentially patented the use of a parallax to measure distances from the user to a nearby object using a simple device that can be manufactured for a very low cost. First conceived when I was 17 years old, I kept toying with the idea and entertaining the thought of patenting it for years. A lawyer friend helped me write the patent application 5 years ago. It was a very interesting exercise in turning an abstract idea to a formal patent applications written in legalese, complete with claims, drawings, and calculations. Following a long review process and after hiring a professional patent attorney to fight a prior-art claim, the patent was finally approved.
What should I do with this patent now? not sure. Devices based on it can measure distances alright, but nowhere near the accuracy required for serious usage. I’m thinking about turning it into an educational toy and selling it online and at science museum stores. It can be a great tool for teaching the parallax effect and geometrical optics in general. Doing this will force me continue this multi-year exercise and complete the invention process by commercializing it. Should be an interesting ride.