This was my second Mind the Product conference and just like last year, it didn’t disappoint. The speakers all had fantastic insights to share and I learned a lot from each and every one of them. Here are my top ten key takeaways from the day.
#1: Teams are built on mutual accountability
Christina Wodtke talked about how not all groups are teams. “Work groups” are collections of independent people. They all work alone and collaborate with, at most, their manager or leader. A team is defined by mutual accountability. Everyone shares the workload and the responsibility for success. One practical measurement of this is whether the members of your team always go to the PM when they need something from someone else, as opposed to collaborating directly with the person they need something from.
Learning teams go one step further. These teams are committed to improving and making regular positive changes over time. They define clear goals and responsibilities and define team “norms” that clearly state what are typically implicit expectations around expected behavior.
#2: Feedback is biased on both sides
Cindy Alvarez discussed different forms of cognitive bias, specifically in relation to customer feedback. Confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, survivorship bias, and social desirability bias are just a few examples of things to look out for both in how you gather feedback and how your customers provide it.
She gave lots of examples of questions companies usually ask their users along with helpful ways to rephrase those questions to make sure the answers are honest and useful. For instance, we often ask current users questions about what it was like to be a new user, but the curse of knowledge makes it difficult for users to remember back to a time when they didn’t know something that now seems obvious. The answers around how difficult it was to learn to use your product are often vague or falsely affirming (“It was pretty easy…” or “I figured it out..”). Instead, try asking the user to walk you through how they would onboard a new coworker onto your product. This helps the user put themselves back into the shoes of a new user and you’ll learn more about the parts of the flow that they think are difficult to navigate.
For every question you ask a user, think about the biases you have in wanting an answer and the biases they have in providing an answer, and do your best to structure the conversation to minimize those biases.
#3: Is bad user research better than no user research? Nope.
My favorite quote from Leisa Reichelt: Just because it’s on a graph doesn’t mean it’s science! She discussed how companies need to invest in improving their research competency and grave some practical examples for how to improve interviews, usability testing, and surveys.
- Interviews: start with a wide context and ask your users about the tasks they’re trying to complete. Don’t cut straight to asking them about your features or your product, understand their intentions and goals first.
- Usability Testing: Quick, unmoderated usability testing is growing in popularity because it’s easy and cheap, but it comes with a lot of downfalls. You can’t beat real humans talking with users and watching them use your product.
- Surveys: Invest in in-person qualitative feedback before you create surveys so you can learn more about what should and shouldn’t be in your survey. Always triple test surveys on a small scale before sending them out to a large audience.
The take home point was that you shouldn’t over-rely on automated solutions to pull quantitative data out of qualitative user research. This is a sure fire way to come away with false assumptions. It takes time and real humans to find truth.
#4: Product market fit is found in the problem space
Dan Olsen laid out his concept of a product market fit pyramid, which I found to be super helfpul. Here’s my own quick sketch of how it works:
There are two groupings at play here:
- Market (bottom two layers) vs. Product (top three layers)
- Problem Space (bottom three layers) vs. Solution Space (top two layers)
Dan says that product teams fail to find product market fit when they focus too much of their time on the solution space. Your feature set and your UX are vitally important, but if you haven’t done your homework on your target customer, what under-served needs they have, and a value proposition that they’ll connect with, you’ll fail to build something meaningful and lasting.
Dan also discussed the Kano Model and laid out how you can build a value proposition grid that compares your product to your competitors to make sure you have something unique and valuable.
#5 Roadmaps ≠ release plans
C. Todd Lombardo gave a great talk about what a product roadmap is and isn’t.
A roadmap isn’t:
- A release plan
- A list of features and dates
A roadmap is:
- A statement of intent and direction
- How you will realize the company vision
- A list of outcomes, not outputs
His suggested process for building a roadmap is to :
- Gather inputs
- Create themes (goals and objectives you’d like to pursue)
- Map your themes to the quarter’s sprints/release plan
He emphasized that themes are the thing to map to a timeline, not specific features. You do need to create a list of features and projects that will be addressed in those themes but the roadmap itself focuses on the high level goals of what you’re going to address and when.
#6 Plan your own day or someone else will
Nir Eyal literally wrote the book on how to build habit-forming products, which makes him the perfect person to give a talk about how addicted we all are to constant distractions and how we can beat those distractions to become indistractible.
Nir says the opposite of distraction is traction: the place where we’re “in the zone” being productive and actually getting work done. There are internal and external triggers constantly pulling you away from traction toward distraction, but it’s incorrect to assume that all of this is technology’s fault and that you have no control over it.
Nir says time management is pain management. When you allow yourself to be distracted by internal triggers, you should try to be as mindful as possible about what’s happening:
- Ask yourself what you’re being distracted from: what is it that you need to be working on right now that’s more important that whatever is pulling your attention away.
- Simply recognize and become aware of the urge to get distracted. “Surf the urge” and get curious about why it’s happening. Why do you want to check Twitter instead of writing that report? What pain are you avoiding? Is the distraction serving you or hurting you?
One of the best ways to fight distraction is to plan your own day so that someone else doesn’t plan it for you. Nir says todo lists aren’t as effective as time blocking. Instead of writing down a simple checklist of what you want to do today, instead make a schedule of the things you’ll work and focus on throughout the day. This helps you prioritize what’s most important to work on at any given time and nudges you towards achieving traction.
#7 Ethical choices come from you, not your organization
I absolutely loved this talk from Mariah Hay and found it to be one of the most refreshing and vital topics all day. We were all at this conference to learn to be better product managers. We want to figure out how to make more money, build more addictive products, scale our user base, and take over the world. Mariah Hay was there to remind us that product managers have a ton of power and therefore a ton of responsibility, not just to our organizations but to society as a whole.
The Volkswagen emissions scandal and Cambridge Analytica were two prime examples of how product people abuse their power to the detriment of society. Mariah noted that as other professions increase in power, they often create a code of ethics that everyone in the profession is expected to follow, citing the medical field and structural engineering as two examples. The idea that product managers should have a universal code of ethics really resonated with me! She suggested the following three principles as a start:
- Don’t weaponize your product
- Be aware of your blindspots
- You are 200% accountable. 100% to yourself, and 100% to the people around you.
The part that hit me the hardest was when she said, “Ethics must live with you, not the organization.” Organizations don’t deceive customers or make unethical choices, people do. It is your responsibility to stand up and fight against unethical behavior, even at the cost of your job.
#8 Test your riskiest assumption
Brant Cooper talked about why innovation programs tend to fail. There’s a lack of understanding and agreement both in individual companies and in the tech industry as a whole around what innovation is and who owns it. He discussed how your entire organization can be structured around value stream innovation, citing Spotify’s org as a model that has proven successful.
My favorite part of this talk was when Brant discussed finding a balance in your testing strategy between small scale AB tests and big experiments that measure all your riskiest assumptions. Don’t think about your site, your features, etc. Focus on what assumptions you’re making in your attempt to innovate and design experiments that test that assumption, even if they look nothing like what you eventually want to build.
#9 To build an enduring product, focus on your core user action
Sarah Tavel shared the hierarchy of engagment that she developed at Pinterest:
At the base level, you focus on growing your number engaged users, then you need to retain those users, and finally, build a system that’s self-perpetuation so that your users themselves are pulling more new users into this cycle.
The key concept of Sarah’s talk was the concept of a “Core Action”. Lots of companies grow, but few companies endure. If you’re focusing purely on user growth, you’re not building a sustainable product. Instead, you need to identify a core action that your users can take: one single action that forms the foundation of the product.
To find your core action, find the thing your users do that’s most correlated with retention. By focusing on this action, you’re perpetuating the hierarchy of engagement above instead of focusing on the vanity metric of user growth while not building long term retention.
Examples of core actions:
- Facebook: “Friending” someone
- Pinterest: Pinning
- Snapchat: Snapping
- YouTube: Subscribing
I loved Sarah’s metaphor of thinking of every user action as a unit of energy that can be used to fuel virtuous loops that automatically create meaningful user growth. If you’re distracting your users with too many secondary actions that aren’t using this fuel wisely, it’ll be spent in all the wrong places. Instead, focus on onboarding them to, and getting them to complete, the core action.
#10 We’re all figuring it out as we go
The final lesson I’ll share is an important one from Martin Eriksson as he kicked off the conference: we’re all impostors and we’re all figuring this out as we go. He shared Neil Gaiman’s story of talking to a man at a gathering of accomplished people. The man told Gaiman, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” The man who said this was Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon!
The takeaway here is that if Neil freaking Armstrong struggles with impostor syndrome, then it seems like it’s a fairly universal feeling; one that we need to get over. Product management is still a fairly new profession and even the most experienced, most accomplished PMs are still learning every day how to get better at what they do. So give yourself a break, recognize that lots of us feel like we have no clue what we’re doing, and push forward, learning from every inevitable mistake.
We’re always looking for amazing people to join the Creative Market team (and we’re hiring product managers!). We value our culture as much as we value our mission, so if helping creators turn passion into opportunity sounds like something you’d love to do with a group of folks who feel the same way, then check out our job openings and apply today!