Notes from Mind the Product SF 2016

I went to the Mind the Product conference in San Francisco for the first time this past week. Because how often do you get an opportunity be in the same room as 1,200 other product managers?

I took notes and wanted to share what I had. I didn’t take pictures, so I’m hoping the PMs on Twitter I credited below don’t mind the reposting.

Des Traynor, co-founder of Intercom:

  • Des focused on the the topic of survival. PM frameworks don’t matter if we’re ignoring existential threats to our business.
  • The central question for all products come down to: does new technology make it cheaper, faster and easier for our customers to make progress in their lives?
  • He showed a video clip of a smug Steve Ballmer making fun of the iPhone years ago. As it turns out, the iPhone didn’t kill the Windows Phone — it killed Windows.
  • Your product is not a single destination, or a set of screens. It’s a system. How, when, and where your users interact with your system will always change. There’s a reason we’re not called App Managers.
  • The cost of a user using a product is more than price. There’s also focus and time, which are likely even more important.
  • Quote of the day: you might have a product that has product-market fit now, but “customers don’t wait around while you write up your JIRA tickets”.
  • Regarding voice UI, messaging, bots, etc: the Internet is being rebuilt around people — it’s still catching up with how people communicate.
Credit: David Wright

Ken Norton, VC at Google Ventures:

  • He wrote a great essay based on his talk, which analogized how product management relates to jazz. Improvising, negotiation, dialogue and exchange are central to both.
  • Examples: Ella Fitzgerald forgot lyrics for the live recording of “Mack the Knife” and won a Grammy for rolling with it. Miles Davis adapted to one of his drummer’s mistakes by launching into music’s most classic trumpet solos.
  • Book recommendation: Yes to the Mess: Surprising Leadership Lessons from Jazz
  • Cultures need to embrace the concept of “psychological safety”. When it’s present, team members feel they have a voice and are not afraid to be judged by saying the wrong thing or taking a risk in their work.
  • There’s a sweet spot of stress that causes the highest performance in individuals. Too much, and you’re too comfortable. Not enough, and you’re too anxious.
  • Three main takeaways for PMs: 1. Get uncomfortable 2. Listen carefully and 3. Let everyone solo (everyone takes turns leading and following).
Credit: Shireen B

Abby Covert, Information Architect:

  • As a much-needed proponent of solid information architecture, Abby focused on three points on how to think about organizing your product.
  • #1 Language matters — e.g. it makes a different in an organization if people use ten different words for the same thing.
  • #2 There is no right way to organize — the example here was that tomatoes, avocados, etc are all technically fruit, but it wouldn’t make sense for a grocery store app to not put them in the vegetables section. Techniques like card sorting and tree testing are helpful with this.
  • #3 We need pictures — If you’re in a meeting and somebody is using their hands, there’s a diagram that they’re dying to get out of their heads. The person who picks up the marker owns the product.
Credit: Andre Theus

Laura Klein, Author:

  • This one was all about team dynamics.
  • Laura first focused on the idea of a ‘heist’ team (think Oceans 11), where everyone had a clear goal and each contributed based on their own expertise.
  • Happy teams: Align in person. Works it out separately. Check in daily.
  • Happy teams are similar: everyone on the team respected and trusted each other.
  • Unhappy teams can be unhappy for different reasons. There are three types:
  • Dictatorships — this is where there’s micromanagement and lack of autonomy.
  • Communes — everyone’s opinion on everything is equal. The way to avoid this is to assign clear responsibilities and give authority to experts.
  • Anarchy — every person for himself or herself. Gave an example of a team where individual incentives conflicted with others.
  • Happy teams don’t necessarily create successful products, but they are more resilient, are more open to feedback, and are more likely to stay.

Maria Giudice, VP of XD at Autodesk:

  • Maria’s talk had a lot of good advice on design and team dynamics. Here are her slides.
  • 4 steps to improving the way you build a better experience for your customers: Build community, focus on customers, connect experiences, and ship quality.
  • Build community: you’re building a product for people, not users. Ban the word user.
  • Focus on customers: Build a strong research practice; make research accessible for everyone; create programs to get closer to customers
  • Connect experiences: develop a consistent brand and point of view; journey mapping; build product tiger teams to solve problems; create practice task forces
  • Ship quality: Prioritize to fix poor in product UX experiences and don’t throw it in the backlog; build in time for craft and polish; set realistic deadlines; dog food your own products; build less better
  • Instead of “Minimum Viable Product”, call it “Minimum Lovable Product”.
  • And of course, we all should have:
Credit: Christine Luc

Scott Belsky, founder of Behance:

  • What I liked about this one is it focused on how good products avoid complexity.
  • It’s easy to solve problems by adding complexity. An option here, a feature there. The more obvious a problem looks, the harder it was to create. Also, as Dave Morin once said, “the devil is in the defaults”.
  • Ego analytics — Seeing who saw your content is almost as important as sharing your content.
  • Marketing and copy should be born by the product team. It’s part of the product experience.
  • Prioritize problems for new users over problems for power users. Preserve 50% of your focus on the new user’s experience.
  • Have faith in your customers, but not in the first 15 seconds. That’s when they’re the most lazy.
Credit: Leya Leydiker

Ashwini, CEO of Mad Street Den:

  • This one was titled “Brains, Bots, and Bullshit” and was about AI. Gave perspective on the company’s start and how we should think about AI as we build products.
  • AI startups get bought out because they can’t build a self-sustaining product.
  • AI has become a technology looking for a problem to solve, rather than the reverse.
  • Thinking about the example with Microsoft and Tay — how does this change the way we think about building features? Can we really release an AI beta?

Nathalie Nahai, Web Psychologist:

  • Natalie’s slides are available here, and was focused on using the right sorts of techniques to get people to use your product effectively.
  • There are three things we need think about: 1. Conversion 2. Adoption and 3. Monetization.
  • Conversion — increase positive emotional state; lower the cognitive load; create an experience of fluency (example: changes made to Obama’s campaign page)
  • Adoption — successful products create habits and don’t put us in a dopamine loop that leaves us unsatisfied
  • Monetization — there’s a difference between persuasion and manipulation (persuasion continuum). We shouldn’t take advantage of the people using our product.
Credit: Developer to Product

Peter Merholz, Co-founder of Adaptive Path:

  • Peter’s talk was about the role of user experience within product management. Here are his slides.
  • The experience is the product. Technology → features → experience.
  • When we think about products, we might think of the logic, data, and experience of it all, but all users care about is the experience. An example at the beginning of the talk was about Kodak, and how they were effective by not going into the details of what Kodak did to get customers what they needed (pictures and more new film).
  • Products and features are simply a manifestation of a service relationship.
  • UX only exists because of insufficient product management.

There are already a few great summaries out there from the event, one by Jim Semick from Product Plan, the other by Sarah McCasland, and another by the PM Loop team. I’d check those out for sure. And Mind the Product will be posting these videos within the next few weeks.

Originally published at on May 8, 2016.