Right Questions, Right Product

My vision prescription changed recently, and I was in the market to buy some new glasses. I was intrigued by the potential for buying glasses online, both for convenience and price. But, I had no idea what it meant to purchase glasses online. I had only ever bought glasses in a physical store, trying them on in front of a mirror while receiving semi-helpful guidance from a store employee. And, there are countless online retailers to consider (and yes, even Amazon has some options). Where does one start?

Knowing so little about buying glasses online, I started visiting a bunch of different online eyeglass vendors’ websites. As I browsed their sites, I started cataloging what they highlighted as features. For example, some vendors were keen to advertise their try-on-at-home program, where you are sent frames to try on at home before deciding on a pair to buy. Others touted low prices, while still others advertised their frames’ quality or designer pedigree.

Once I figured out the landscape of features, I set to work. My wife makes fun of me for it, but whenever I research making a new purchase I build a spreadsheet to organize my information. In this case, my spreadsheet had 14 rows and 9 columns. Each row was an online vendor. Each column was a question I was trying to answer. Questions included the following:

  1. What’s the price range for the glasses this vendor offers?
  2. What’s the return policy for this vendor?
  3. Does this vendor offer a try-at-home option?
  4. How stylish are this vendors’ frame options?
  5. Any other perks from this vendor?

Then, I started sorting my spreadsheet, ranking the best answers to the top. I landed on a few of my top vendors based on what I thought the most important questions were. Then, and only then, I started actively shopping for glasses.

The key to figuring out what glasses to buy wasn’t flipping endlessly through pictures of frames until I spotted one I liked and then clicked on a buy button. With that technique, I may have picked a nice looking pair of glasses that fit terribly from a vendor with a bad return policy, and ended up dissatisfied. Instead, I identified what was important to me first and then figured out who could give me what I valued most. And I did so by identifying what questions mattered the most to me.

The Right Questions

Imagine we’re building a new online eyeglasses company. If we just took a bricks-and-mortar shop, cataloged its inventory, and put it online, we’d most likely fail. Why? After all, we’ve taken an existing product (a glasses shop) and added a feature (a buy button online). Incremental improvement is better, right?

Here’s why that idea would likely fail:

  1. Not understanding what customers value: people who are interested in buying glasses online probably don’t value the same things as people interested in buying glasses in a store. For example, people buying online are probably motivated more by convenience and price, while those buying in person are probably motivated more by personal service and the ability to do quick, in-person adjustments and returns.
  2. Asking the wrong questions: if you ask people visiting an eyeglass store what problems they see, they may say “needs better hours” or “needs more employees to serve me without waiting”, as they think about how to incrementally improve the existing experience. The focus should be on what customers want, not on how to improve what already exists.
  3. Not understanding what’s possible: a storefront is a decades-old, fairly refined way of selling glasses. Customers or shop employees probably won’t think of things like a try-at-home program (the glasses are right there, try them on!) or a way to find glasses by entering dimensions of your current glasses and clicking “find similar” (just scan the store for similar frames, or ask a store employee!).

Instead, we should talk to people who are buying glasses, understand what they like and don’t like, show them some ideas about buying glasses online, and watch and listen to their reactions. As we amass more and more information, we can start figuring out the questions to ask (is a super easy return policy important? what’s the most you’d pay? are designer brands important? what do you think of this crazy augmented reality prototype for trying glasses on?).

Once you have your questions, you still have to decide which ones are most important to your target customers. Once you have that, you’re on your way to figuring out how to deliver something to make customers happy.

And yes, go ahead and make that giant spreadsheet to organize your thoughts. I won’t criticize.

 

 

 

How To Land Your First Product Management Job

I’ve talked to dozens of aspiring product managers who ask me how to get into product management. They want to be at the intersection of customer, business, and technology. They want to deliver products people love. They want to grow a business. But, how does one get started?

First, let’s clarify a couple of things:

  1. There’s no one educational path to product management. I know great product managers (PMs) who have technical degrees, history degrees, and no degrees. While it may be common for product managers at software companies to have computer science degrees, a technical degree is not required to be a product manager.
  2. There’s no one career path to product management. Some come from engineering backgrounds, others from business backgrounds, and still others from user research and design. You can exercise and grow the skills needed to be a product manager in many different roles. Becoming a product manager means applying those things full-time.

Here are some approaches to getting your first product management job.

Internships

If you’re early in your career, one of the best ways to get into product management is to complete an internship. Product management is an applied trade; there’s no better way to learn than to own real product decisions at a real company with great mentors to help you grow. Internships also let you vet a company to see if you want to work there long-term.

If you’re at a college or university with career fairs, talk to companies hiring product managers at those fairs and find a role that matches your interests and experience. Also, seek out companies you admire online, and contact them to see if they’re hiring PM interns.

School projects

If you’re in college, sign up for as much project-based work as possible. And, make sure you do the work that answers questions that product managers focus on: Who is the customer? What do they want? What problem does the product solve? What is the look and feel of the product? How will you get feedback on the product? How will you measure success?

Sign up for product work

Are you working at a company with product managers? Find a way to stretch into the work they are doing. Talk to a product manager who you work closely with, and see if you can take a task or project from him. Start small: a little customer research, a design wireframe, or a beta test plan is a good first step. Make it clear that you’re there to both do the work and to learn from it, so you’re given something of appropriate scope.

After you do the work, get feedback from the product manager on what went well and what could have gone better. Then, ask for more! Ideally, you get to the point where you are a product manager in all but name, and it’s an easy sell to the right manager to have you formally join the team.

Get a mentor

Have coffee once a month with a product person in your company or at a company in which you have a connection. Find someone that has not just lots of experience, but the kind of experience you’re interested in (consumer products, business products, developer products, and so on). Learn from her what the job entails from her perspective. Ask her to walk you through how she makes product decisions. Get feedback on skills she thinks you need to grow and be successful as a product manager.

Side projects

Have an idea for something great? Come up with the plan, write it down, and socialize it. If you do this for something your company currently focuses on (or should), then pitch the idea to a decision maker. If not, write it down and socialize it with product managers for feedback.

Also, consider a personal project. This can be especially good for those with a technical background who can not only plan and design their product but also build it.

What about classes and books?

I have nothing against product management training. Free, online courses from Coursera may be good if you are brand new to the role and are looking to understand some of the basics. However, I don’t think coursework alone can land you a product management job. A lot of courses out there focus on the mechanics of product management, which is more akin to project management, and are very light on topics like strategy, design, tradeoffs, and experimentation/beta testing.

If you’re considering a paid course, make sure it’s well rounded. And, ask the following: how many graduates have gone on to land product management roles within a few months of completion? If the provider can’t or won’t answer that, I’d be wary of using their program as the primary way to land a product job.

As for books, I’d honestly spend time scouring sites like Medium for posts from product managers talking about their products, instead of reading books about product management.

Hang in there!

Remember, product management is an applied trade. Regardless of how inexperienced you feel, find a way to start doing the job, and get feedback along the way. Sooner or later, you’ll land the role you want.

Oh, and by the way: I’m hiring.

How LinkedIn made a laughably bad mistake and made people think I started working at “Pan”.

In this age of smart agents, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, LinkedIn made a laughably bad mistake on my behalf. 

A couple of days ago I added some information on my LinkedIn profile: I was a panelist for two General Assembly sessions this year. I added this as a “job” (no, I didn’t get paid), and I didn’t mark my current job at Redfin as having ended. I also made a typo and entered “Pan” instead of “General Assembly” as the company name. 

LinkedIn proceeded to tell the thousands of people in my network that I had a new job at “Pan”.
Let’s break down what the software could have done:

  1. It could have noted I had not said my current job had ended.
  2. It could have seen “Pan” didn’t match a known company name (or, if it does, it doesn’t match one that I would likely join). 
  3. It could have seen I fixed “Pan” to General Assembly.
  4. In a state of ambiguity, it could have asked me if I had indeed changed jobs (seeing two “jobs” as active on my profile).

What’s even more alarming is that this is all heuristic-based “intelligence”, and nothing fancy like what many companies are developing in the artificial intelligence space as of late. 

Now I have to explain to the dozen (and counting) people who have reached out to me that no, I have not left Redfin for “Pan”.

This is an amusing story, but it’s also a reminder of how products need to be conscious about user behavior and user errors, and be flexible and communicative when about to do something big on the user’s behalf.

What product managers should do in their first month

Congratulations! It’s your first day at your new product manager job. You’re excited about the company and its mission. You’re looking forward to meeting your team. Your new hire orientation is done. Now what?

Starting a new job can be overwhelming. It can feel like a firehose of information is hitting you in the face every day. Where should product managers focus their time in their first month? Here’s my list.

Meet the right people

Product managers need to learn to be effective in their organizations. That is hard to do without knowing and working with the right people. This goes beyond your immediate team of engineers and designers.

On your first day, talk to your manager and find out two things:

  1. Who are the people outside your team you should work with?
  2. Who are the stakeholders that are interested in making sure you succeed?

#1 may include people in marketing, business development, operations, data science, and the field. They will help you figure out what products to build and how to deliver them to customers. #2 may be leaders in these or other parts of the organization. You may not work with them every day, but they are good sources of feedback on your plans.

Know your customer

To build great products, you need to know your customers and what they want. It’s good to spend time reading customer research that your colleagues have already amassed. But, there’s no substitute for doing your own research. Reading product reviews, driving usability studies, traveling to field offices, and doing first-hand interviews are all good ways to know your customer. Don’t forget to bring what you learn back to your team. Often, you’ll have something new to share.

Ship a quick feature

The best way to figure out how to get things done at your new job is to go through the motions of researching, designing, building, and shipping a feature. Even if you’re a manager, shipping a feature will reveal how decisions are made in your new organizations and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of your team.

This is especially important for managers; if you don’t go through the process of building product first-hand, you won’t be able to judge first-hand what is and isn’t working well.

Get a mentor

Mentors are invaluable in giving you feedback and showing you a perspective you won’t have when entering a new organization. Find someone who’s an expert in what you’re not, and ask them if they’re willing to mentor you. If you’re not sure who to ask, get advice from your manager.

Read a book

There’s likely one or two books everyone around you has read and values highly. Ask your manager or mentor to name them. Maybe it’s a book about being a good manager, or staying innovative, or the trials and tribulations of running and scaling startups. Whatever the book is, if it’s in the headspace of your colleagues, it’s probably a good one for you to read.

. . . . .

The first month at your new product manager job will start slowly and end quickly. If you do the above, I bet you’ll exit the month will a lot of groundwork that will set you up for success in your second month and beyond.

The dark sides of deadlines

Over the past few years, I’ve been devoting less time to reading books. My reading time has gone to magazines, articles, and other short-form journalism. I wasn’t happy about this, but I didn’t do much to change it.

A few weeks ago, we visited the beautiful Central Library here in Seattle to get my daughter her first library card. When I inquired about my card, the librarian said it was long expired, and issued me a new one.

Curious about Seattle Public Library’s online collection, I checked out a couple of non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read (Business Adventures which Bill Gates recommended a couple of years ago, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things which more than one person recommended to me at work).

When I checked the electronic books out and downloaded them to my phone, I saw that I had 21 days to read them before they were automatically returned. 21 days! And then they’re gone! I had a deadline.

I read these books during my commute. I read them at night before bed. I even check out the audiobook versions so I can listen to them being read to me during chores at home. The result: I’m reading more books now than I have in the past few years. This is the power of deadlines: it provides clarity in priorities, and forces you to decide what’s really important to hit the date.

However, there are dark sides to deadlines, too.

The dark sides

When you apply time pressure on tasks, creative thinking can suffer. Worse, a Harvard Business School study found that people under time pressure think they’re being more creative when they’re actually less creative. Even worse, there seems to be a hangover to the lull in creativity that can last for a few days after the time crunch.

Why is this? The root cause appears to be lack of focus. Here’s what the study says about people who lacked time to focus during time-pressured days:

But when this protected focus was missing on time-pressured days—and it very often was—people felt more like they were on a treadmill. On these days, our diarists reported a more extreme level of time pressure even though they were not working more hours, and they felt much more distracted. When recording the number of different activities they performed, they were likely to use words like “several,” “many,” and “too numerous to count.” They were pulled in too many directions, unable to focus on a single activity for any significant period of time. One diarist, paraphrasing the oft-repeated lament, said: “The faster I run, the behinder I get.”

Cramming work at the last minute can also result in lower-quality work. A study from Syracuse University showed that patent applications clustered near the deadlines, and those that were completed at the deadline were both more complex and of lower quality.

And, too many aggressive deadlines with no end in sight can create a condition of chronic stress on the mind and body, which can lead to burnout.

Use deadlines wisely

Deadlines are of course not inherently bad. Work can fill all available time, and if there is no bound to that time, you and your team may never get a plan together to deliver something of value. The trick is to use deadlines in a productive way.

As for my library reading, I’ve decided to check out only one or two books at a time. After all, I don’t want my library checkouts to mean I never read magazines and articles anymore!

Remember to have a good reason for each deadline you communicate to your team. Make sure the deadline is achievable. And, above all, make sure your team uses the deadline as a way to focus on what is most important, instead of trying to do too many things at once and doing them all poorly.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

One of the things that initially drew me to Twitter years ago was celebrities. Actors, authors, musicians, and tech investors were all directly posting and sharing their thoughts to this medium, in a seemingly unfiltered fashion. This was pretty exciting; you couldn’t friend a celebrity on Facebook, but you could follow them on Twitter and get a peek into their thoughts.

Posting to Twitter is another matter. Hashtags and at-replies are part of the vernacular, but it’s not obvious when and how to use them. Conversations among people are hard to follow and join. Most importantly, it’s hard to find your social graph there. Sure, you can add people via your address book, but an address book is not a complete network, given how easy it is to make casual acquaintances online.

I post to Twitter, but I don’t get a lot of return from it, such as replies, likes, and retweets. And, a lot of people I know are either on Twitter purely for consumption, or don’t bother with the service at all. For me, this turns Twitter into a source of breaking news and celebrity chatter, and not a place to have a conversation with my social graph. This is an engagement problem for Twitter; there’s only so much one-to-many broadcasts from celebrities one can consume before wanting to move on to a real, engaging conversation.

Snapchat Stories vs Instagram Stories

When I first started using Snapchat, I had that same feeling as I did with Twitter. Here were people like Macklemore, Mark Suster, and Bob Saget posting videos, and I could watch them, unfiltered. How cool! But, posting to Snapchat had echoes of Twitter’s troubles: it’s tough to figure out how to post to Snapchat, conversations between people are difficult, and social return is low. Most people I know are not on the service. My posts get seen by 4 or 5 people, at most.

Recently, Instagram unabashedly copied Snapchat stories. I was surprised to see about a dozen friends had already posted to Instagram Stories. I tried it out, and found it simpler to use than Snapchat. And, in 18 hours, my first Instagram story had 10 times as many views as my most popular Snapchat story.

At this point, I’m questioning whether I’ll continue to post to Snapchat. Why post there when all of my friends and family are on Instagram (or, by extension, Facebook)? And here’s where Facebook’s advantage shines through: Facebook has the most complete social graph and is able to bootstrap any new feature or service they build or buy with it. The network effect is strong, and draws people in.

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson

Snapchat’s Twitter lesson is this: one-to-many broadcasts from famous people with millions of followers is great, and will get you far. But, at some point, you’re going to want everyone to post and consume to have a vibrant, growing social service. And to do that, you need to make it easy for users to find those they know and to post very easily. Right now, Snapchat is not that place.

For Snapchat to scale, it will need to heed Twitter’s hard lessons, invent new ways to differentiate, or suffer a usage plateau. There’s only so many videos of Bob Saget telling puns one can stomach.