The Consumer Matters is the blog of Leslie Grandy, aka Gearhead Gal.  My passion is creating and delivering compelling products that delight customers through simple and elegant user experience design.

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Entries in product development (6)


What Does It Take to Build Products That Matter?

I recently had the opportunity to guest lecture to a class of 200 undergrads at the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship on the topic of Customer Development. Here's a 30 minute look at why I think customer development is as important as product development to launching a successful business. 

And for some more great videos from other guest speakers in the University of Michigan College of Engineering Entrepreneurship Hour click here.


Five Great Product Management Books

1. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products is a great book that delves into the relationship between behavior and product adoption.

Nir Eyal distilled years of research, consulting and practical experience to write Hooked. Who doesn't want to design a product that becomes part of the daily fabric of consumers' lives? Businesses know that habits are hard to give up, and marketing alone can not convince people to take up a new one.

Nir's model to create the "hook" is simple enough to understand, even though the psychology of human behavior is not.

2. Creativity, Inc Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration  is not strictly a product management book in the traditional sense. However, the book hits on some of the key traits that product managers need to be successful, including inspiring creativity in others, the importance of storytelling, and the value of a candid, yet sensitive culture. Written by Ed Catmull, co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios, this book will help most product managers elevate their leadership game.

3. The Four Steps to the Epiphany launched the Lean Startup approach to new ventures. Author Steve Blank currently teaches entrepreneurship and customer development at Stanford University School of Engineering and at U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Often spoken about in the same breadth as another product management classic, Geoffrey Moore's Crossing the Chasm, The Four Steps to the Epiphany  introduces the notion of customer development as a critical component of the product development process, encouraging entrepreneurs to go to market with minimally featured products, to attract early customers, and to validate market theories. The iterative process is an essential part of agile product development.

4. Making Things Happen, Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun is an essential book for product managers, not just program or project management leads. Are you a product leader who labors without a strong PMO to support them? Making Things Happen covers the fundamentals of planning, tracking and managing teams to deliver enterprise class technology projects, and provides a framework for handling the communications and relationships across a complex matrixed organization. 

5. Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience  helps product designers and product managers rapidly experiment with design ideas, validate them with real users, and continually adjust your design based on what you learn. Keeping designers engaged in the agile development process can be a challenge, but this books helps bring the designers toolkit into the process of defining the Minimum Viable Product.

In the late 1990's while at Visio Corp, the Visio Enterprise product team I led won a Jolt Award from Dr. Dobbs. Lean UX received the 2013 Jolt Award from Dr. Dobb's Journal as the best book of the year, so maybe that's my bias towards this quick and easy guidebook. At a brief 152 pages, it can easily be read on a cross country flight, which is just what I did. 


Three Great Quora Reads On Product Innovation

I have yet to integrate Quora in any regular or habitual way into my daily professional life. But from time to time, I dip back into the site and am delighted by the interesting insights I find buried among the snarky retorts and unanswered questions.

Here are three of my favorite recent reads on product innovation.

How does Apple keep secrets so well?

A former colleague from my time at the Apple Online store wrote, "In the end, it works because the employees want it to... They want to be part of the magic trick, and the most important part of magic is not revealing the secret."

Robert Scoble added these thoughts: "Because they are a hardware company they knew that letting details out about new products would kill sales of existing products, so they built that into their culture early on...Everything is on a need to know basis." In this world of agile software development, I would agree it is often hard for technologists to remember that hardware product lifecycles are not so short or very nimble. Manufacturing lines have to be set up, tooling has to be done and re-done, chipsets must be assembled, durability tested.

Scoble continued, "This [need to know]  extends even into meetings. If you are in a meeting and you aren't on the disclosure list for something you'll be asked to leave. Generally people don't bring up stuff in meetings they aren't allowed to discuss with the group." This, too was my own personal experience. If you don't believe security is a part of a company's culture, you haven't been asked to sign an NDA when you enter a meeting with your own colleagues in your own office building.

Why has Microsoft seemingly stopped innovating?

My former CEO at RealNetworks, (and once again Real's current CEO), Rob Glaser wrote in a "rather lengthy (War and Peace like) note" that "most of the action in technology innovation nowadays is taking place in areas where (i) PC software strength by itself is not sufficient, and (ii) the business models that lead to success are very different that the model that Microsoft was build on and is still at the core of Microsoft's DNA."

Glaser cites three value creating innovations in the past five years that Microsoft failed to nail: "(a) Search delivered to consumers/end users on the Web for free, supported by extremely valuable targeted ads (Google)  (b) Integrated Hardware/Software/Service device plays monetized both by selling the device and then selling services on top of the device (Apple, RIM) (c) Social Network Platforms that are free to consumers, based on user-generated information put into highly integrated and extensible structured frameworks, monetized a few different ways (Facebook)"

Scott Berkun, the author of the Myths of Innovation, pointed out, "The real tragedy is it takes  great products to be labeled an innovator by the mass media and consumer culture. Edison did not invent the lightbulb, but he made one that  worked well enough to be used by most people, that's why he gets all the  credit. Same for Ford. Microsoft has never been led as a products company - It's a  technology and platforms company. With that kind of strategy  middle-management and design-by-committee dominates, making the kind of  design vision and clarity of focus required to make a great product (or a  great user experience) very difficult culturally. The result is products that are often mediocre to experience, but have secondary value that enterprise and corporate customers respond to. This doesn't work as well for consumers, and consumer drive the perception of who is innovative and cool and who isn't."

What distinguishes the top 1% of product managers from the top 10%?

Former Yahoo exec, Henry Sohn, commented, "I would argue that the best product managers are the ones who can connect to the very best creators and help bring about the best products, and communicate that to the outside world.  

The most popular answer to this question, written by an Amazon senior manager, stresses the value of simplicity to the top echelon of product managers.  "A 1% PM knows how to get 80% of the value out of any feature or project with 20% of the effort. They do so repeatedly, launching more and achieving compounding effects for the product or business. "


Is There a Role for Product?

Recently, I have found myself in several discussions about the value of product management.  On the west coast, specifically in Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest, there is a engineering-driven notion of product, borne from sort of a "maker" culture, which values the kind of invention that comes from tinkering in your garage. On the other hand, though my time here in New York City has been short, I have gotten an acute understanding of how differently product is defined to the businesses and industries that populate this centuries-old city.  Not surprisingly, media behemoths and financial services mega-corporations have for decades conceived of their products in board rooms and b-schools, not in garages (although DUMBO lofts seem desperately trying to become the east coast version of a mid-century tract house garage.)  I don't mean to disparage either as a source for great ideas. On the contrary, I simply suggest that both produce vastly different perspectives of the value, scope and purpose of a pure product management role. 

Steve Johnson, in his e-book, The Strategic Role of Product Management, writes, "Companies that do not see the value of product management go through a series of expansions and layoffs. They hire and fire and hire and fire the product management group. These same companies are the ones that seem to have a similar roller-coaster ride in revenue and profit." Service industries, especially the kind of which New York has no shortage - financial and professional services, are the ones that seem to struggle the most with defining a role for product managers. Why would that be the case? The answer lies in how the service is delivered, and who owns that workflow and the resulting customer experience it creates.  

Think about it...the organizational handoffs to deliver a service-only experience can produce a mosaic of interactions and customer touchpoints, based on each individual or system required to execute it.  In some companies, the only team that can wrangle the responsibility to oversee how these all knit together is a Chief Operating Officer, who might use a legion of business analysts to offer performance metrics which drive business and technical priorities, budget and resource allocation and decision-making.

This would also explain the challenge product teams can have finding a home in the reporting structure in these kinds of companies. If product is to be a front-line oriented job as part of the sales and marketing organization, then positioning, pricing, promotion and packaging become the lion's share of that PM's job. Ten years ago, I used to hear people call this an "Outbound" Product Manager job. (Johnson refers to this role as a Product Marketing Manager, but in today's economy, few companies can afford those to be two separate positions, and even if they do, they may call both functions Product Manager.) Alternatively, product may be absorbed by IT systems, taking requirements orders from internal stakeholders to evolve their executional platforms, like CRM and point of sale. 

For a great case study to review that highlights the impact of these different perspectives of service and technology companies on the role of product management, one need only look at Yahoo, and the inflection point it has revealed it is facing. After Terry Semel re-chartered Yahoo from being a search and communications platform company to a media company, one supportive employee posted this on his blog, "Cisco is a technology company, Yahoo! is a consumer services company — the fact that those services are delivered via IP is just a detail." But did that perspective provide the optimal vantage point for products to emerge that would allow Yahoo to compete successfully? For the first year or two, maybe, but with the downturn in the economy came a number of missed product opportunities for Yahoo, notably the failure to grow Delicious or make any deeper move into social networking after Messenger, and the stock has never recovered.

Kara Swisher writes on AllthingsD, "The way products are made got a long look-see this past week, in a day-long meeting that Thompson had with Yahoo’s top team execs. Thompson reportedly quizzed the group on its plans, and pressed it to look less at short-term features and maintenance than on finding the next great thing.

'I think it’s fair to say that Scott is wondering why Yahoo did not come up with innovations like Pinterest and Instagram,” said one person about hot new start-ups that are in the sweet spot of Yahoo’s business. “Or, at the very least, why it did not even try to buy them.'"

Steve Johnson points out that "8% of product managers report directly to the CEO, acting as his or her representative at the product level," because those leaders believe that markets, not marketing, should drive product strategy.

Just this week, Yahoo's Chief Product Officer announced via a memo revealed  “We have a bias toward action in Products and expected that our new org design would be in place well before any corporate changes took place. However, it is clear now that the two efforts are starting to run in parallel, and making Product org changes prior to corporate changes no longer makes sense.” 

But that does beg the question, when does it make sense to not consider those efforts in parallel?


My Philosophy of New Product Development

"We should cultivate the ability to say no to activities for which we have no time, no talent, and which we have no interest or real concern. If we learn to say no to many things, then we will be able to say yes to things that matter most." Roy Blauss via Compendium


The Four Steps To The Epiphany

One of my favorite new books is The Four Steps To The Epiphany, written by serial entrepreneur Steven Blank. In the book he outlines a model for "Customer Development" which he maintains is the key to success for other budding business creators. 

"In startups, the emphasis is on 'get it done, and get it done fast," Blank writes. Opting to lean into the advice of experts - VCs, seasoned executives - entrepreneurs rely heavily on past experience instead of learning and discovery from "earlyvangelists". In some cases, Blank references, the visionary behind the startup may feel that their innovation requires them to forge a new path or disabuse the market of a prevailing myth, creating a sense that any customer insight would be irrelevant. 

Blank recommends that companies understand that until there are active and engaged customers, who both value the startup's solution and will accept the risk of interacting with a nascent or untested business, there is a risk of premature scaling or unrealistic expectations. "'Build it and the customers will come,' is not a succesful strategy."

You can find The Four Steps to the Epiphany on Amazon. Or you can download a .pdf of several chapters to get a sample of it before you buy, by clicking here.