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Being a Product Design Scientist: Chris Abad

It’s not always easy for product managers to gain the trust of the designers and engineers on their team. Especially if the PM is new to the field, proving to the team that he or she is reliable and worth their trust can be challenging. But what if the product manager is a design professional, too?

Chris Abad is the director of design for DropBox Paper, and former head of product and design at UserTesting. He has 17 years of experience in product and worked at UserTesting for about three years. He began his career by starting a bootstrap social media advertising company with some friends after college. His second startup was a venture-backed company that did online classifieds and social gaming, as well as other things. He later sold the company.

While most of the things he did with his companies were in product management, he didn’t realized that fact until later. The point where he started thinking of himself as a product manager was when he joined larger companies and had to define what he had done and how he would fit on the team.

In a recent webinar by Product School, Chris talked about what it’s like being a “product design scientist.” He studied art and graphic design in school, and now his work combines both design and product. “Modern product management combines a scientific approach with a designer’s toolkit perspective,” he says.

Why design?

A lot of people think design is just about the way things look. To Chris, it’s also about how they work. “Design is having a perspective on the world. It is an approach to moving from where we are now to where we want to go,” he says.

Chris also compares design to product management and, like David Kelley, the founder of IDEO, strives “to have empathy for the people you’re trying to design or make the enhancements for.”

“Product management tries to understand users; design tries to understand people it’s designing for,” Kelley has said.

How does science fit into all this?

Chris also says that while product might not sound exactly like design, it is starting to sound a lot like science. To prove this point, he quotes Marty Cagan, a partner at SV Product Group, and says, “The general principle of product discovery is to find the fastest and cheapest way to validate our hypothesis.” A product manager has to be able to think like a scientist, to have scientific approaches to form a hypothesis and to test it.

In modern product management, a lot of experiments are run, and that’s where an “experiment loop” comes in handy. The loop consists of four phases. The first is having a hypothesis, the second is building a prototype, the third is testing it, and the fourth is to learn and decide. Chris believes working like this will help product managers to think scientifically.

Being a product management scientist

Chris argues that the reason the role is called a product management scientist is that those are the elements that gather it together to make good product management practices. It can make companies more effective if they combine design techniques with the scientific approach.

Chris recommends a great book for product managers to read on how to solve customers’ problems through a product very quickly. It’s called Sprint by the Google Ventures Team. It includes a five-day process to form an initial opinion on solving the problem. The five stages are then repeated throughout a six-week process; in the first week, the stages are defined, and during the other five weeks, the pace is maintained to get into a loop of working.

Q&A with Chris

How would this work in a scenario without the luxury of a lot of customers?

Having a lot of customers can be an advantage. When we worked with Salesforce, we were lucky enough to not only have a lot of customers to rely on, but we also had a research team that helped us with recruiting, because it’s quite difficult to get people lined up every single week.

There are a couple of things you can do. If you have an early-stage startup, and that’s the reason you don’t have customers, you still certainly have target customers. You have people that you’re trying to go after, and you need to figure out how you’re going to find those people. When you have a product, you’re going to have to solve this problem and figure out how to find them. They might be online, in physical spaces or maybe in conferences they attend. You need to go looking for them.

For a consumer product, it may be a little bit easier. You might find customers in certain stores or other locations that you go to. You can try to grab people off the street. Being here at UserTesting, it’s one of the things that we think about a lot. We hear all the time that finding people is one of the hardest things to do when it comes to doing this sort of research. That’s a need that we try to fill. We try to make that easy for people. We have a large panel of people — over a million — at our disposal, and we build software to help people to get easy access to that.

On weekly sprint, how do you keep a steady pace or flow for the design team throughout the sprint?

I’m going to interpret the question in a particular way. There are a couple of things that come to my mind. One of them, and I would say this isn’t just about the design team, is in general how you keep the pace. You have to be incredibly focused. One of the biggest problems that I see and that I’ve had with some of my teams is that you’re trying to do too many things at the same time. You can’t maintain that type of pace and that type of progression if you’re juggling different things at once.

What we did one time is that we reserved a room, and we physically moved everyone’s desks in there. We were not allowed to leave. That became our war room, and we stayed in that room for six weeks. We didn’t work on any other projects, which was a big factor and what allowed us to keep that focus and that pace.

That’s one part of what I think the question might’ve been about. The other part is how to keep the design team focused. Let’s think of a situation where the design team is somewhere separate from that activity, and you have to keep an eye on them to keep them moving forward. At the same time, you’re trying to drive the project. I think it is critical that design is a partner in that process.

I strongly believe that a lot of it is about communicating how to do product discovery. I’m also a strong believer of the fact that product discovery can’t happen unless you have the right people in the room. Design is in a critical role in that practice, so ideally, what I think is, if it’s done right, it’s not really a question of how I keep the design team focused, because the team is sitting right there with you. They have the same focus in the same activities and the same priorities as you have.

How do you convince stakeholders that you need to run more experiments when they believe that what we have is currently good enough to ship, and we should just ship it?

I’ve certainly spent a lot of time in my career having to fight the battle of convincing people that these sorts of activities are useful. I honestly think that there are a couple of things that I’ve done that I would say have been the most effective. One of them is to try to shift the conversation toward the outcomes and the results, because quite frankly, if you’re shipping products without doing this, and they are having a great impact on the company, and you’re acquiring users, they’re not needed.

The whole point of this is that if we ship things that we think are going to be amazing and have a great impact on people, we expect them to work. When they don’t work, we backtrack and say, “Well OK, that didn’t work well. How are we going to do it differently?” Learning to push that focus away from shipping and, instead, highlighting the impact is important.

That has been my go-to. What we want to do is save ourselves a headache and embarrassment of shipping something that nobody wants and that doesn’t work. We try to get ahead of it and convince people that it’s most likely not going to do the thing that we think it will, so we should do experiments.

Sometimes that doesn’t work. I’ve been in lots of situations where you have to let it happen. Then you retrospectively go back and say: “Well, we shipped this thing. We tried it that way. Here’s the impact that it had. That’s not quite what we were looking for. Now that we see that, let’s try to do it a different way.” Sometimes you have to feel the pain internally within your company, before there’s enough momentum and desire to go and try to do things differently.

Do you have any advice to those who want to break into the industry of product management?

I think just to tie it back to what I’ve been talking about, I would say I have a pretty particular perspective on how it has worked for me. I think good product management is about context. What has worked for me is the type of products that I’ve worked on and the customers that I’ve tried to build products for, but it isn’t the only type of management there is. For lots of other scenarios, there’s definitely more of a business mindset that makes a lot of sense, and they need more of a technical mindset.

It’s not really a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all model. I would say what I think is important is to be clear about what you’re most interested in and what fits your personality the most. Play to your strengths, and build a career in product management around that. There are certainly different tracks out there, and this is the track that I’m on. This is the type of product manager I look for, because it works for us.

There are definitely different ways to get into product management. Some may be more difficult than others, but it’s important to make the journey and not give up, if it’s what you really want. Don’t give away your visions and personality. There is room for everyone.

I’m Carlos González, CEO at Product School, and I enjoy sharing weekly tips for Product leaders!

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This article was also published on The Product Management Blog.



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