Build Products Users Want: 2017 New York Product Conference Highlights

The recent product management conference, with a focus on users, discussed today’s hottest topics with many of New York’s leading product thinkers.

All photo credits: Gordon Eriksen

The 2017 New York Product Conference ran on November 4th, 2017, focusing on the theme of Users. Convening at New York’s beautiful new Cornell Tech campus, almost 250 attendees spent the day learning, discussing, and bonding over this year’s latest product trends to better understand their users and build high-impact products. Attendees learned from many of New York’s leading product thinkers from Foursquare, The New York Times, Jet.com, Invision, Trello, and many others. Here were the highlights and recaps from the various sessions.

New York Product Conference at Cornell Tech

Biggest Takeaways

  • Organizations of all sizes and across numerous industries are increasingly valuing and investing in user research capabilities, recognizing the importance of understanding users to build great products. This isn’t just good news for builders — it’s great for our users too! But… many organizations fail to democratize the research process or effectively share the user insights they’ve developed. Make sure your organization both receives and digests user understanding well!
  • Launching product tests can feel risky to organizations that aren’t used to having anything other than brand-approved, perfect experiences — lower the stress and build comfort by launching in new or non-core areas of the organization,using the language “learn” instead of “launch.”
  • As simple as it sounds, don’t forget to build products users want. Oftentimes teams get excited about new technologies and features for their own sake and spend energy building products users ultimately won’t adopt. Start with user problems first and confirm along the way that your approach actually solves the problem.
  • Don’t let user research be a crutch when you need to make hard decisions. It’s easy to delay making a hard decision by committing to do more research. This approach wastes your team’s time and user research potential. Examine each research chunk to confirm that it’s valuable to pursue.

User Research on User Research

Brent Tworetzky

Brent Tworetzky, EVP Product at XO Group, shared user research conducted with Krista Plano, User Research Lead at XO Group, on the current state of user research, representing product department feedback from over 100 companies across a range of geographies, sectors, user types, and sizes.

  • Universally, organizations are hungry to understand their users. No clear difference emerges across different organization types.
  • Consumer-facing organizations perform more user research than non-consumer-facing organizations on average. (Note some organizations such as marketplaces have consumer and business users — these organizations do more user research than organizations with business-only users.) Accessing and interviewing consumers is easier to do (you and everyone you work with is a consumer), and this friction puts non-consumer-facing organizations at a user understanding disadvantage.
  • Smaller organizations (below 50 employees) are better at sharing their user research and understanding across the whole team on average, while larger companies struggle more to transfer knowledge from the product team to the rest of the organization.
  • While product teams also have room to improve on the breadth and frequency of the research they do, the biggest opportunity to improve user research outcomes appears to be sharing existing user research more successfully with the rest of the company. Sending slideshows around the office doesn’t work for most people! In person presentations, in person interviews/panels, videos, and Slack channels are examples of successful research-sharing methods from some leading organizations.
  • A richer article about this research is coming soon and will be linked to from here.

Predicting and Shaping User Behavior

Naveen Selvadurai

Naveen Selvadurai, founder of Foursquare and partner at Expa talked about predicting the future and adapting and shaping user behaviors. Two of Naveen’s previous companies (Foursquare, Runtones) became leading products that created new behaviors such as “checking in” to locations and buying music on phones.

  • Lean into technology changes that provide new opportunities to solve fundamental human needs. Don’t build new products just because new technologies exist.
  • Make something people want” — it’s simple but so often forgotten.
  • Follow the toothbrush test — build products people will use at least twice a day.
  • Think about how new technology and product can change how we spend time and attention. Time and attention is limited and is the fundamental currency. If you can change where attention is spent, you’ve build something powerful.
  • In emerging platforms, Naveen is bullish on AR and voice.
  • Naveen’s reading list. Full list from the day below.

Building Products for Product People

Mike Fishbein, Billy Kiely, Nikita Dyer, and Brian Smith

Mike Fishbein (This Is Product Management podcast) interviewed Billy Kiely (Invision), Nikita Dyer (Trello), and Brian Smith (UserTesting) about building products for product people. Invision, Trello, and UserTesting are three popular tools used by product managers, designers, user researchers, and product marketers in product user research and creation.

  • As a product person, it can at times be both surprisingly easy and difficult to build for other product people!
  • It’s easy because you and your team are your own customer, so products rarely have core bugs or usability issues for long. Trello, Invision, and UserTesting product people use their own products every day!
  • It’s challenging because you’re likely a power user vs. the average user and can have an abundance of confidence while being wrong about what the average user needs. Perform the good hygiene of seeking to cut out your own user bias and recenter around your core user.
  • Your users, as product people, constantly provide feedback and often come with solutions, not problems. Perform the good hygiene of separating a user suggestion/complaint from the underlying unresolved user need.
  • When building workflow tools, there’s a constant challenge of building features for all users vs. building specialty features for some users. This decision should be made explicitly in line with the company strategy and business needs.
  • As workflow products become more successful, the average user shifts from a power user to a non-power user, and the purchaser changes from a direct user to someone in finance or management. Ignore these changing user/purchaser dynamics at your peril, or else you’ll box yourself into a smaller market!
  • Multi-purpose product like workflow and research products can be used in surprising ways. Talk to your users to discover new ways they adapt your product for their needs — this learning will help you understand feature gaps/opportunities and product marketing opportunities.

Learning about Users Quickly

Dan Storms, Carson Miller, Rachel Bogan, Thor Ernstsson, and David Lipkin

Dan Storms (XO Group) interviewed Carson Miller (Fahrenheit 212), Rachel Bogan (Work & Co), Thor Ernstsson (Alpha), and David Lipkin (Method) about how they learn about new users quickly. These firms provide consulting or technology to help organizations perform user research and build product from prototypes to launch.

  • When starting up new user research and discovery, be very clear about the user you’re serving and the problem you want to solve. Too often research happens that is fuzzy about the user or goal, and ends up being low value research.
  • Even worse, teams often don’t assess if the problem is worth solving at all — think about “if we build a successful product for this user need, and users embrace the products, will it matter?”
  • When learning and testing new products, get products in user hands quickly and iterate quickly. Speed matters to get more “at bats” to find and polish a product-market fit.
  • A common bad practice for user research is testing and learning in a contrived environment — keep test conditions as realistic as possible to actual use, else you may get high confidence in a wrong answer. An article on A List Apart noted a famous example of this misuse regarding Coke vs. Pepsi. (Hat tip PMHQ newsletter.)
  • Sometimes non-product people, including management, are nervous about releasing a new test product to your user base. Replace the word “launch” with “test” to lower team and management anxiety about releasing new products in pursuit of learning and iterating.

Lessons from New York City’s Big Tech Exit: Jet.com

Sarah Bernard

Sarah Bernard, VP Product of Jet.com, shared learnings from Jet.com’s successful journey through launch, acquisition by Walmart, and continued growth, as well as broader learnings from her distinguished career as a product leader at other great companies like BabyCenter and Hotwire.

  • Jet.com created a transparent, values-driven culture that made serving users clear and high priority across the company. This approach helped the company make fast decisions and move quickly. Is your organization set up to make fast decisions for serving your users?
  • Jet.com continues to perform deep user research to understand user needs and mental models, and shares learnings successfully across the company. For example, Net Promoter Score comments are shared via an internal Slack channel, keeping teams aligned and collaborating toward driving value to users.
  • User research by itself is a fundamental component of product development. But user research can be used as a crutch to avoid conflict. (“We can’t decide, so let’s interview more users.”) Don’t fall into this trap and deal with conflict directly to move more quickly and get to better answers.
  • The more accessible user research tools are available in your organization, the more testing will get done. So make user research opportunities as easy to access as possible!
  • When joining a new team, Sarah invites the team and stakeholders to a deep user interview session. This activity helps bring a team to shared understanding and helps identify the state of trust and use of user research within the team today.

Staying Focused on Your Users while Scaling

Frank Denbow, Melody Koh, Camilla Velasquez, Fabiola Carcamo, and Leland Rechis

Frank Denbow (INK’A) interviewed Melody Koh (NextView Ventures, formerly Blue Apron), Camilla Velasquez (Justworks), Fabiola Carcamo (Vroom), and Leland Rechis (Cornell Tech, formerly YouNow, Kickstarter, Etsy) about the challenges and best practices of serving users well while scaling quickly.

  • When scaling quickly, your conditions are changing quickly. Users and user types are changing. Operating mechanics and leverage are changing. Cost structures are changing. Technical load and performance is changing. In this environment it’s more difficult to look far ahead for planning purposes.
  • In these cases, make sure to check user and operating assumptions regularly — it will be expensive in time, money, and resources to miss important adjustments.
  • In these cases, over-communicating is critical to avoid getting strategy and roadmap out of step.
  • It’s easy to use vanity metrics when scaling, but vanity metrics are fundamentally less valuable for decision making and providing business health visibility. Try to avoid vanity metrics, as tempting as they are to use for morale and confidence!
  • Some drivers of scaling slowdown: poor fraud handling, getting into compliance, paying down tech debt.

Thinking Outside the Interface — Tech & Physical Products

Seanita Tolliver, Christina d’Avignon, Miles Begin, and MZ Goodman

Seanita Tolliver interviewed Christina d’Avignon (Ringly), Miles Begin (Updater, previously Canary), and MZ Goodman (Glossier) about the unique challenges of building products for the real world.

  • User research around physical and digital products share fundamentals: understand the user’s pain points in context, put products in user hands early, create and test minimum viable products (MVPs). Executing these steps is a little different though!
  • Similarly, both physical products and digital products (done well) can inspire in person fan communities, which are then managed online and in real life.
  • With off-the-shelf parts, it’s getting easier to do hardware MVPs than it used to, though most digital-only product people in the room had never tried to build a physical product MVP.
  • Understanding physical product context may be more challenging than for digital products, as a physical product (like a wearable device or home device) gets shared, stored, dropped, pushed, lost, run out of power, and exposed to temperatures. It may take more work for a product person to understand and get right the important edge cases for making a physical product successful in a user’s life.

Product at The New York Times: Serving Users When the Stakes Are High

Alex Rainert

Alex Rainert recently joined leading news company The New York Times to run product management and design, where he’s helping the highly visible 160+ year old company build experiences more digital-first while respecting the company’s history and strengths.

  • Introducing new ways of working, especially new ways of looking at, talking to, and building for users, needs to be done delicately in organizations that already have strong relationships with their users. For example, how to make an experience feel more personalized while also maintaining the carefully curated, authoritative voice core to the brand? Perhaps start with small, contained experiments in non-core, non-editorial areas and build from there?
  • Alex joined The New York Times in the middle of a home page redesign. To help the team get to the most successful result dealing with a core product, he’s set up the right conditions for testing by setting expectations of ship, learn, and iterate in a controlled format, sharing learnings along the way.
  • Alex discovered a natural rapid testing cycle with high enough volume to get statistical signals — the daily news! Some of the product and engineering team sits in the newsroom to watch, learn, and collaborate on tests with the editorial team. The audience found it inspiring to blend elements of design thinking and user research with naturally existing organizational cycles — does your organization offer its own special research opportunity?

Product Reading List and Other Resources

We asked the day’s product leaders for their favorite books, blogs, and podcasts:

  • Ben Evans’ newsletter (Andreeson Horowitz venture capital investor)
  • Fred Wilson’s AVC newsletter (Union Square Ventures venture capital investor)
  • Om Malik’s Pico (True Ventures venture capital investor and former tech journalist)
  • Gib Biddle’s Product Leadership Talks (Multi-time chief product officer, including Netflix and Chegg)
  • Ken Norton’s Bringing The Donuts product newsletter (GV venture capital investor and product advisor)
  • Julie Zhuo blog (Facebook VP of product design)
  • Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog/newsletter (technology writer and analyst)
  • Software Lead Weekly newsletter (tech people, culture, leadership topics)
  • Jill on Money Better Off podcast (personal finance writer reviewing business topics)
  • Women in Product meetups (Bay Area and New York City product meetups)

Thanks to Rose Pember, Nis Frome, and Krista Plano for help with this summary article!

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