Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Usability and Movie Making


As a product manager I've always been interested and involved with UI and Usability. However over the last few years it was a core area of focus, as my team was responsible for the current and next gen UI of the Siebel Application. In managing UI for an enterprise application that was deployed to 3M+ users I realized that usability is a lot like making movies.

Great Movies/Usability
  • Everyone relates to them
  • Everyone feels they have a killer idea for one
  • Everyone feels they can make one happen easily
For anyone who's attempted one, you'll soon realize why there are so few blockbusters made each year.

Anyways here are 5 Tips on Usability that have helped me over the years.
  1. Dont make users think (Thanks Mr Krug :-). Aim for simplicity and strive to design a transparent experience where the user can focus on completing the task more than anything else. Trust me, no user wants to be confronted with complexity. Its often (mis-guided) vendors who feel that exposing the complexity of an app to users allows them to demonstrate how rich the app is.
  2. Leverage standards and patterns and be open to leveraging usability from similar products. Patterns (atleast proven ones) are structured responses to usability problems out there, so dont attempt to reinvent the wheel all the time. But do remember that patterns are loosely structured solutions and so adapt them to your scenario. Also if you're attempting to create a new pattern, remember that its a lot of effort to get a good validated pattern and the probability of success on one of these newer patterns is very slim.
  3. Know your users and watch them use the product. DO NOT design from a white ivory tower. Also remember this golden rule, internal users especially ones on product teams are not ideal users.
  4. Put designs back in front of users and iterate on the design.This is one area where I often see application usability initiatives fail. There is often this cover of stealth and secrecy and often some hesitancy to put designs back in front of customers. Well trust me, unless you're designing the next iPhone, stealth and secrecy is not going to work for your usability. As I've learnt in my days managing Siebel Security, stealth and secrecy do not make things more secure and they sure dont make things more usable either.
  5. When the heat is on stick to your guns.Often I've seen UE folks fold up/cave in/give up (use your favorite phrase) when confronted on their designs. To me that's just a sign of a "not very well thought out" design. If you believe in your design then stick to it, be open to criticism, plan to defend with data, learn to isolate good feedback from criticism noise and even if you have to compromise dont give in on the core principles.
Ready to make blockbusters?

Thursday, December 31, 2009

5 Technology Favorites from this decade - 2009


This is probably my last post of this decade so wanted to share with you 5 Technology Favorites from this decade that significantly influenced our lives (mine atleast) in a good way.

Its nothing philosophical and obviously excludes family events, where we were blessed with 2 wonderful kids ... and the other defining events of this decade like 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So here's my 5 Technology Favorites from this decade ...

I think in many ways 3G was the backbone of a lot of other technology trends today and I believe that it will be remembered historically kinda like the x86 architecture for PC's as the place from where all real mobility enablement started. Maybe I'm over exaggerating a little here but that's how I feel.
The first commercial launch of 3G was also by NTT DoCoMo in Japan on 1 October 2001, the second network to go commercially live was by SK Telecom in South Korea, then came the European networks and then the first commercial United States 3G network was setup by Monet Mobile Networks, on CDMA2000 1x EV-DO technology, but this network provider later shut down operations. The second 3G network operator in the USA was Veriz on Wireless in October 2003 also on CDMA2000 1x EV-DO.
The Nokia 6650 was the world's first 3G phone supporting the W-CDMA 2100 MHz band a far cry from the current 3G iPhones for example. Interestingly the phone was "unlocked" ... eat that AT&T and other Telcos

iPod (and then the iPhone)
I think that this was probably the best invention/creation that came from Steve Jobs and company. Now I know Mac fanatics might chew my head off on this, but I'd say if you cant make the product #1 in its category then it'll always be good and amazing but never "great". I believe iPod delivered for Apple and Steve what they were craving for years in the PC market.

Deeming existing portable music players poorly conceived, Jobs ordered a team of his engineers and designer Jonathan Ive to develop the first iPod in under a year. Launched in October 2001, the product would go on to claim more than 70% of the digital music player market and, with its companion iTunes Music Store, revolutionize the distribution of digital music.

While the iPhone and its new touch paradigm revolutionized the smartphone market to a large extent, its impact was nowhere close to what iPod and iTunes did to the music and entertainment space.

Not enough credit goes to this service, which has now become woven into the fabric of our lives Youtube now has a billion or more views a day and is an alternative media outlet all its own. Never does a day go by when we don't watch something interesting out there. Youtube was started in 2005 and here's the very first public Youtube video.

Facebook is poised to change the way we interact socially with our friends, family and acquaintances (depending on who you've let into your Facebook network ;-). I know parents, grandparents, folks in villages and towns all over the world jumping on Facebook to keep in touch and find out what's happening with people they know.

You can read up on how Facebook got started here. It was started as something called Facemash on October 28, 2003 when Mark Zuckerberg was attending Harvard as a sophomore. Then he began writing code for a new website in January 2004 called "thefacebook.com". When Mark finished the site, he told a couple of friends. And then one of them suggested putting it on the Kirkland House online mailing list, which was, like, three hundred people," according to roommate Dustin Moskovitz. "And, once they did that, several dozen people joined, and then they were telling people at the other houses.
So its not clear who the very first person was to get onto Facebook, so based on the Wayback Machine here's a look at what it looked like when it was launched.
The Facebook domain between 2003 - Aug 2005 and then post Aug 2005.

Twitter caught me by surprise. I think its one of the most innovative medium for unprompted public exchange confined to "140 characters x infinity". I was already a big fan of Blogger which by the way didn't make it to this list cause it was launched in Oct 1999. Depending on how Twitter deals with things like spam etc I believe its here to stay and will be woven into the online fabric of how we interact. Here's a glimpse of the first public Tweet ever.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What do LinkedIn users do ;-) ... they're playing Farmville on Facebook


Just posted on my other blog CRM 2.0. Couldnt decide whether the topic was more 2.0 or product related so cross posting here as well.

I truly believe that LN is one of the most capital rich networks. In the sense that a network connection on LN is probably worth much more than connections on other networks. Maybe FB is the only other one.

One of the issues I've had with LinkedIn since its inception is its lack of ability to make a user comeback everyday and check on things. While I do swing by there every few days, ... Click here for entire post

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What is Value?


Had an interesting discussion yesterday about "Value" and what is high vs low value and interestingly in that discussion we settled on the term lesser value.

I'm sure other PM's get into these discussions as well and often times the closing lines for those discussions if they are external customer focused are something like " ... value is all about perception, so if the customer thinks its valuable they'll pay for it ..." or if the conversation was more internal focused then something like " .. that's obviously more valuable to us because its core ..." This prompted me into writing a post about how PM's can define value.

First lets talk about the value your product or service will deliver to customers;

The very first version of defining value (usually from a sellers perspective) is associating it with all the benefits that a product or service would provide. So for example lets list all the benefits that our product offers and then convey that as the value we provide. Looks great on datasheets and in marketing glossies.

However the moment a purchaser or buyer enters it would look like a one-way street. Cause the buyer is obviously going to pay for this product or service. So it leads to the second version of value where its the differential that you would get once you've paid the cost for getting all the benefits from a product or service. Now to create the third version of it lets invite the tangibles and intangibles. They play on both sides of the equation (Benefit and Cost), however the more tangible benefits you have in there the better the value can be conveyed. On the cost side though they play out as direct costs and indirect costs or something that's not apparent upfront but will accrue over a period of time and could include the opportunity cost as well. Some would view it as the total cost of obtaining those benefits over the life of the product or service.

So in summary I would say that the PM's should look at product value as benefits being provided at a low cost. Now its still not a slam dunk as purchasers will not always go with the lowest cost option and neither the lowest price option. They will usually go with benefits that match well do your benefits match with the needs and wants. Now is it within their budget and can they afford it is a completely different discussion.

Now lets look at what value means to an organization. For simplicity we'll focus on for profit organizations. Whether you're a publicly traded or private organization the ultimate goal is to increase in shareholder value. All organizations have investors and are funded and that determines their share of the company and they are looking at maximizing that share.

There are many ways shareholder value can be increased. Top-line revenue growth, Bottom-line cost savings by operating better, better utilizing all your available assets I'm sure an accountant can come up with more. But from a PM's perspective I think these three are key. Each area has its own levers that need to be evaluated to identify what value a product brings to ultimately increase shareholder value.

Top-line growth can obviously be increased through new customer growth, retaining existing customers and increasing wallet share, upselling and cross-selling. Driving product innovation and further investing in existing capabilities helps drive this.

Bottom-line can be improved by ensuring that there are streamlined, integrated processes in delivering the product, cost of selling to and servicing the customers is low. As PM's how can you do that? Look at rationalizing your product portfolio, better product quality, reusable and scalable designs, lower cost of development and most important focus on the right customer segments. Dont lose sight of this as in the larger scheme of things the CFO is looking at this and so should you.
So in a long winded way I'd say that value can be identified to a large extent and PM's should use value models in making product decisions. Ultimately the two values discussed above are intertwined (some might say even the same) and as PM's one should look at how your product can provide value to customers and in turn increase shareholder value.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why dont we consolidate all our resources and focus on one thing?


"Why dont we consolidate all our resources and focus on one thing?"
is one of the questions that keeps coming up often in determining product priorities and resource allocations. Unless you're a startup in an early phase of product development or you're a company in dire straits and looking at one last "Hail Mary" the approach is often going to lead to disaster rather than focus.

Dont get me wrong all approaches work, its just a question of context. Applying the consolidate and focus on only one product area at a time approach in diversified or mature companies will lead to satisfaction issues and churn. Product Managers should look at their products (and others) as a portfolio and assess it like one.

Here are my Top 5 tips for making product portfolio planning happen the right way.

1. Ensure business strategy alignment - Request that the business vision and strategy be conveyed clearly. Dont be afraid to ask questions. Remember that each PM or company resource interprets vision and strategy in their own way so alignment and constant alignment is the key to successful product portfolio planning. Also business strategy should not be created in vacuum and should be supplemented with backup data or assertions. Its critical to provide execs with this data for your product lines on a regular basis to ensure right decisions are enabled.

2. Get executive buyin/sponsorship - Suffice to say that your product portfolio planning will not go very far if its not bought into by execs.

3. Take a medium to long term view - Always take the medium to long term view of things. This means that look at growth opportunities even when the team is in the foxhole trying to battle a flurry of tactical issues.

4. Always have enough bandwidth to nurture wishlists/lateral ideas - Some of the best products, enhancements, customer issue resolutions have come from lateral ideas. Always nurture them and figure out a path for executing on them. Trust me, the product team will find you the time and bandwidth if they feel the idea is right. Now this often seems contradictory to create a priority list of backlog stories and keep knocking off the highest priority ones that keep bubbling to the top of the list. We'll I've seen that in reality you can do that with the lateral (20%) ideas.

5. Drive your product strategy in person and with passion - Never rely on someone else to drive your product strategy. Nothing works better than passion for a product or enhancement so ensure that you're personally represnt the product/feature in the planning meetings. Good management recognizes this and provides individual PM's the platform to present this.

Do send me your tips on what eases and enables product portfolio planning for you in your product organization.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Product Management - Exec Alignment


Recently there was a really great post by Marty Cagan on the SVPG site about The Product Scorecard.

While there are a number of posts that gloss through this topic ... this post really gets into the guts of why this is critical, very much needed and how it should happen. Its also something I always advocate and that we're currently following so its good validation of our approach :-)

Marty has posted 3 very poignant questions for S/W company CEO's

  • How does your CEO know that every product manager’s efforts are aligned with his business strategy?
  • How does your CEO clearly communicate to your product managers the business priorities?
  • How does your CEO know which product managers are making good decisions and making true progress in carrying out the business strategy?
However I have 3 more for PM's as well
  • Do you feel that your committed features are always over ruled at the last minute by some executive input?
  • Do you have a really long list of backlog items and feel that what's being currently worked on is not from the top of that list?
  • When features are being prioritized or scoped smaller do you know what metrics matter to make those decisions?
Well the list of questions could be much longer, however if root cause analysis is done on most of these questions the likely answer is that there was no alignment between what was being proposed by the PM and executive management or that the team felt that it wasn't aligned with their understanding of the overall product direction or business strategy.

As PM's its cool to think you're the CEO of the product (that's a great mindset to have for a PM), however there is a real CEO as well and usually they're the ones calling the shots. However its not a one way street as many might think and most CXO's are reasonable people and open to discussions if presented the data and right business justification. But ultimately the onus is on the PM to get buyin or prepare to be over ruled at the last minute by what might sound like an executive edict.

Here are the three key factors for creating and maintaining a successful Product scorecard;
  1. Establishing Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that each product manager, and the overall product organization, uses to make decisions and drive products.
  2. Ensure that there is Exec review and buyin so that each KPI is tied to the overall business strategy and desired outcome
  3. Review the KPI's on a regular basis as business strategy and product directions change regularly.
Lastly a hidden gem from Marty's post about socializing the KPI's across the organization to make sure everyone – marketing, sales, execs, engineering, customer service – understands why you are focused on these measures. Skip this and not only are you out of sync with a large part of the organization, but it also leads to the perception that PM is off in its own land.

Ever heard sales feedback that goes something like "We have no idea what PM's upto and why they are not working on all these features that will help us sell more" ... reasons ... probably no product scorecard and definitely no socializing of it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

SaaS Companies do need PM's


One of the PM's forwarded this article "SaaS Company? Thinking of Sending Your Product Managers for Formal Product Management Training and Certification? Don't Waste Your Money." posted by someone at SaaS University.

It was brought up as a sidebar conversation one our weekly PM meeting and led to some animated conversations about how everyone's gonna be fired now ;-)

The post starts by taking some digs at PM training organizations like Pragmatic, Zigzag and AIPMM.

"If you're a SaaS company with product managers and are considering sending your PMs to one of these courses, I wouldn't bother. Save your money and spend it on some things I'll list out later in this piece."
Then it refers to some 2008 Atlanta SaaS Conference comments about a very successful SaaS ERP firm running with no PM's.

So its not v
ery clear from the title of the post or its initial content whether this is about PM Training firms and SaaS companies spending $$'s with them or about PM's not required at SaaS companies.

It characterizes PM's as Keepers of the Tick List, Scribes of the MRD, Voices of the Customer etc.

To make a long story short its all over the place and the message is not very clear and its just yet another article trying to gather some traffic by making outrageous product management related statements. Product Managers are very much needed for SaaS products just like many other products and there's tons of info out there on why, so I wont get into that.

However the one valuable nugget that's embedded in that post which is worth mentioning is the fact that SaaS PM's often do not even scratch the surface when it comes to analyzing all of the data that's available to them on usage, user experience, adoption and enhancements.

Coming from the on-premise world I know that PM's would've killed to get the kind of insights that SaaS products offer in terms of how customers are using/not-using and experiencing the products.

SaaS offers more accurate realtime data for these areas that can be analyzed across customers (where legal or privacy issues are not impacted). The golden rule for anything SaaS should be build a scalable framework that allows you to monitor and measure anything you put out there. This coupled with some newer web2.0 and social tools like rating and instant feedback available now (compared to 10 yrs ago) are invaluable and as a SaaS PM when it comes to decision time my favorite evaluation phrase is "can we query this data and run some analysis on it ..."

Now its easier said than done cause once you've crossed that bridge you're in the territory of what's the right metric and how do we measure it etc. But that's another conversation for a later date.

Update: There is a great post today by Tom Grant from Forrester and its a great article on why SaaS Companies need PM's

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Best book I've ever read for Product Management and Marketing


Lateral Thinking is undeniably the best book I've ever read on product management and marketing. 

It addresses three of the biggest challenges for today's Product professionals. 
  1. what do we build? 
  2. how do we build and market the product?
  3. knowing what we know how do we get further down the product "todo/feature/wish" list with the scarce and competing resource demands in the organization. 

While Lateral Thinking techniques bring value to #1 and #2 it brings phenomenal value to #3 where most organizations struggle even after figuring out #1&#2. 

Lateral Thinking Techniques

  1. Alternatives: Use concepts to breed new ideas
  2. Focus: Sharpen or change your focus to improve your creative efforts
  3. Challenge: Break free from the limits of accepted ways of operating
  4. Random Entry: Use unconnected input to open new lines of thinking
  5. Provocation: Move from a provocative statement to useful ideas
  6. Harvesting: Select the best of early ideas and shape them into useable approaches
  7. Treatment of Ideas: Develop ideas and shape them to fit an organization or situation

Try it out, always yields amazing results for me :-)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Models - Not the ones your're thinking about


As product managers and marketers have you ever been in situations where you're starting to draw graphs or tables, using analogies, trying to visualize something that cannot be directly seen, trying to infer patterns from data? Well chances are if you dug a little deeper on Google for what you were discussing there's most likely someone who's done a study around it and come up with a model for it. So why reinvent the wheel?

There are obviously some caveats to this,

  • There should be a good enough usable model around what you're looking for not a model someone just threw together one night in a highly caffeinated state (well then again maybe you do)
  • In general they are from reputed sources, vetted and widely accepted (this ones not necessary though)
  • That they are extensible without rendering them useless
  • Also need to watch out that it really applies to the problem space or statement that you're trying to make, and it does not overly complicate things.
Here's examples of ones I've used in the past;

Now a lot of these can be used readily and presented on in meetings while others are more for hashing out your own thoughts or getting a convincing case going where you see a pattern and are looking to guess the outcome. Models or frameworks fit right in that sweet spot, where someone's spent serious time and effort (sometimes their entire life) researching and building that model. So the next time you get the urge to create your own model to describe something check online there might be a model out there ready to use and extend.

Newbie PM hint, models help you become more informed. So you dont walk into meetings and throw out ideas like wouldn't it be cool if we identify our customers by market share and market growth. Wonder if anyone else is doing that ... well ever heard of the BCG Matrix :-)

Needs to be complemented with .. Brainstorming alternatives .. Experience and learning .. but you can rarely beat a good proven model.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Product Management Manifesto


Recently got forwarded this link to a product management manifesto that has been drafted by Brain Lawley, CEO & Founder of the 280 Group LLC. 

Now I havent heard much about manifestos in the software or product world, so pardon my ignorance the only other manifesto's I'd heard of were the ones we were taught in History classes around political movements.

and more recently the "GNU Manifesto" and very recently the "Agile Manifesto". Though I actually think that the agile manifesto is a pretty crisp presentation of agile principles and beliefs (if I may call them that) and in many ways powerful enough to alter your way of thinking around creating and delivering products to the market.

Started reading and the thought crossed my mind, is there really a need to  define product management through a manifesto though. 

Maybe its a brief research study worth having to see how many job roles have been defined through manifestos. Need to do my Google search on this pretty soon.

First off I think the manifesto has captured the essence of S/W Product Management really well. The reason I prefix the manifesto with the term "Software" is because time and again I keep reminding myself that product managers also exist in other industries like CG's, FMCG's, Pharma etc. They've been around in those industries way longer than there have been PM's in software. So us S/W PM's trying to define the manifesto for all of PM land sounds a little too far fetched.

After reading through the manifesto here are the 3 extracted points that I think would be part of my PM Manifesto if I were to draft one. Since I found them in there, this manifesto has my vote. 
  • Im dedicated to bringing great products to market. Products that delight my customers. Products that are massively profitable for my company. Products that help change the way people work and live.
  • I have a strong vision for my products and develop winning strategies that align with my companys goals and ensure that our investments of time, money and energy are well-spent.
  • Iam the voice of my customers and represent them in every critical decision that is made.

Having given it my vote, I'd also like to highlight that the last three points in the manifesto seem to be in there more for effects. You could apply them to other roles as well. But hey that's just my opinion.
  • I refuse to settle for mediocrity ...
  • I believe that Product Management is one of the toughest, yet most rewarding jobs ...
  • Though I have all of the responsibility ...

All in all I think its a good manifesto for a SW PM to identify with their role and help the organization understand this key role better. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

A healthy living breathing Product Roadmap


Having recently gone through a major Product Roadmap definition exercise I thought it would be cool to share some thoughts on product roadmaps and get feedback. While there are tons of great posts out there on how to create product roadmaps it's unbelievable how many Product Managers are developing products with no roadmaps!!

Product roadmap documents do not have to be fancy slides with great graphics. In fact good roadmaps are so crisp and clear that they can be captured in one slide or page of your favorite document creation tool. Dont be fooled by the simplicity.

Agile products and teams need roadmaps too. Just cause you're developing in iterations does not mean you become a backlog factory and lose sight of the big picture.

Mature products with very little new feature velocity need roadmaps as well. Little velocity means you have only so many resources and shots to fire in each release, imagine spending those on activities that are not aligned with your long term product roadmap.

Knowing our stack ranked list of 300 product enhancements does not mean you know your roadmap. A stack ranked list of Enh. is a very good place to start, but a roadmap is so much more than that and should be more strategic. It should be able to tell you how you will be navigating the course towards your product vision.

Use roadmaps to build consensus and get key stakeholder buyin. It's useless complaining that half-way through a release my roadmap always gets over ridden by one of the Execs. What that tells me is that your roadmap is not aligned with the overall corporate or business strategy and was not bought into by the stakeholders.

Ensure that you continously validate items you place on the roadmap with your long term product vision. Reality is that you'll have to deviate from the roadmap every now and then, however the constant validation will help ensure that you either tie it back or ensure that the deviation is not a huge sidetrack from the original vision. 

(special case of point just made above) Avoid letting the next big sales deal define your product roadmap. Yeah right, easier said than done. This one's the toughest one to combat, contain, accept ... use your favorite term here. However be prepared for the ultimate reality that revenue is a key engine in a for-profit organization and will often trump other items on the roadmap. I think the key here is being open to such mega deals and then not letting them completely dominate the scene, but rather harnessing them in the right fashion to achieve your longer term vision. Remember with mega deals come resources to get things done. Thats good news for most resource strapped product teams.

Never get into the "We know what we're building here, so we dont need a roadmap" syndrome. Its the first sign of an internally focused product creation cycle that ultimately will drive the product aground.

For larger more complex product lines, ensure that frequent cross-product roadmap validations take place. This ensures that functional overlap areas, commonly shared areas like platform, cross-team impact areas like internationalization are clearly defined and rationalized as part of the roadmap.

A product roadmap to me is a high level document that lays out the product plan for a given timeline (near-term or long-term) with clearly defined milestones (releases) of how we'll be able to navigate from where we're today towards achieving the vision.

3 Key Takeaways for Product Roadmaps

- Always create product roadmaps and ensure that they are living breathing documents that are revisited atleast twice a year.
- Get key stakeholder buyin for your roadmap items. Ultimately roadmaps have to be aligned with corporate and business strategy and exec buyin is a large part of that.
- For every item placed on the roadmap ask the question, how does this help us achieve the long term product vision