What We Learned About Building Products People Love in 2016

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON DECEMBER 29, 2016

2016 was a year when the product management community grew significantly and continued to mature. It was also a year when an awful lot more of you started to read our blog more regularly – we’ve ended the year with an awesome 30% year-on-year growth in our readership. But what did you all want to read and learn about?  Was it insight, opinion, guidance on how to get the best out of colleagues or to make your voice heard, career advice, best practices, or something more fundamental? I think what marks out the following is that they all deliver practical and actionable advice – advice which can be applied by anyone at any stage in their product career.

Here’s a look at what we learned in 2016 based on our most read posts during the year.

Scope of the job

Lots of us are still trying to work out what the scope of a product management role should be and how it should be applied within their organisations. A ProductTank presentation, Product Management Fundamentals, from Dag Olav Norem looked at why the role of a product manager exists. He gave an overview of what the role involves and what you need to focus on to be successful in the role. He counsels us to learn to love the hard parts, as our “role is not to create value directly, but to enable everyone else to”. “One of the challenges with being a PM is that you are supposedly responsible for so many things, yet you are not the boss of anyone.”

Play like Buddy Bolden

How do you stretch yourself and get the most out of your role? Make yourself uncomfortable was the advice of Ken Norton from Google Ventures, speaking at our San Francisco conference this year. In his talk Product Managers: Please Make Yourselves Uncomfortable, Norton urged us to get uncomfortable through a music lesson, specifically a lesson in jazz. Norton draws a number of valuable analogies between jazz and product management and urges us to “get uncomfortable, listen carefully and let everyone solo”. And perhaps listen more to Miles Davis – I ended up buying a record player and Kind of Blue on vinyl after this talk…

Get the Best out of Others

Product Owners: How to get Your Development Team to Love you was a post from Daniel Elizalde with some relationship advice, product management style, via a ProductTank presentation from former Apple Product Manager and industry veteran Ron Lichty. Ron is someone who knows how to “make software development hum” and has an “an eye for what keeps teams from achieving clarity out of chaos”. How do product owners get their development teams to love them? It’s about partnership when all is said and done, and “nothing breaks the partnership model like micromanagement – from any source. But nothing beats partnership for synergy and unexpected brilliance”.

Organise around customers

Ways to improve the user experience was as big a theme in 2016 as ever and in The Experience is the Product, another talk from the San Francisco conference, Peter Merholz spoke about the need to focus on the user experience. It’s important to understand that we who are building these products and services know things that our users don’t. A digital product is made up of a user experience, wrapped around some business logic, wrapped around some data. Perhaps product management is becoming a misnomer?  Instead we should be focused on the experience, and on the service that delivers that experience. And to deliver a coherent service experience we need to rethink how we structure our teams – instead of aligning our product and design teams around features or products, we have to organise ourselves around customers.

Peter Merholz at Mind the Product SF

Practical Advice on Tools and Methodologies

Several of our most read posts of 2016 are practical guides, full of advice and the hard-won experiences of product experts:  

Two came from Suzie Prince, head of product at Thoughtworks Studios, and focused on continuous delivery and devops. Why Continuous Delivery and DevOps are Product Managers’ Best Friends  looked at why product managers should care about continuous delivery and devops. There’s a multitude of reasons – continuous delivery is transformative to businesses, it will help you get feedback sooner, it reduces waste and risk, and it facilitates the creation of higher quality products. It also makes for better teams. And our top post of the year was Prince’s Product Manager’s Guide to Continuous Delivery and DevOps. This opens up and demystifies these practices with definitions, examples, easy to understand diagrams, and suggestions for further reading. Suzie’s post both educates and entertains and is full of practical advice and, as Suzie says, its point is “to empower you and inform you about technical practices that are meant to be business-relevant”.

Ramon Guiu’s post From Waterfall to Agile: A Product Manager Transition clearly chimed with many in the community. He looked at his journey from Waterfall to Agile, the pros and cons of each approach and how his role as his company’s first product manager changed as the company grew and his expertise developed. The Day-To-Day Product Management Toolkit, a ProductTank presentation in Oslo from one of my cofounders, Janna Bastow, focused on really practical advice – what tools product managers should use and how they should use them. It’s a hands on guide that looks at what tools Janna has used or still uses with tips on which to use for different product management tasks.

My own clarion call, Product Requirement Documents Must Die, asked that we should once and for all stop wasting our time by writing product requirement documents and focus instead on a more efficient, collaborative and iterative process for product development. Whether you’re doing user story mapping, design sprints, or any other technique, collaboration will yield faster, clearer results because they were achieved in conversation with each other. Prototypes – whether they are user flows in post-it notes, a page sketched up on paper, or a functioning interactive prototype – are essential because they showcase the actual experience and can generate discussion internally. Then once you have some prototypes in place, test them – over and over again – to refine not just the user flow and usability, but also the desirability of the product, and thus its feasibility in the market.

#mtpcon London 2016 audience

Product Management is Ownership

The London conference round-up, What we Learned at Mind The Product 2016, was one of our top five posts in 2016. It was a day full of inspiring and entertaining talks from product leaders, so there was much to absorb and learn. Many themes emerged as fundamental aspects of a product manager’s role – storytelling, listening to customers, building teams that can work effectively to name a few – but the one overarching theme was that of ownership. We saw that building great products is ultimately about ownership, whether it is ownership of the problem, the solution, the story, the process, the discipline, or the action. Most importantly this is ownership by the team as a whole – not solely the product manager.

More Reading

Top 10 ProductTank and Mind the Product talks of 2016
Top 10 Guest Posts on Mind the Product in 2016

Keeping an Eye on the Future

Next week we’ll discuss some of the trends to look out for that will be affecting all of our products and jobs in 2017, and we’ll highlight all the amazing events for product managers coming up.

In the meantime – don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter for a hand-curated selection of all the greatest product design, development, and management content from across the web that week.

Martin Eriksson

About MARTIN ERIKSSON

Martin Eriksson has 20 years experience building world-class online products in both corporate and start-up environments for global brands such as Monster, Financial Times, Huddle, and Covestor. He is the Founder of ProductTank, the Co-Founder and Curator of Mind the Product and currently a Product Manager at large, advising and mentoring startups while writing Product Leadership, How Top Product Leaders Launch Great Products and Build Successful Teams (O'Reilly, 2017).

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