Want to win in the digital age?

Here’s what successful product executives recommend you do

Nearly every company is struggling to keep up in the digital age. 100+ year old companies such as General Electric and Citi are of course trying to catch up, but even Snapchat — a company that was itself disrupting media just a couple years ago — is now playing catch up as well.

My company, Alpha, sits at the intersection of product management and data-driven decision-making. We’ve been fortunate to interview 125+ business and product leaders on This Is Product Management and have over a third of the Fortune 100 using our integrated experimentation platform. This has given us a front-row seat to many digital transformation efforts and some of the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

We recently went behind the scenes with two leading digital product development organizations: Northwestern Mutual and XO Group. The former is a 160 year-old financial services company, while the latter is known for brands such as The Bump and The Knot. We interviewed dozens of different stakeholders, observed how they actually work, and learned their unique takes on common approaches like design sprints.

Here are four of the key takeaways:

1. It may be called a transformation, but don’t forget how you got here

One of the nation’s oldest and most cherished brands has a familiar story about reinventing itself for the digital world, but with a twist. In March 2015, Northwestern Mutual acquired LearnVest, a fast-growing New York-based startup with a personal finance tracking suite. Instead of fully integrating the technology and employees, Northwestern Mutual saw value in maintaining LearnVest’s entrepreneurial and digital-first approach.

“Northwestern Mutual has always had a traditional culture that really values the field advisor, being client-centric, and explaining our business principles,” explained Vivek Bedi, who is both the VP of Consumer Experience of Northwestern Mutual and the Head of Product at LearnVest. “LearnVest, on the other hand, has always been focused on brand, innovation, and design.”

Wearing two hats and sitting at the intersection of different operational models has given Bedi a unique perspective. “Together, we’ve built a blended third-culture as I like to put it. A culture that really thinks about taking risks, experimenting, but also [embracing] those core commitments from Northwestern Mutual.”

The combination of the two cultures enabled the organization to create a modern user experience across its digital channels without sacrificing its established brand. “It’s really important to take the best of both worlds when you’re thinking about innovation,” Bedi said.

2. Empower individuals closest to the problem to solve it

Re-launching Northwestern Mutual’s homepage required collaboration amongst product, marketing, design, and engineering teams. It was a feat that would have been difficult without changing development methodologies. For past projects, the business team would give engineers 100-plus-pages of requirements, and continue to change them after work had started. By the time engineering was completed, projects often weren’t relevant anymore. The engineering team found it demoralizing to do all that work only to have to scrap it.

Sprint planning at LearnVest, a Northwestern Mutual company

As part of the recent digital transformation, cross-functional teams worked together to develop solutions. “It used to be a three to four month run-up time for us to [deploy an] update, and that created a lot of anxiety,” Rick Allen, a senior engineer at Northwestern Mutual, said. “Now we can spin things out more than once a week if we need, allowing stakeholders to get things live quicker, and for us to work faster.”

Beyond collaboration, the engineering team also benefits from greater autonomy with regard to decision making. “We have a lot of freedom with the languages and frameworks that we use,” explained Derek Zernach, an associate engineer on the team. “Before it was ‘these are the approved frameworks — go ahead and go at it.’”

XO Group runs “design studios” which, according to Madeline Vu, a Senior Product Designer, are “cross-functional ideation sessions where we focus on solving a user problem.” Designers craft and run these sessions, allowing improvements to happen from the bottom-up as opposed to being mandated from the top-down. This approach empowers the people who have the most contact with customers to share insights and contribute to critical product decisions.

3. Hold the line on priorities, and iterate afterward

XO Group’s design studios also keep the team aligned on priorities. During design studios, teams from design, product, engineering come together to share ideas and decide what to focus on.

“The goals of a design studio are to understand, diverge, and then converge.” said Vu. “Understanding” establishes a common understanding of user needs and desired outcomes. “Diverging” encourages participants to generate and share ideas. “Converging” gets everyone back on the same page by voting for the best ideas and then prototyping them and getting feedback from users.

A design studio at XO Group

For Northwestern Mutual’s website redesign initiative, Kimberly Tzeng, a Product Manager at LearnVest, worked to gain input from several key stakeholders. “We had to reach out to all these different groups, including marketing, communications, investments, insurance, customer service, and careers,” she said.

Tzeng set up meetings at the beginning of the project to keep everyone aligned on it’s top priority: to communicate Northwestern Mutual’s mission with a positive user experience.

“We’re all working towards the same goal of giving the customer a better experience.”

Tzeng then communicated the importance of starting with a “minimum viable product,” the essential features they needed in order to communicate Northwestern Mutual’s mission, get feedback, and build on it over time. She clearly defined and communicated the scope of the minimum viable product and reassured stakeholders that their input could eventually be incorporated, even if it wasn’t in the first iteration. “We wanted to make sure that the top key things that we were trying were there…everything else can fit in, and we can figure out how to do that, but we need to start somewhere,” Tzeng said.

4. Continuously improve through user insights

Northwestern Mutual’s goal was not simply to launch a new website. The goal was to launch a website that their customers and prospects love and engage with. While, it was important to meet release date commitments, the work didn’t stop after the launch.

Fortunately, digital products, relative to physical products, are easy to improve iteratively. The team analyzes data about how people are engaging with the website and asks users to provide feedback. This helps them validate their initial hypotheses and identify any areas where they can improve the user experience.

When the team found that traffic and conversion rates on the career section of the website were decreasing, they worked to improve it. “We wanted to take a step back to figure out what the consumer needs are, and make sure that we develop the website to accommodate them,” Charles Worman, the company’s Product Director said. The team tested prototypes with more than 700 users and learned that visitors naturally scrolled to the footer to look for career-related information.

Similarly, XO Group has deployed design studios in a number of scenarios that have enabled the company to rapidly adapt to an evolving market, according to Brent Tworetzky, Executive Vice President of Product. One trend that posed a unique challenge for The Knot’s product team was the increasing popularity of cash registries. “Cash is a very sensitive subject, so we weren’t sure what words to use,” Tworetzky recalls. By running a design studio, the company tested different messaging and framing with couples.

“A blank check felt a little hollow and shallow, so we asked couples to imagine what they’d use the cash for,” Tworetzky explained. “We discovered that it needed to be along the lines of $100 for scuba diving lessons accompanied by a photo of scuba diving. Asking for cash in these terms is experiential and lot more personal.” The design studio paid off, as cash gifting has become one of The Knot’s most popular offerings.


For more insights about how to win in the digital age, check out Alpha Exec Series. We’ll be publishing more stories every month.