The Heart of a Product Manager

Overtime the heart of a product manager starts to form a physical shape akin to taijitu, the iconic yin yang symbol.

What’s the number one advertised job of a product manager? Communication. From communication stems other acceptable answers, like expectation management and documentation. An alternative response rarely given but just as acceptable is the job of a mediator. Failure as the mediator is swift and hard if the product manager doesn’t have the right heart.

It is my belief that the arcane arts of product management are equal parts benevolent light and manipulative dark, intermixed. To illustrate, lets walk through a typical interaction.

Projects are the unit of measurement, or currency, of product managers. Projects add value to the sales and marketing constituents because each additive project grants more available options. Projects are the compartmentalized tasks engineers tackle. They are marketing’s ammunition and engineering’s lifeblood.

Typically, the process goes like this (and obviously I’m speaking in generics here): cross functional teams of sales, marketing, product, design, and engineering folks collaborate to decide what projects to do. Requests are made, suggestions are added, feedback is replied, decisions are eventually made, and the various teams do the work required to complete the project.

I have noticed a consistent trend during this process. Business folk often get less and engineering folk build more than they both want. We are left with a situation where there are individual losers and rarely winners.

Now, certainly I’m speaking to core human emotions. Good teams work together, good leaders bind, and rational colleagues can reach consensus. But we all know how hard that is because we’re ultimately very Hobbesian with our emotions. We play to win the game, sometimes even with the ones we love! So of course, with not getting our way in the workplace, we constantly face our basic human emotions to be frustrated when results aren’t what we want.

This is where the product manager comes in. As the communicator, she must always be the bearer of bad news. Once compromise is reached, the letdown must be relayed to all constituents.

The good product manager realizes that positivity and rationality are her friend. She speaks to the organization’s vision, and explains clearly why decisions were made. Data is an important component of the communication. She can be successful by always remaining professional, positive, optimization, honest, transparent, and thorough.

The the reasons why the good product manager mediates is where the dark arts come in. She is mediates because she knows that to create buy-in from the team, those individuals must feel like they at least came out even. She can not paint a picture where they lost. Wait—what does that even mean? Losing in this context means: feeling of not being heard, perceived loss of autonomy, uneven amount of work required to complete the project, lack of understanding of needs. If the product manager communicates in a manner where the constituent feels they lost—either getting less than they asked for or must do more than they want—the team dynamic suffers. A team dynamic is important because it’s the only source of trust, and trust is one of, if not thee, most important team dynamics.

My current recommendation is to not become a manipulative person. Honesty, transparency, thoroughness, professionalism—these are the hallmarks of the best product managers. But you will be so much more effective at the communication required of you if you realize that the ultimate task is to mediate and explain why there are no losers. This odd paradox is tough to balance because those who are professional and honest hate to think they are doing their job to persuade people on compromise, while those who are good at persuasion usually don’t display the most admirable personal traits. The weak heart folds to the natural conflict of the role while the hard heart never absorbs empathy for its constituents. Therein lies the yin and the yang.

Hacking Communication Theory

One way to look at communication is through the prism of fidelity. In this simple image, I have listed out the most common modes of communication in our present society. It is ordered based on highest to lowest. Fidelity is defined as how messages are sent and received. With more methods, more information is transmitted from sender to receiver—and perhaps reciprocating through a feedback loop.

A simple example. I’m talking to my friend and say, “Sounds great.”

Over Twitter, that could be taken as literal.

But in person, there are many extra methods beyond just the words being spoken. Also present we find vocal nuance (I had a short tone, downward inflection, spoke very fast, and was quiet), mannerisms (I was fidgeting and tapping my foot), eye contact (my eyes were looking away, almost like I was distracted), facial recognition (I winced).

The two different modes tell separate stories. Via chat, I sound excited. In person, it’s obvious I’m annoyed.

Some patterns emerge. First, mannerisms are more important than voice, which is more important than text (or words). Second, Synchronous is more important than asynchronous. With that in mind, the chart could be redrawn to look like this.

Voicemail is an interesting layer. It clearly has more fidelity than similar asynchronous textual communication. But it suffers in utility by comparison. It’s only available, generally speaking, on your individual (smart)phone handset. It doesn’t play well with other applications we use day-to-day, like email. It’s basically locked in a jail.

But there are areas of business that enage with voice every day. Voicemail is ineffective, but they must use voice, so they are forced to use synchronous phone calls. Unfortunately, they lose the common productivity gains provided in the text world. They key is, though, they don’t actually need a live phone call. They just need the fidelity of the voice.

So the Voicemail layer is often overlooked and criminally underused.

Thinking about Jobs To Be Done while innovating this layer of communication theory has been the goal of HarQen. We first started with Voice Advantage, an automated interview/screening tool for busy HR and Staffing professionals. We found that staffing firms would receive thousands of resumes and applications for a single job opening in one week. Often a single recruiter would be in charge! The process was normally:

  1. Gather all resumes and applicants into an Applicant Tracking System
  2. Put resumes into three piles: A, B, and C.
  3. A’s would be called on (“smile and dial!”)
  4. C’s were discarded
  5. B’s were a mystical “maybe” pile were there might be some gems, but who knows
  6. The recruiter would waste her entire week calling pile A, and eventually make an offer to a candidate and move on

Many innovations are making this process easier for all. The way job boards funnel into the ATSes is a big example. Our novel idea, though, was targetted on the Smile And Dial. Just think of these problems:

  • The recruiter is saying the same thing almost every phone call; a massive waste of time.
  • Sometimes calls would take 30 minutes, but the recruiter might know 5 minutes in that this candidate isn’t a fit. This is called a “courtesy interview”.
  • Scheduling hassles. Lots and lots of scheduling hassles. Even more wasted time.

So the thought became What if we could convert the Smile And Dial procedure into an asynchronous format? The recruiter would only need to record her questions once, and then could listen to each candidate’s answers.

This break through has been a success. It has been so well received that it created an industry: virtual interviewing. Many companies are doing great things in this space now, although most are focusing on video interviews. We consciously stayed with voice. We felt more candidates had access to a phone, and the workflow would be considerably easier for recruiters and candidates alike. Going back to our pyramid, our hypothesis was that bumping up from the “phone call” layer to the “video chat” layer wasn’t as much of a requirement for recruiters as they thought. And the technical and user experience gains with keeping it simple with the phone made the most sense. It was the best intersection of value creation.

This mode of thinking is very exciting to me. Continuing to discover communication problems and solving them by rethinking what’s possible layer-by-layer in the pyramid is a wonderful day job.

Summarizing Job To Be Done Theory

Over the past several months, I’ve found myself explaining Job To Be Done theory (JTBD) to friends, colleagues, and strangers, and each time I’ve learned more about how to summarize it. I wanted to gather all my thoughts into a concrete article so that in the future when I’m attempting to explain JTBD, I can just link them to this. I hope you find this valuable too.

Job To Be Done theory states that all consumers hire a product or service to do a job for them. Marketers and businesses should thus segment not based on demographics or psychographics, but on the situation a consumer is in where he or she attempts to complete a job. Brands who get this build a product or service around that singular job to be done. They put their entire company’s weight towards it, and become what’s known as a “purpose brand”. When you think quick furniture you can put in your compact car, who do you think of? It was probably IKEA. Its brand immediately popped into your head because it’s purpose-driven.

IKEA, as mentioned above, is a great first example. It has never been copied because it doesn’t segment based on demographics or income or whatever else. It re-segmented the furniture buying market by focusing on a singular job: quickly furnishing a room/apartment/house with well designed products. The entire company is integrated towards that end. Manufacturing, shipping, catalogs, websites, even the buying experience. And don’t forget about the brand-famous home assembly process. You can learn more about Clayton Christensen‘s insight on IKEA in this 5-minute video.

The “milkshake example” is the quintessential moment where Christensen and his colleagues flushed out the theory. It’s the most widely talked about anecdote available. This 5-minute video of Clayton giving a snazzy lecture recaps it.

This HBR article gives a good overview of how the theory is used to re-segment markets. It also includes an original explanation of the milkshake example.

Bob Moesta is one of the initial pioneers of the theory. He runs a consultancy called The Rewired Group, and has a list of resources. This Forbes article gives a quick example of one of his most famous anecdotes to explain the theory.

Bob and Chris Spiek give an excellent overview of JTBD put up against how people buy homes in this short seven-minute video.

I have purchased the two major HBR and MIT articles Clayton published introducing the theory in grand scale. I encourage you to pick up a copy.

Finally, for the more adventurous, Horace Dediu hosted Bob on his Critical Path podcast. An excellent hour-long discussion ensued that recapped many of the stories above, as well as additional insight. It’s very engaging, enlightening, and the best teaching tool for the theory. But it is an hour.

The Path Not Chosen

I used to be a Path fanboy. It became the first application which got right everything other social networks got wrong:

  • There was zero concern about who would see what.
  • It allowed me to connect with my tech savvy friends yet finally include my mother and mother-in-law, who will never sign up for anything except an email address.
  • It removed all noise social networks typically inject. Instead, it’s only the most important moments in life.
  • It added sound to life casting, which invokes a more emotional memory.
  • Using Path was so ridiculously easy. Take a picture or 10-second video, pick a group of nouns (people, place, and thing), and you’re done.
  • And, most importantly, it made viewing past moments easy. You ever notice how anything you create in Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever is impossibly lost? They are moments in time that are digested and thrown away within minutes. Forgotten forever. Good luck trying to find anything. (This is why Facebook is making a push to the “timeline” feature—it realizes it has no time axis, which I’ve called the “z-axis” to its social graph for years.) Path made it so I could browse these important moments in genius ways.

Recently, Path upgraded to a second version. It has been heralded as a design masterpiece. I think it has wrecked the magic.

They are attempting to be more like Foursquare, Facebook, and the like. The level of noise is absurd. I could care less about when someone went to sleep or where. I could care less what song they are listening to (I have social music services or personal conversation for that). I could care less about integration with other social networks. I could care less about the passive “check in” system a la Foursquare, which basically creates a moment only scoped to the “place” noun, and does it automatically whenever you check Path.

Path is about the simple capture of life’s most amazing moments, an easy way to share them regardless of digital divide, tight privacy, and easy access to those moments sometime in the future. Version is lost this vision.

And, regrettably, Version 2 is buggy as heck. I haven’t been able to post a moment since updating because the app crashes. This is so sad that yesterday at my extended family christmas, my mother and grandmother both asked “why they don’t get those cool emails anymore with the fun pictures”. Path has changed their lives too.

I would have paid $/mo for the old Path. Now, they are just another also-ran social network who lost what made them magical.

Quick-Leap Marketing

Lately, I’ve used the term “Quick-Leap Marketing” to describe language that makes your target audience instantly understand how your product can fit into their lives as quickly and easily as possible. Instant Oh, I can see using that is possibly the quickest way to convert a prospect to a happy customer.

The key to get there is language. More specifically, a common set of words—a base that can engage as many minds as possible. You might call this a “least common denominator” approach. I can sympathize if your neck hair rose accordingly. The phrase gets a bad rap; it has unfairly become associated with the ills of this world.

Let’s look at some examples. When you make a product for businesses—or better yet the enterprise—a narrowed set of language is possible, and even preferable, because the target audience has their own set of vocabulary. But it must be common to the audience nonetheless. Here’s an example from a product I was researching:

Speed and quality of communication is vital in today’s competitive environment. Whether it’s announcing financial results to investors, launching a product or keeping staff informed, how you communicate makes a difference.Your meetings need to come off without a hitch and appear seamless to your audience.

We may frown at that paragraph. We might provide a cynical jab at its culture. But that would be wrong. See, this is the language its audience actually uses. So speak it, and help them make the quick mental leap of where you can fit in their lives.

Now lets focus on something bigger: the general consumer. When selling a consumer product, the common set of language must be as basic as possible. We can’t segment based on an enterprise vertical. We can’t use jargon. We can’t seek out specificity.

Compare Apple and Android. Apple markets with family, love, and life experience. That’s their language set. Android resellers use technical language like specs, robots, and acronyms.

An example iPhone commercial:

An example Android commercial:

An example iPad commercial:

And finally, and example Android tablet commercial:

When you look at how Apple and Android market, you realize that the basic set of language used predetermines the audience scope. Choose your words, visuals, sounds, and emotions wisely so that the right users can make the quick leap.

Twitter As Life’s Platform

My colleague Pehr once said something interesting about Twitter during lunch. To paraphrase:

People are looking at their mobile screens at such accelerating rates. It’s fascinating to look at Twitter’s role in it. Twitter works because it seamlessly fits into our daily brain activity, and thus our lives. It succeeds because it doesn’t produce a mental burden when scanned, but yet provides vast, diverse quantities of information. The 140 character size is perfect for always providing something new and interesting, yet is never painful.

It’s no secret the overall increased activity people have with their mobile devices. Many people are observing and critiquing this behavior. (Luke Wroblewski is one of my favorite authorities.) But specifically with Twitter, I’d like to take a moment to discuss why it’s one of the catalysts for this trend, and what it is we yearn for.

A quick note: I’m purposely leaving out Facebook from this discussion. It’s a different subset of the root concept, but more complex and worthy of its own critique.

Why do we check Twitter on our mobile devices?

Because it’s quick, informative, intuitively organized, instantly up-to-date, and rarely (if ever) painful to do so.

What do we check?

Comments from friends, information from “in the know” pundits, insight from personal celebrities (artists, musicians, authors, actors, etc; people we personally enjoy), and general news from our macro and micro worlds.

Twitter Works

The blessing of The New. We habitually check Twitter on our mobile devices because the feeling of newness draws us. The pain to digest the constant fire hose of updates from interests is zero.

There are limits, however. These interests must be sought out. I find it difficult to track down the friends, musicians, and so forth I care to follow. And then there is a period where you aren’t sure who are worth engaging. And what if it’s not really them, but a ghost writer or, worse, a bot? Twitter is mostly human (that is, obvious to identify stripper spam from your college roommate), but that’s a problem because then the information is basically social in nature. The information is rarely personal.

Whenever you do ease into the right amount of interests populating your stream with bits of information, there is no guarantee that the signal-to-noise ratio will fit your preference.

The fact that Twitter sees itself as a social platform is the biggest limitation. Eventually, the novelty of social information will slowly dwindle, settling on a different ratio for the average user. (I think impact from demographics can be tracked as well. For example, age: teenagers have a different threshold of info going in and out of their consciousness while retirees just want to see and share pictures of their grandkids.)

Expanding The Twitter Platform

For Twitter to be truly useful, it needs to expand beyond the human-to-human social engagement. I propose a new concept for Twitter’s platform.

Twitter should be a short message platform.

Let’s break down each word:

  • Short
    As discussed earlier, the reason Twitter works is because 140 characters is perfect to deliver vast amounts of messages with zero mental burden to digest.
  • Message
    A message is the most generic, abstract way to explain how information travels. Information only exists if it is communicated. “Messages” are the package that delivers information in tidy boxes. Messages are en entity—the action-based object that makes communication possible.
  • Platform
    The marketplace that brings together users and providers. Twitter’s platform gathers and distributes tweets in many forms.

The troublesome word for Twitter is currently “message”. They’ve limited themselves to the social subset of its users’ lives. They need to expand the abstraction and target all modes and types of information people receive on a daily basis.

The real key is to expand contributors from simply people to inanimate objects and entities as well. For example, what if in my Twitter stream I had tweets with the following types of messages:

  • My car telling me it’s time for an oil change with a link to Google Maps, displaying all the shops in the area, prices, and which ones are running specials. (Realize that “Maint. Req.” on a car dashboard is nothing more than a message less than 140 characters telling you something of importance.)
  • My credit card telling me my balance is due, how much, and when the deadline is.
  • My doctor’s office telling me it’s been two years since my last physical.
  • Or better yet, my body telling me that this week is when 26-year-old males have their teeth/eyes/prostate/whatever checked out.
  • The weather telling me it’s going to be rainy and cold tomorrow.
  • My package telling me it will be arriving today at the office.
  • My subpump telling me it just broke and I better get home ASAP.
  • My fridge saying it blew a motor, and I should pick one up on the way home to fix. It shares links with me to the part’s information, documentation on how to fix it, and stores in the area where I can pick it up.
  • The dryer telling me the clothes are done. Good thing too because I forgot about them when I was trying to fix the fridge.
  • And so on and so forth. The possibilities are literally endless.

Now, Twitter becomes the information platform of my life because it is the supreme message platform of my life. So easy to quickly check and scan, but now I have personal—not social—reasons.

Think of how this beats the pants off every other business model they could approach. Twitter can serve you an ad to the fridge motor because you just found out you need it. It’s the absolute best, quickest, most relevant, most targeted way to serve advertisements.

Other points of interest that allude to success:

  • Roughly 90% or more of Twitter users are lurkers. We, as a population, check way more than we socially share. Why does Twitter cater to the sharers? Filling the lurkers’ timelines with tweets that are meaningful to them is ok, and a much better business model.
  • Every inanimate object communicates with you in some way.
  • And most only need 140 characters.

My wife, a perfect target for this concept, had some feedback.

Isn’t the purpose of Twitter, and thus social networks in general, to allow people to escape from the things they need to do in real life? I need to change the cat’s litter box, but I don’t want to. I’d rather quickly check Twitter or Facebook instead. A normal person would be so annoyed having these toys tell me I’m not doing something I should be doing.

Touché. But this is why Twitter has a ceiling.

The Future

I see the future as such:

  1. Everything will be creating data in the future. Out clothes. Our cars. Our social circles. Everything.
  2. Data is the foundation of information.
  3. Information is only useful if communicated.
  4. Humans require messages in order to process communication.

Twitter’s dynamics make it perfectly situated to be the short message platform of this future.

Empathy Is Most Important

The most important tool designers can have is empathy, or the ability to understand one’s feelings to the same level as their own. On the surface, this may seem expected. It might also seem mushy. But it’s more complex and important than indication would lead on.

First, lets talk about design. To design is to motivate. It is not to inspire. Art is the better career for changing an audience’s perspective. That doesn’t mean design can’t be inspiring. Plenty of designers are inspired by a fresh take on an old convention. But other designers are not necessarily the audience for our creation.

No, we motivate and persuade. We get people to click buttons, fill out forms, pull levers, write with pens. We persuade them to buy books, search for information, forward an email, push that shiny red button. Granted, not all design is meant to be so manipulative: thousands of designs go into engineering a car—one centimeter off and a part can break. But for the purposes of digital design, I believe our primary purpose is to convince our audience to do an action.

In order to properly motivate, the designer must understand her audience. This is a known, generic observation. Everyone has heard of the cliché “put yourself in the user’s shoes” and so on. Although this is important, and I agree a requirement, it’s only a light descriptor for the root objective.

I’ve found that empathy is the foundational lens a designer must use. The main reasons:

  • You genuinely feel awful when your design doesn’t work as intended for the user. This provides as much drive as anything to continually be better.
  • Your design has more compassion as you’re concerned about how it impacts the user’s day. This leads to a heightened understanding of the audience.
  • Your design feels more human.
  • Your design has more clarity.
  • Since you care about the user, you do understand how they think. This leads to a better execution of the main goal of the design: to motivate the user to do what you want them to.

Designers are the champions for empathy. Unfortunately, care like this gets a bad rap. Thus, empathy must be an organizational trait.

If engineers and developers don’t have empathy for the customer, corners will be cut and wrong approaches will be taken. After all, it’s much easier to not care about the users, even if you do have an understanding of what they want.

If marketing and sales do not have empathy for the customer, the wrong messages will be sold.

If management doesn’t have empathy for the customer, guidance will be misplaced. Focus will not be on the what really matters.

There is a difference between understanding the end user and genuinely caring about their experience with a product. If empathy isn’t present throughout the product’s provider, it shows.

Wrapping The Entire Internet In A Conversation

The key high-level thought with the Blurbs project centered on uniqueness. We loved what Disqus did for comments. Their novelty is taking any unique URL and tying a single Disqus thread to it. Integration proves to be simple (copy/paste a Javascript snippet). And its a neat brand play to think you are “higher” than the web.

That was an angle we ran with. What if you could take a unique URL but allow a voice conversation around it? The challenge was not necessarily public voice comments—or a simple audio version of Disqus—but a way to do threaded personal comments per page.

We achieved this with our hackathon project, and it turned out great. You could pick any web page in the world and record a voice message wrapped around it. Kind of fun to think about.