The Experience is the Product by Peter Merholz

BY MARTIN ERIKSSON ON JUNE 17, 2016

We tend to forget that the experience is the product we’re delivering. Every technical product category through history has followed this pattern – from a technology for technologies sake, to a feature war, to an experience. In this awesome talk from Mind the Product San Francisco, Peter Merholz highlights the importance of the last stage and how teams can better align themselves to focus on the experience.

Mobile phones are, of course, a great example of this pattern – the first Nokia smart phones that came out simply added internet connections and keyboards and invented a new category. Then a number of devices came out adding feature after feature, but it was only with the launch of the iPhone that the category transcended technical features and became about the experience. It’s not just hardware either – you only have to look at IRC as one of the first chat technologies, followed by HipChat, Jive, and others adding features, before Slack finally transcended those features by focusing on the experience.

Product Management wasn’t doing it’s job

These three stages interestingly map nicely onto my definition of product management – which places product management at the center of the intersection of Technology, Business, and UX. Peter argues that this is correct in theory but in reality the UX circle in product management is often too small. In fact, he argues that User Experience as a field only exists because Product Management wasn’t doing it’s job.

The challenge is that the technology and business side tends to be more analytical, reductive, and quantitative, whereas UX/Design tends to be more emotional, additive and qualitative. Which is why Steve Jobs analogy of the intersection of Technology and Liberal Arts is so apt when trying to build experiences.

As a co-founder of Adaptive Path, perhaps the world’s premier firm dedicated to user experience, Peter helped develop many of the practices we use today to understand our customers, their problems and how our products can solve them. Importantly, these include not just ideation, facilitation, and design exercises, but also ways to map the business value of design onto a product.

But when he went in-house at GroupOn he was dismayed to see there wasn’t enough design thinking in the process, and not enough strategic alignment or understanding of the customer to make the best decisions.

Design Practice = Product Management Practice

What he realised is that good design practice is actually good product management practice. Instead of coming up with a great idea, building it and then iterating it’s incumbent on us to spend time making sure the idea is the right one, to spend some time understanding our customers, and to make sure we’re building the right thing in the first place. It might take longer to get to your first release, but it will be much shorter to get to your best release.

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. We’re deeply familiar with the layers underneath the experience, but the users don’t care -it’s magic as far as they are concerned. But a lot of bad product development comes from thinking inside out, from taking the data and trying to present it to the world. But of course we have to design from the outside in, by understanding what our users are trying to do and then aligning what we do to those goals.

The Product is the Service is the Experience

Great user experiences come from the outside in. And when you start to look from the outside in, you realise that products and features are simply a manifestation of a service relationship. Everything is, or is becoming, a service. Everything is, or is becoming, part of a system.

As such product management is becoming a misnomer, an anachronistic term that pigeon holes us into thinking about features, about just the product. 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. Teams should be focused on user experiences and customer types.

Organize your product managers around customers, not code repositories – Ken Norton

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).

  • I really appreciate the way you describe the relationship between product management and user-centered design as inside-out and outside-in. I think that’s a helpful metaphor pertaining to where each side focuses, or at least where each practice focuses first.

    Also, to that end, I think there are additional relationships like this going on in our daily work that are helpful to understand in this verySame way. For instance, development and user-centered design also follow the inside-out to outside-in paradigm. Business and UCD abide by the same patterns. And its especially helpful for Design professionals to be more self- and socially-aware of the dynamics between these interdisciplinary intersections for smoother, more harmonious collaborative exchanges.

    This commentary you’ve provided — as a reflection on Peter Merholz’s potentially more confrontational and accusatory observations and articulation around the product management ‘ball-dropping’ that cleared areas of opportunity for UCD to plant itself, grow, rise and bloom — your take on Merholz’s thoughts and your additions to these ideas and feelings, help make the terrain a far friendlier and safer place for us all to proceed in healthier, more mature ways.

    Thanks for this post.

  • Saeed Khan

    I strongly disagree with the UX exists because PM wasn’t doing their job.

    That’s like saying QA exists because Dev wasn’t doing their job, or Sales exists because Marketing wasn’t doing their job.

    The reality is that there are many specialized skills and interdependencies when building technology products. Sure, one group of generalists could do everything, but that’s neither efficient nor practical.

    I think the comment also underscores a lack of understanding of product management in general.

    Sorry to be harsh, but it’s a rather obtuse comment to be honest

    • Suzie Prince

      Saeed

      I was at this event and I have to agree I found Peter’s tone re “product management missed the boat and that’s why we have UX people” to be a little distasteful. On a personal level, as a product manager who pairs with a UX and strives to spend a lot of time understanding users and design, it stung. But even as a UX I think I would find it hard to buy in to the notion that my role only exists because product managers don’t understand users and/or design. To credit Peter though I have thought about what he said alot because of this comment and the angle he took. Ultimately I decided to take it as a forceful reminder that we can all do better with regard to design – and of course, we can.

      Cheers
      Suzie

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