2015: Annual Report for Product Managers
I’ll try to keep it brief.
2015 was a colossal year for Product Managers and digital Product in general. Drawing on 000s of tweets, posts and presentations, here’s Pivot’s take on the key themes, events and players in Product Management over the past 12 months.
2015 was the year that:
Product Managers needed to understand Growth (formerly known as Marketing)
‘Growth hacking’ as a term fell right out of favour but everyone agreed that understanding your product’s Growth Model is now essential for Product Managers, as is working closely with the Growth Team.
Some speculated that Growth might even consume Product Management entirely, others were keen to define the Growth Team’s role more clearly although no one disputed that a great Product is the starting point for successful marketing of any kind.
Onboarding became a field of study on it’s own, thanks in large part to Samuel Hulick’s epic teardowns, the ‘Aha!’ moment was something all PMs needed to understand, and the specific challenges of optimising mobile products for growth received a lot of attention.
Product Managers needed to understand Customer Success (formerly known as Support)
Acquiring customers is difficult, but retaining them is no less challenging.
The art of super-serving customers in the digital space has become known as Customer Success and there was no shortage of great posts about how Product Managers can support it and the ‘whole product thinking’ that it requires.
Like Growth, aspects of Customer Success have become fields of study on their own. From nailing your product’s free trial, to killing your churn rate dead, Customer Success was something all Product Managers needed to understand in 2015.
Product Managers needed to understand how to work with all data (not just the ‘Big’ kind)
For Product Managers in the trenches, the shortcomings of relying solely on quantitative data were starkly revealed as was the realisation that there was just too damn much of it to make sense of most of the time.
2015 was the year that the mythical promise of ‘Big Data’ unravelled for many.
The notion of aligning the Product Team around the One Metric that Matters still garnered a lot of support (although some recommended slightly more), as did the perennial value of actually talking to your users instead of relying solely on numbers.
Product Managers needed to hack their productivity
Digital Product Managers, like their products, are ‘always on.’ But as we only get 24 hours in a day, every moment needed to be hacked for productivity.
Knowing how to make (the right) decisions, avoiding the curse of ‘being busy’, the threat of pointless meetings and consistently Getting Shit Done are key ‘lifehacking’ skills all Product Managers need to master.
The debate about ‘technical’ Product Managers refused to die
Although the dogma that Product Managers must be able to code seems to have waned, there was no shortage of heated arguments on both sides.
Product Managers needed to understand Behavioural Design
Thanks to Dan Ariely’s seminal book on the effects of psychology on consumer decisions, both UX and Product Management have absorbed its principles and responded with a host of techniques for creating subtly persuasive interfaces that can increase conversion (and sales.)
Product Roadmaps remained a big deal
2015 was the year we learnt:
Rock Star Product Managers are still in demand
Product Managers aren’t the ‘CEO of the Product’ (but might be the real CEO soon)
With the corny notion that Product Managers are ‘the CEO of the Product’ very much discredited, predictions that PMs are the archetypal CEO of the future and that Product Management is ideal training for the CEO role gained momentum in 2015 with a few high profile examples taking on the big job (albeit with mixed results.)
Product Management isn’t like Lean Startup for everyone
Product Managers now exist everywhere, not just in startups. Plenty of PMs are fighting to be lean and agile in environments that are anything but.
There were some great analyses of the differences between the cultures and why the challenges for PMs in large organisations are often of a very different kind in large organisations. Often this is because the minefield of corporate politics requires a special kind of focus that PMs at smaller companies need not worry about.
There was plenty of discussion about why corporations can’t innovate like startups and why MVPs may be a step too far in an enterprise environment. Nevertheless, Lean Startup has been embraced inside corporations more so than in ‘real’ startups, as Eric Reis readily admits.
Product Management is still (mainly) a Bro-mance
Despite everyone acknowledging it as a problem, Product Management remains dominated by males and 2015 wasn’t a year that saw any improvement in this regard.
Some well-intentioned VCs managed to make things worse by claiming the issue is a ‘pipeline problem’, even though research clearly indicates that it’s a culture problem that isn’t going away anytime soon.
Product Management is about creating experiences (not features)
The practice of ‘killing features’ remains a noble cause, although still hard for most PMs to achieve.
Product Managers need Emotional Intelligence (as much as IQ)
In one of the year’s best interviews, the former Head of Product for Facebook (Sam Lessin) criticised the emphasis on hiring for IQ at the expense of Emotional Intelligence, which he regards as even more crucial for success as a PM.
Speed is still king
The internet has removed what used to be the biggest barrier to market (namely the cost of distribution) and the consequence is that we now have limitless choice when it comes to Product.
This has had profound effects on whole industries and, for Product Managers, it means that the speed at which you ship and being able to go from concept to code in as short a time as possible remain key.
Every day that passes, the number of your competitors increases.
Most Products will probably fail
Not every Product will win. It’s a fact of life. In fact, some of the best Products don’t make it, whilst some of the worst ones do. Why products fail(especiallynew products) and how to deal with failure as a Product Manager remain hot topics.
David Bland’s illustration of the Product Death Cycle resonated with pretty much everyone in May.
2015 was a (very) good year for:
As appstores exploded with dizzying number of new options each day, it became clear that no one really wants new apps. As both Android and iOS bolster their support for notifications, messaging became the new battleground for product.
Unlike most things, this trend is being driven from the East and not the West by apps like Line and China’s WeChat, who boast installation and engagement numbers that are simply staggering.
Rejecting western preferences for ‘unbundling’ and single purpose utility, these mobile only apps prefer to create whole ecosystems within their products.
However, the gigantic elephant lurking behind the herd of unicorns is that the playbook for making money in the new Digital Age is still unclear. Dropbox and Evernote are rumoured to be in serious trouble and Twitter’s dirty laundry was as public as it gets.
An extraordinary amount of money is being spent making certain products appear successful, but appearances can only be maintained for so long.
What is clear is that lots of products are losing money hand over fist, especially mobile products, where the competition is exponentially larger than anywhere else (and growing daily).
From Product Manager to Silicon Valley Kingmaker, Ryan Hoover struck gold this year with the deceptively simple Product Hunt — basically a daily list of new digital Products (as well as themed collections) that became the north star that points towards the future.
Whether hero or villain, you just couldn’t ignore Product Hunt in 2015 and the dark art of launching on Product Hunt became the new SEO.
Still officially valued at ‘only’ $2.8 billion, Slack is on course to become the Unicorn King soon ( if it’s not already).
Nothing less than being bigger than Facebook will suffice. No pressure, Stewart.
Now officially the best source of content on all things Product Management (as well as growth, startups, design and a bunch of other things), 2015 was the year many people abandoned WordPress and their own websites and published directly via Medium or injected new life into vintage work by reposting classics.
A triumph of usability and elegant design, Medium is one of those products that immediately made the competition seem frighteningly complex — and the market voted with its feet.
OK, every year is a good year for Y Combinator right now but this year was no different. Silicon Valley’s ‘Startup Launchpad’ is still the product incubator by some margin. For or against, there was no getting away from PG and Sam Altman’s pervasive influence on all things product in 2015. Again.
2015 was not such a good year for:
Agile and MVPs
What goes up must come down and, having been flavour of the month for more than a few months, the tide of public opinion seemed to turn against these 2 cherished concepts.
Some felt Agile should die outright, some debated whether or not Scrum was Agile, some argued that it’s a 20th century methodology unable to address 21st century problems and some thought that, in many cases, it is just waterfall in disguise.
Product Quote of the Year
Pivot loves a quote and referenced a great deal of them in 2015. Too many to mention, in fact.
In terms of my quote of the year, I think Nathan Cresswell summed things up best with his ‘Product Manager’s koan’:“Ship product and make happy customers….everything falls into place after that.”
Here’s to making 2016 another year of shipping great products and making customers happy.