The 4 Technology Trends that transformed Product Management in the last decade
As we embark into a new decade, I was thinking about how the role of Product Management has transformed in the past 10 years. On a day to day basis, it doesn’t seem like much has changed at all, but thinking back to how PMs in the average company built products in the 2000s vs what they do now, there is indeed a sea change.
The trends I picked below are ones that affected the whole industry, not just a few companies. These are trends that transformed “how” PMs operate, not just what they work on. Arguably, some of these trends started at some companies sooner than later, especially the ones that were early adopters of the shift in some of the technology changes that drove these changes. If you think I missed a trend, feel free to comment, and I might add it!
Rise of mobile-first, responsive apps and a new design aesthetic
The first iPhone had released in 2007. However, it wasn’t until the 2010s when mobile started becoming mainstream.The launch of Android, specifically, catapulted mobile to mass adoption. Initially, mobile was another form factor to build for, in addition to the web/desktop. But eventually, responsive UX design came to dominate all form factors. Responsive design meant that the product should adapt to whatever device the user is on. Simultaneously, a new crop of companies started developing straight for mobile, skipping the web all together. Many companies in this era started and even became successful because they were mobile first — Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat , Flipboard, Pulse (sold to LinkedIn) etc. all grew in the last decade and were some of the pioneers in mobile-first app development.
Mobile also introduced a new sense of aesthetics for product design. Web in the previous decade was ugly. Companies were measured by page-views, and they shoved as much information as they could and added as many links as they could (probably also an effect of Google’s search algo) into their websites. Whereas on mobile, a different design aesthetic was born. Some of it was due to Apple leading the way. But most of it was because of the form factor — you only had so much real estate to work with. The side-effect of responsive design was that this design aesthetic also transformed web design. Products on the web today look so much better now than before 2010.
For product managers, the big change from the previous decade was thinking about multiple form factors, not just one . And, also being cognizant of how people move between one interface to the other, and maintaining that experience. From thinking about just one platform — the web, now you have to think about how users are accessing your product from mobile — on Android vs iOS, on mobile web vs desktop web. This transformed processes for releases — which platform do you release first, what features are available on each platform and so on.
Personalization — Machine learning now integrated into every product
As with the rise of mobile, the seeds of this trend were sown in the 2000s. Google had published a paper on MapReduce in 2004, that made working with large datasets aka Big Data much easier with stock hardware. However, it wasn’t until 2011 when Apache released the open source Hadoop that Big Data became mainstream. Now every company, not just the Googles and Facebooks of the world, could collect and process large amounts of data on their users. And, companies were investing in machine learning to improve their products and services. In the 2000s, every user experienced the same exact product. Now, every user has a different experience with the same product — my News Feed looks different from my mother’s, my Amazon recommendations are not the same as my friend’s and of course, hyper targeted ads now follow me everywhere.
The big change for PMs has been the melding of UX and algorithms, where we now need to think about not just the UX but also how the algorithm changes the experience. I would say the PM skill-set needed to understand the effect of machine learning on user experience is still evolving.The later part of the last decade saw a huge focus on transparency and ethics of ML/AI as people became aware of the effects of hyper-personalization. In some sense, ML also made product management harder, because it became tougher to understand how users were using the product since the product experience differed from one user to the other, which leads us to the next trend below.
Experimentation and the Lean Startup — Using data to decide what product experiences to build
The widespread availability of data and the rise of Big Data technology led to mass adoption of experimentation frameworks in companies. Simultaneously, right around 2011, Eric Ries published his book “The Lean Startup”. This took the startup world as well as larger companies by storm. It advocated building out MVP — the minimum version of your product that’s needed to solve a customer problem, and iterating from there to build the product, instead of starting out with a full spec. Companies starting with just a landing page, and then finding success, iterating based on the traffic and user behavior, became the stories people were sharing in Silicon Valley.
Suddenly, A/B Testing was no longer limited to a few big companies.Every company was using A/B Testing to decide how to optimize their product better for its users. Data-driven decision making became a core PM skill. Decisions were not just being made based on UX or strategy, but rather what the data says.The decade saw the rise and fall of Zynga, one of the most famous examples of data-driven decision making leading to massive success, but also leading to short-sightedness because of being too numbers driven. This did lead to some caution in the industry. However, largely, companies have become more data-driven than not in the last decade and iterative product building (aka “the pivot” in startup parlance) is here to stay.
Cloud , the Prosumer and Recurring Revenue
Enterprise product management differed a ton from product building practices in consumer companies. Consumer companies cared a lot about engagement and retention. Enterprise companies cared about feature delivery. Thus, enterprises worked on months, sometimes year long release cycles and focused on being feature rich. In contrast, consumer companies usually had shorter release cycles. Fundamentally, the goals that these companies optimized for were different — Enterprise optimized for the buyer of the software (the IT guy or the CIO who cared about features) , consumer optimized for the user of the software.
Adoption of the cloud transformed enterprise software in the last decade drastically. You no longer had to install software on enterprise hardware. It was all accessible through the cloud. And, it was the same software that every user accessed, irrespective of what company they belonged to. Combined with the rise of the SaaS business model — recurring revenue vs yearly licenses,this led to the growth of the prosumer enterprise company — DropBox, Slack etc. that looked and acted more like consumer companies than enterprise. Prosumers could sign up for these products themselves, they didn’t need an IT person to sign off and because it was a low-monthly cost, could use their own credit cards to pay for it. By the end of the last decade, all the big companies such as Microsoft, Adobe had also transitioned to cloud based, recurring revenue products.
Product management in prosumer enterprise companies look a lot like consumer companies now. They care about user acquisition and retention, not just about delivering monolithic software every release cycle. The distinction between enterprise and consumer product management has become thinner over time, thus allowing cross-pollination of ideas and products. Consumer companies now aspire to sell enterprise products( Amazon, Google, Facebook) and enterprise companies are changing their products to appeal to the average user, not just the IT buyer.
So, this was my list for the 2010s. What trends affected your job as a PM in the last decade ? Would love to hear your experiences below. Also, watch out for my list of predictions for what I think will impact product management in the new roaring 20s.