How We Designed A Microsite for New York City’s Best Product Community

ProductTank.nyc: A Design Case Study

ProductTank, which is owned and operated by the creators of the Mind the Product Conferences, is arguably the world’s largest product learning community. With meetups in over 175 cities, ProductTank brings together product people — whether they’re product managers, designers, or developers — to share their knowledge and experiences.

Product management expert Martin Eriksson started ProductTank in the United Kingdom in 2010 and it evolved into a global community of product professionals dedicated to community learning.

ProductTank NYC started in 2012. In 2016, I became a ProductTank NYC organizer, and between 2016 and 2018 I organized many ProductTank events. In this case study, I’ll share how and why we created the ProductTank NYC microsite, and how it became a community interface designed to bring NYC product people together.

Why Did I Become A ProductTank Organizer?

When I decided to become a ProductTank organizer, I had only one reason in mind: I wanted to learn as much as possible about product design. I can still remember the time when a friend invited me to my first ProductTank event, and I was immediately in awe at the idea that I could go to a meetup and listen to people from Mastercard and the New York Times share stories about how they built digital products. Since that time, I always looked forward to meetup notifications about the next ProductTank, but they were few and far in between. I wanted to change that for the better.

Trial by Fire

When I became an organizer back in 2016, my understanding was that part of my job was to spread the word about ProductTank. I immediately started taking initiative and reached out via LinkedIn to NYC-based product professionals and invited them to be guest speakers. I would send emails to various potential sponsors, repeatedly telling the story about ProductTank and their parent organization, Mind the Product.

I was committed to making ProductTank NYC work, no matter the obstacles I faced due to my lack of insider knowledge about how Mind the Product and ProductTank actually worked. Frankly, my first eight months as the only organizer felt like I was being put through a “trial by fire”. I learned the hard way about what sponsors and guest speakers would need to know before, during, and after events. There was always a detail that I was not aware of, and it would have been great to learn about these details from my predecessors in advance. Nevertheless, the best part about being an organizer was that I would meet and talk to people from different companies and backgrounds. It was hard work, and it was exciting, but it was also becoming quite tedious.

Administrative Challenges

As the sole organizer, the biggest administrative challenges I faced were:

  1. Trying to find creative, efficient and effective ways to communicate with ProductTank members, guest speakers, sponsors, and job seekers, without feeling like I am repeating the same spiels in hundreds of email messages.
  2. Repeatedly answering the same kinds of questions to different people and organizations via email.

Despite these challenges, I thankfully had accommodating sponsors willing to collaborate with me. It was also helpful to hop on the occasional phone call with Chris Massey, Product Lead for Mind the Product, and Marc Abraham, the Global ProductTank Coordinator. Chris and Marc provided general information available for ProductTank organizers around the globe, but that information took us only so far. The reality was that different ProductTank chapters face unique challenges depending on their geographic location, political, organizational and social norms, and industry trends specific to their locale.

After eight months of being the only ProductTank NYC organizer, I started meeting others who wanted to be organizers. They were associate-level product managers and they had many questions; and as the senior organizer, providing those answers became my responsibility.

As ProductTank NYC grew, so did the administrative challenges. Having quick access to information specific to how ProductTank operates in New York City became critical, and we needed to build a resource to make this possible.

What Should We Build?

When I asked the question, “What should we build?”, I was not interested in creating a new ProductTank or Mind the Product web site. Instead, I wanted to create an online accessory designed to provide information and answer questions about ProductTank NYC activities to members, organizers, sponsors and other stakeholders. I wanted to create a way to ensure that people could find existing global ProductTank information, ProductTank NYC meetup content, MTPCon content, and Mind the Product blog content — all via one location.

In order to provide access to the kinds of content our New York City audience was interested in, I started identifying and aggregating content from existing web properties owned and operated by Mind the Product (MTP).

These existing web properties include:

Why did we need to do this? Based on conversations and interviews with several ProductTank NYC members, a lot of our audience did not know which MTP sites to go to in order to find what they are looking for. A lot of members didn’t know that all these MTP sites existed. Some members didn’t know that ProductTank was a global meetup community and they only knew about ProductTank in New York City. Some members didn’t know that ProductTank is owned by Mind the Product. Others didn’t know that Mind the Product curated product management conferences and training workshops. Others also didn’t know that Mind the Product had a jobs site.

The Experiment

As you probably guessed, repeatedly informing ProductTank NYC members to visit different MTP sites depending on what they were looking for became daunting and counterproductive. So one day, I sent an email blast to our members, asking this question:

“What would you want in a ProductTank NYC app?”

Truth be told: I was not interested in building an app. I purposefully asked this question as an experiment with the goal of learning what our members would want to see in a bespoke ProductTank NYC digital product.

I also wanted to ensure that whatever we decided to build adhered to the following specifications:

  • The product had to be minimalist i.e. the least amount of web pages
  • It had to be streamlined i.e. the least amount of ProductTank NYC specific content as possible
  • It had to adhere to Mind the Product branding and design standards
  • It had to be easy to build and maintain
  • The source of any video content included in the product had to be located on a Mind the Product web property
  • It must not include alternatives of any fee-based service that Mind the Product offers (e.g. Mind The Product Jobs)
  • It will not include its own blog
  • It had to be mobile friendly

With these specifications in mind, I decided that instead of building an app, we could create a microsite with a CMS backend. A microsite is a small collection of pages which are meant to function as an accessory to a larger website or a collection of official web properties [e.g. MTPCon.com, MindtheProduct.com, ProductTank.com, etc].

We received some interesting responses to our question, “What would you want in a ProductTank NYC app?” such as:

  • A forum for product people to ask questions to crowd source answers
  • An event calendar and reminders
  • Options to stream videos offline of previous speakers
  • Rating features designed to give viewers the means to rate them so you can curate events with the top rated guest speakers
  • Book recommendations from speakers, curated by members
  • A jobs board
  • A FAQ section, with the means to ask other questions

Many of the responses we received validated a lot of our initial assumptions in regards to keeping the final product streamlined and mobile friendly. With this is mind we decided to move forward and build our first MVP.

“A microsite is a small collection of pages which are meant to function as an accessory to a larger website or a collection of official web properties.”

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

In Summer of 2017, we wanted to build and launch the smallest first version of what ProductTank.nyc could be and share it to the public, just to see the kinds of feedback we would get from our members.

“The goal isn’t to create something perfect on day one. It’s to get something out there and learn from it.” — Sarah Doody, User Experience Designer & Product Consultant
Jake Franek and Chul Kwon

With the help of one of our volunteers, product specialist and front-end developer Jake Franek, and additional guidance from fellow ProductTank NYC organizer Chul Kwon, we were able to develop and launch ProductTank.nyc within six days. This was possible because we used the popular platform Squarespace for their easy to use CMS controls. Building the microsite from scratch was not an undertaking we wanted to pursue, so we reached out to sponsors for support. ProductTank NYC sponsors, nexTier Innovations agreed to support our initiative and paid for the Squarespace subscription.

In our first release we launched the following:

  • A homepage that included a few embedded ProductTank NYC videos and highlights from past meetups
  • A “Meetups” section, designed to explain the kinds of events that we produced
  • A “Videos” section, designed to list all the ProductTank NYC videos. We embedded the videos in the section, but the videos themselves were hosted on MindtheProduct.com. We also included the links to the corresponding blog articles, also hosted on MindtheProduct.com
  • A blog. Truth be told, I did not want to include a blog because MTP already has a blog, but we published it anyway only to see what we could learn from the feedback
  • An ‘About’ page which provides information about what ProductTank NYC is, and information about the ProductTank NYC organizers
  • Easy to access links and references to several Mind the Product web properties

One month after launch

ProductTank.nyc was launched in August 2017. Since then, we quickly made improvements, thanks to the CMS widgets and features provided in the Squarespace platform. Members were impressed, and they were not bashful about providing feedback!

Like we anticipated, members wanted us to add search functionality, especially to the videos section. As Jake Franek continued to locate ProductTank NYC videos on the Mind the Product blog, he embedded them in our videos section.

Members also requested that we add a “recommended reading list” to the microsite but we elected to not do it, because Mind the Product already has a “Prioritised” newsletter which provides a list of recommended items. Instead, we included a link to the “Prioritised” newsletter signup page under the “Mind the Product (MTP)” menu sub-navigation.

Three months after launch: Video Subcategories & Custom Web Forms

For three months we had the blog online but then decided to remove it completely because no one asked about it or provided feedback. A month later we added a “Special Events” email signup feature to see if anyone would be interested. Another month passed, and there were no responses, so we removed it.

As our “Videos” collection grew, ProductTank members would ask me to recommend videos based on topics they were interested in. For example: if they wanted to know about how to use certain analytics tools, or if they wanted to learn more about a product leader’s career path, they would ask for video recommendations based on my knowledge of its content.

So to make their research process easier, I decided to reorganize the videos into the following sub-categories:

  1. Technical Knowledge
  2. Business Knowledge
  3. Communication Skills
  4. Tools & Frameworks
  5. Career Development
  6. Product Leadership

To ensure that the search feature worked effectively in the Videos section, we included paragraphs from the articles with their respective videos, and linked the video titles to the full articles on the Mind the Product blog.

Six months after launch: New Event Formats & Feedback Surveys

As we continued to experiment with content and features on the microsite, at Product events we started to experiment with other event formats beyond just guest speaker presentations. We wanted to get more product leaders involved, and there were too many of them who were not interested in doing 15-minute presentations. In light of our experiments we learned that some guest speakers prefer presentations, more prefer panel conversations, while others are open to doing both.

We also started inviting past guest speakers back to participate as guest Q/A moderators. Inviting guest speakers to return as moderators seemed like a great way to continue growing the ProductTank NYC community by keeping them involved in our activities.

That worked out very well.

In light of this, we created a page on the microsite called “Event Formats”, where we explain the different types of event formats we use at ProductTank NYC. This section was well received by potential guest speakers and sponsors, because now they felt like they had options to choose from, depending on how they wanted to participate.

We also created a web form version of our ProductTank NYC feedback survey. The paper version was originally created by fellow organizer, Chul Kwon. Usually we provided print versions of the feedback survey at the end of every ProductTank event, but then we decided that it would come in handy to have a web form version of the survey on the microsite. While some members were open to filling out the feedback survey on paper, other members would choose to go online with their devices to fill out the form, or they would fill out the form at another time.

“What would you like to learn?”

We also created a “What would you like to learn?” web form, designed to give anyone to the opportunity to share with us feedback around event topics and other ideas. In this form we provide a short list of event themes to choose from, and we present opportunities to suggest other themes.

This form has been very helpful in getting a sense of what our members would like to learn at ProductTank NYC. We received a variety of ideas such as:

“I’d be interested in any discussions about the link between product and design — from working with designers to designers. product in the service of design-led organizations or even the relationship between service design and product (in my view service is design is the platform for products.)”
“I’d love to see more about product leadership, how to lead other product managers. I’d also like to see more about product management in specific verticals, like digital health, B2B, travel tech etc.”
“Also, ‘operationalizing’ Machine Learning. You can use Data Science for insights, but how do you actually build systems to include Machine Learning in run-time applications? Culture change around that topic as well.”
“Given the entire industry is so new and there isn’t much of a place for this. As a ‘new-ish’ PM I would love to see more practical style “training workshops” on topics like:
1. Iteration practices…why you should do X and not Y
2. Conflict resolution with Engineering and Designers
3. Managing Ad-Hoc Requests
4. Creating your product roadmap”

Nine months after launch: The FAQ Library

The learning in the first eight months since the launch have been an adventure, because we soon discovered that with more event formats comes more potential guest speakers; which led to attracting more potential sponsors, leading to a lot more questions. We had to work to do.

The first release of ProductTank NYC FAQs was a basic set of questions about what is ProductTank and Mind the Product. However, since the first launch, it quickly became apparent that we needed to do more. There was always a new question to respond to via email, especially when one is corresponding with sponsors and potential guest speakers who require a lot of detailed information before they can make a decision.

We went back and reviewed all our ProductTank email correspondence and pulled out all the questions and answers we shared with everyone. I then reformatted the content into information that would be suitable for a FAQ library. I also included pictures within the FAQs as a way to keep readers engaged and it was a great opportunity to show what events at ProductTank NYC looked like.

As I noticed that the collection of FAQs were going to be long and comprehensive, I decided that we needed to organize these questions and answers into categories. So, I came up with the following:

  • FAQ About ProductTank
  • For Guest Speakers
  • For Volunteers
  • For Sponsors
  • For Job Seekers

As a result — the FAQ library gave us the ability to transform email conversations. We no longer had to repeat boilerplate answers to questions via email. Instead, whenever questions were asked that we knew existed in the FAQs, we would share that answer, and we would invite people to visit our FAQ library. Whenever someone posed a question we haven’t included in our FAQ library, we would provide an answer, then refine the question and answer for publishing in our library.

The FAQ library also came in very handy for training new organizers and volunteers, becoming a “ProductTank NYC Operations Manual” of sorts.

A year later: A Digital Community Center

ProductTank.nyc was launched initially as a microsite designed to help members find ProductTank NYC videos and articles easily. Now, ProductTank.nyc has evolved into a local digital community center and operations manual for our members, organizers, volunteers, and sponsors. It has become a valuable tool for communicating what ProductTank NYC does within the NYC product community.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are some examples of what people have shared about ProductTank.nyc:

Don’t Create A Jobs Board

If you are a ProductTank organizer and you are thinking about building a microsite — don’t create your own jobs board based on career opportunities available in your locale. Instead, work with Mind The Product to leverage the capabilities of their jobs site, Mind the Product Jobs.

Launching your own jobs site can be seen as creating a conflict of interest, and you don’t want to become an organizer that is competing with the success of Mind the Product Jobs. The microsite must be a Mind The Product accessory, not a stand alone entity that could endanger the existence of Mind the Product itself.

Do Not Replicate Fee-Based Systems

Do not replicate fee-based systems or features that Mind the Product already has. Always work to find ways to keep your microsite small and take advantage of opportunities to direct your users to Mind the Product content and services.

Focus Only On What You Need

Focus only on what you need to make your job as a ProductTank organizer easier and effective for your community. Don’t create microsite content and features just because it would be fancy or cool, because the last thing you want is to maintain features and content that no-one is using. It’s like they say, “Focus on outcomes, not outputs.”

ProductTank Toronto does a great job of creating a microsite designed to help their members find what they need for the time being: http://producttankto.com.

ProductTank RTP also launched a microsite (inspired by ProductTank.nyc) designed to showcase videos from their events: http://producttankrtp.org.

Listen and Learn from Your Community

Should you decide to create your own microsite — find out what your members, volunteers, sponsors, and guest speakers need in order to be successful by participating at ProductTank. If you can generate conversations about what they need — you will gain access to a source of community specific ideas for how your ProductTank could work — and there is always the possibility that you won’t need a microsite.

Whether you need one or not, don’t act on every idea you hear. Just keep in mind these two objectives:

  1. Learn as much as possible about your local product community, and
  2. Learn as much as possible about Mind the Product products, services, standards, guidelines and policy

These two objectives are important because it’s your job as a ProductTank organizer to ensure that your members, guest speakers, sponsors and others understand that ProductTank is a learning community that is owned and operated by Mind the Product. This means that while members should be made aware that ProductTank is a community for product people to come together and exchange stories; ProductTank is also a marketing vehicle for Mind the Product conferences and workshops.

“Focus only on what you need to make your job as a ProductTank organizer easier and effective for your community. Don’t create microsite content and features just because it would be fancy or cool, because the last thing you want is to maintain features and content that no-one is using.”

To the ProductTank organizers around the globe who reached out for tips and advice — this article is dedicated to you. I hope this information is helpful as you determine how best you should grow your respective ProductTank, no matter where you are in the world. Just please keep in mind — should you decide to create your own microsite, be sure that it provides real value for your ProductTank community and Mind the Product. Remember — focus on outcomes, not outputs. Good luck, and have fun.