Product Design Politics by Michelle Chu

BY Tremis Skeete ON AUGUST 21, 2018

Michelle Chu began her career in publishing as a sales assistant at Backpacker, before working in advertising, layouts, and packaging design. She then moved to digital products and eventually to her current role as Senior Product Manager and Head of Design at Alpha.

Start-up Alpha is a user insights platform for use as a tool in user research. Clients enter their questions or product assumptions into the Alpha platform and get their answers through user insights in 72 hours or less.

Michelle says she has learned that while early-stage startups and global corporations can look very different, they are all made up of people. This means there are a lot of people who get their hands on a product as you try to ship it. She shares some advice on how to navigate politics when building products.

Know who Makes the Decisions

In every organization, decisions are made by a select few. You need to know who is making the decisions in order to influence them. People don’t usually consider trusted advisors when they think about decision makers. This can be anyone in the company who has the ear of a decision makers, like assistants, lower-level executives, even spouses.

You should always be listening to people saying things like “we should run this by so-and-so,” and you should always be thinking two steps above you. Think about your boss, and then their boss. You should also keep in mind that many of these people do not come from product design backgrounds.

Form Allies and Build Trust

It is very important to form alliances with the people around you. Obviously you are allies with your team, and you should be allies with the decision makers, but you should also be allies with other product teams, such as finance, sales, and marketing. In order to build allies, you need to build trust. Building trust means doing what you say you will do, in the amount of time you say it will be done in. Trust, in organizations like these, is like a currency that you use to negotiate for what you want and to have the benefit of the doubt when things start going wrong.

It can be hard to say no when you look to build trust. You want to seem reliable and hard-working, but you can’t say yes to everything. So, when someone asks you to do something, ask for a deadline. That way you will know if you can deliver.

Expect Opposition

Michelle explains that you will always encounter opposition and conflict. The best way to be prepared for opposition is to learn about the business. All your product design decisions need to move the business forward. There will be times when stakeholders won’t care about the product design, only how that design will serve the business.

You should become familiar with and use SWOT analyses to learn about your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Learn who your competitors are. You also need to understand why you’re creating your product at all times, especially since this can change.

Get Feedback

Michelle’s final tip is to get feedback. You should get feedback from internal stakeholders and include them in your decision-making process. Michelle likes to talk to them before any build starts. She likes to learn about the investors’ expectations, goals, and thoughts on how they should be moving forward. That way she knows that they are building a product that won’t get pulled out at the last minute.

This advice applies to every company, says Michelle, getting feedback will always provide benefits. While feedback from internal stakeholders is important, feedback from actual customers is equally as important. Use things like surveys and interviews to make sure your decisions will be successful.

Tremis Skeete

About

Tremis Skeete

Tremis is Director of Product at NexTier Innovations, a management consultancy specializing in Multi-Dimensional Analytics and Project Portfolio Intelligence. He helps product leaders and teams shape design strategies and prototypes to build quality software. Tremis is also Senior Product Analyst at Paralect, a product engineering organization devoted to working with clients all over the world to create, launch and support complex custom software.