All successful products have a strong “Product Guy” behind them. This is the person that has championed the product and has defined the product vision, helped frame the strategic and tactical thinking needed to deliver a world-class product that users love. Everyone call tell a great product when they see one, but building a great product from scratch is hard. But not impossible. Here are the top 5 things that true product champions do that helps them create world-class products: 1. Focus on the User
This is by far the most important trait of a successful product manager. You need to represent the user in every meeting, in every discussion and every brainstorm with the team. Discussions and brainstorms always run the risk of focusing on urgent things: more revenue, more features, deadlines etc..., but we always need to have the product manager to anchor these discussions and bring them back to focus on the user.
Apple apparently hired one guy who’s only job was to open iPhones from their packaging and report on the experience. That’s what he did all day, every day. He was there to ensure that the first time a user gets his hands on a new iPhone, the experience of opening it and seeing it for the first time is absolutely the best experience possible! Product champions will have a fanatical focus on the user.
Most successful product managers I know tend to have a dashboard of metrics that they religiously follow. It tracks the most important metrics that are important to the product and the company. Most metrics are difficult to measure, but a product champion has to insist on tracking and measuring them.
Google is (in)famous for tracking metrics fanatically. For example, Google tracks the load times of its search results pages down to the millisecond. If the search results page takes even 1 millisecond more than expected to load, I'm sure alarm bells go off in Larry Page’s office.
While tracking, measuring and thriving on the metrics is important, it is also just as important to pick the right metrics. The worst thing would be to measure the wrong thing!
It is very difficult to consistently work based on someone's intuition. For a product to be successful overall, you should have a way to experiment with ideas to see if they work. Once you have a way to measure the metrics you care about, experimenting with different ideas is the next step - You try the experiment and see what effect it has on your metrics. This is the most reliable way to improve your product continuously over time.
I was in a product review once with Marissa Mayer, who was at that time the head of Google’s design. One part of our product UI had a dropdown element from where the user could select several options. Marissa asked why it was a drop-down and not a series of radio buttons. To be honest, I hadn't given it any thought at all, so I said “I don't have a good answer!”. She made us run an experiment with both options, measuring how the click-rates changed for a drop-down vs for radio buttons. Interestingly, there was a vast difference, and our product was that much better for the experiment.
Experimentation is always better than a group of people speculating on what works. Which color should a button be? Should you display suggestions as the user types into a search box? What font size works best? Most such questions, large and small, should be answered with an experiment!
4. Shepherd Innovation
As a product manager, it is not your job to come up with ALL the ideas, but you should have a process to have your team generate good ideas, test, measure and experiment with them, and finally have a way to incorporate them into your products. A bottom-up approach to innovation usually works best, since you never know where the good ideas are going to come from. Once you do have good ideas, however, it is important to have a proper process for getting the idea out into the product!
Gmail, Google Spreadsheets, Google Googles and many more were examples of ideas that employees came up with that the company was able to nurture into full-blown products. This is easier said than done, though. Dave Packard, one of the founders of HP, once gave a direct order to kill a project. The engineer in question ignored the order, worked on it secretly, and it finally became a successful product. And what did Dave do? He gave out a "HP Award for Meritorious Defiance!" to the engineer!
5. Think Strategically
Probably the most value a product manager brings to the team is to think about product strategy. You have to necessarily be forward looking, and think of the future. What are users going to want 3-6 months from now from your product? Are you building that today? Are you simply being reactionary or are you putting in the required fore-thought to plan for the future? This includes making strategic decisions on what features make it into a product, what features get killed and what the team should work on next.
This is more art than science, but you can learn to think strategically. Are you aware of what your competitors are doing? What their incentives are? What kinds of products are they likely to launch soon? How will you react when that happens? What will be your response? Thinking through these questions can often be the first step towards articulating a meaningful product strategy.
Being a great products guy is mainly about having a particular mindset. Anyone can do it, but it is hard work, and it needs you to re-orient your thinking. Most importantly, though, you need to live and breathe your product and constantly think about how to improve it!
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