Practical Rebellion for Product Managers
David J. Beach
Who are you?
I’m David Beach. I’ve been making products for over 20 years. Lots of things for lots of companies. Mostly e-commerce, sometimes vinyl records. Consulting, startups, IUMA, LVLi, i-STORM, Yahoo! Shopping, Yahoo! Brickhouse, co-founded 12seconds, eBay Mobile. I’ve built communities, online stores, search engines, social networks, Virtual Reality environments, mobile apps, and music services. I was one of some magazine’s 20 most influential people on the Internet. I dropped out of college. I don’t have PM certificates. I’ve been to few seminars. I’m also surviving cancer.
What is this?
Stuff I’ve learned about making consumer products. And what it takes to be a product manager. Real-world, practical advice based on my experience, in no particular order (except the last thing). I think most of this is obvious, but it’s the obvious stuff that’s easy to forget. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded. Nothing more.
A rebellion against tradition… Originally this was about going against the Microsoft/Old School way of product management. Huge PRDs, looooong roadmaps, safety first/risk averse, way of doing things. But now it’s about being true to yourself and being bold.
What makes a “good” PM?
I’ve been asked about what makes a good/bad PM. This does not represent everything that can be good or otherwise. These are qualities that I’ve seen in others who have been successful or not.
PMs can come from almost any discipline (engineering, QA, design, marketing, business, barista) but not everyone should be a PM. A good PM is a generalist. A good PM understands the disciplines of building and launching a product, but lets the team do their job. A good PM is a guide. A good PM answers questions, but knows when to shut up. A good PM removes roadblocks. A good PM builds a team. A good PM is always thinking about the user. A good PM thinks about the big picture and the vision. A good PM knows when to think about the details. A good PM is a leader. A good PM is empathetic.
How about a “bad” PM?
I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but here are some mistakes I’ve made and have seen in others.
A bad PM thinks too much, writes too much, is inflexible, can’t let go, can’t think on their toes, relies too much on data, doesn’t listen, doesn’t acknowledge or learn from their mistakes, works too hard, tells others how to do their job, can’t say no, is fearful, takes credit, has too many excuses.
Okay here we go…
Do one thing!
Your product should do one thing and one thing only. It should be the absolute best at that one thing. Don’t try to be everything to everyone, you’ll end up being nothing for no one. Design for growth, but only add on when absolutely necessary. Do one thing. Do it better than anyone else.
The One Thing Principle: a method of product development, especially for online or mobile applications, that focuses strictly on one single service that satisfies a perceived market need. The entire domain must be dedicated to offering this single service. All resources must be dedicated to offering this single service. No distractions, no wavering, no feature creep. — The One Thing Thing
Nearly every successful product, service, or mobile app has one thing in common. They are all known primarily for one thing. They do one thing very well, they meet user’s needs for that one thing, and they become a viable and popular destination because of this focus. That thing is always the first thing that comes to mind when a person thinks of the brand or site. What can you hang your hat on?
Not everything is a P1 (or a P2 for that matter). Make your feature lists, but distill it down to your most essential. Then prioritize those. Always be prioritizing. There are no P0s.
No one’s going to die.
You are making mobile and web applications. You are not launching someone into space. Your process and approach should reflect this. Take what you do seriously, but take it in context.
Take risks… no fear.
Be bold! It’s your job to stick your neck out. That’s how great things are made. Timidity is not an option.
Failure IS always an option.
Failure is the impetus of innovation. You can’t have one without the other. Never be afraid to fail.
Plan for bugs. You can’t avoid them. Fix critical bugs, but it’s important to launch. Just launch, file bugs, prioritize bugs, and fix bugs. Bugs are good… if they’re found, it means that someone is using your product.
Your product is a living thing. Keep feeding it by constantly releasing updates.
Use your product. Share your product. Put yourself out there. Be a member of your own community. Help people. Guide people. Bring your users together. Be transparent about how things work and what’s going on. But remember: You are not the customer!
You are NOT the customer!
Don’t be the customer. This is not about you. It’s about real people in the real world. However, you should absolutely be A customer. Use your stuff and use it often.
PMs have empathy. We feel your pain. PMs want to fix everything. It’s a tortured existence. Everything can be better! Even this document and the software used to make it. Aaargh!
Communicate. Tell everyone what you’re doing — users, stakeholders, management, your team, your dog… Inside your product and out. Be upfront about how things work and why they work that way. Be open about problems. Be human! Let people in on your thinking. Let people know what is coming up. Being transparent means that you are listening and are responding to what you hear. Being transparent builds trust and community inside and out.
Use all the social media and tools like Get Satisfaction and Quora to talk about your product and what you’re doing and answer questions.
Delight is in the details.
Once the big stuff is out of the way, take time to DELIGHT. Find ways to surprise, to add joy, to make smiles. It’s the details that make people happy. Detail is so important. Think of your favorite things… they are great because of the details. Look for opportunities from the beginning to the end to do the little things. Always be thinking about how to delight. Think everything through.
Keep It Stupid Simple
Simple is so fucking hard. Strive for simplicity. Work really hard to keep things simple. Design for simplicity. But some friction is okay. That friction may reduce confusion. This is what Einstein is getting at…
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” — Albert Einstein
Get good at saying NO.
NO is the most important word in a PMs vocabulary. People will come to you with all sorts of ideas, most of them will suck. Know when to say NO.
STAY FOCUSED (not just you, but your product)!
Add AND subtract.
Don’t think about adding things until you consider what needs to be subtracted. You will always have a product or feature roadmap, but next to it should be a feature shit list. If you launch something and no one uses it, trash it and move on. NO CLUTTER, NO CLUTTER, NO CLUTTER.
Create constraints when developing your product. Limit time or features or team size or all of it. The more constraints you have the more creative you get. When you are starting to make a product, write down every possible thing that it can do. Every feature. Get it all out of your head and into Evernote. Then choose to do almost none of it. Do only the essence. The one thing.
Own it AND own up.
Ultimately the product answers to you. The entire experience. It must live up to your high standards. If something goes wrong, take responsibility, it’s on you.
BUT… if something goes right, share the love, because you did NOTHING. Get over yourself.
You are not the king or queen.
If you act like one, there will be a revolution. Building products is a collaborative art form. Your team is everything. They are smarter than you. Respect that. They need to be invested, they need to be owners. If this is understood, then the likelihood of success is much greater. Your job is to remove roadblocks. Your job is to let your team do their job.
You are nothing without your team.
Keep your team small. As small as you can get away with. If you use AWF, treat them like family. Vendors, contractors, agencies, etc. are on your team and should be treated as equal team members.
Nothing is impossible.
Beg, borrow, steal, barter… Do whatever it takes. If something needs to get done, find a way. Use friends, curry favor, lose a bet, work outside your org. Anything is possible, you just need to be creative. To make 12seconds, we traded a pile of old bricks for a mountain bike for an iPhone for code.
Research is everything, but your gut is where it’s at.
Everything you do and experience is research. That feeds your gut. Listen to it. Use it to build validating MVPs (and consider invalidating MVPs) to quickly focus your concept. MVPs and studies are gut checks. Oh, and it’s okay to be wrong (more food for your gut.)
Some words about testing.
Bucket tests can work well when you are trying to improve a feature, but keep them limited and know what you want to know. Bucket tests work great when you are measuring downstream revenue. Usability tests can scare the shit out of you, do them early and often. Test it on anyone you can find… even one person is better than nothing. But don’t let testing and data be your crutch. You need to think for yourself because you should know your product, business and users better than anyone else.
Design for the worst case scenario.
Break your design. Then design for that. It’s one thing to make pretty designs and mocks, but you should think about how it looks when data is missing, when things break, and when user do what you don’t want them to do.
First comes user experience, then comes monetization.
If you have a bad or muddled user experience, or even worse no users, you won’t make money. Don’t worry about monetization or a business model until you create an awesome experience. If you are solving a problem, you are on the right path.
Above all else, take care of yourself!
The most important thing I’ve learned is that you need to take care of yourself first. Your health. You can’t do any of this if you aren’t healthy. Body and mind. So take time to eat well, exercise, see the doctor, etc. Don’t sleep under your desk, nothing is worth not having a life.
Books to read:
Don’t Make Me Think — Steve Krug
Joel on Software — Joel Spolsky
Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design — Scott Rogers
Mobile First — Luke Wroblewski
Creativity Inc. — Ed Catmull
Orbiting the Giant Hairball — Gordon MacKenzie
Lean UX — Jeff Gothelf with Josh Seiden
The Four Steps to the Epiphany — Steven Gary Blank
Rework — Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
Ready Player One — Ernest Cline (just read it already, it’s awesome)
No one reads.
Keep your documentation lean. No one reads. If you’ve read this far, I’ll buy you a beer.