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The Impact of Covid on Product Managers and the Products They Build "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 6 November 2020 True COVID-19, Premium Content, Product Development, Product Management, remote working culture, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 3073 Product Management 12.292
· 15 minute read

The Impact of Covid on Product Managers and the Products They Build

As many of the world’s major economies work to address the second wave of Covid-19, we thought it would be an appropriate time to look at how the pandemic has changed product management and whether these changes are likely to be long-lasting, even permanent.

We can split businesses into those that have been able to pivot to digital and those that haven’t – and many of the latter type found they were unable to keep going – a statistic from April 2020 shows that nearly a quarter of businesses in the UK were forced to close their doors in the first wave of the pandemic. Lots of businesses have pivoted in the last seven or eight months, lots have spotted new opportunities, more than a few have been guilty of opportunism.

As product consultant, our podcast host (and author of What Do We Do Now, a book for product managers on the pandemic) Randy Silver comments, handling these uncertain times should feel natural to product people: “We’re used to dealing with uncertainty, navigating uncertainty is the core of our job,” he says. “Whenever you face a fundamental shift in circumstances, you have to go back and question the basics. Product strategy is based on two things, an understanding of your customer and their need, and their perception of that need and how highly they prioritise a solution for it. Every company in every industry has to go back to basics and say, ‘have things changed for us, what do we need to do’?”

Randy gives the example of one of his clients in the ancestry market. Prior to the pandemic it was a pretty niche hobby, and getting sign-ups was the company’s biggest issue. Come lockdown, with people confronting their own mortality, interest in family history sky-rocketed. “Now the problem isn’t sign-ups, it’s activation and retention. It’s a focus on a different part of the problem.” He adds that if you make a massive change in your product, and it’s a key part of other people’s infrastructure, you need to be sure that others are ready to adopt it. “Not everyone should be pivoting, sometimes it is best to stay the course. Is your customer going to value what you do as a pivot?”

Remote Working

The experience of Adam Warburton, head of digital products at the Co-op, is likely similar to that of many product people who’ve been working to do the right thing with their products and for their customers during the pandemic. The Co-operative Group is one of the world’s largest co-operative groups, it’s the UK’s fifth biggest food retailer, the UK’s largest funeral services provider, and also has a insurance business, a legal services business, and a health business. As Adam says, “it’s always been about the people”. “We do what we do for communities, and that manifested itself in how we worked – everything was physical, everything was face-to-face.” That attitude has now been turned on its head, and Adam sees a real desire from everyone to continue to work remotely, and a wholesale resistance to returning to the office. So much so that Co-op has already committed to leaving the smaller of its two head-office buildings in Manchester and is modifying the larger building to improve its collaborative spaces, so that if people need to come together to work, they can do so more easily.

People want to continue to work remotely (Image: Shutterstock)

However, 65,000 of 70,000 who work for the Co-op aren’t able to work remotely, they’re on the front line in supermarkets, funeral homes and so on. The first priority of the Co-op digital team at the start of the pandemic was to make these colleagues as safe as possible. Says Adam: “At the start of the pandemic the digital teams focused on supporting colleagues through technology so that they could be doing things that were most valuable, like being on checkout and reducing queues.” This meant that Adam’s team did things like produce a traffic light system that told shoppers whether they should go into a store – this was in response to an increase in violence and abuse of colleagues, he says. They also did things like limit online shopping baskets to 20 items so that they could service customers with as many delivery slots as possible, as well as manage in-store availability and discourage stock piling. For the funeral business they added flags to the system to show whether someone was Covid positive or Covid suspected so that colleagues would know whether to wear PPE. Says Adam: “Prior to this, colleagues were either putting themselves at risk by not wearing PPE or wearing PPE all the time – we were hit with PPE shortages just like everybody else.”

Less Consultative

The Co-op digital team has been very principled about how it wants to work and mindful of not becoming a feature factory, but it has had to be less consultative. “We wanted to hold true to the principles of understanding outcomes and creating value through outcomes. But we had to become far more directed about what we did because there wasn’t time for discussion and exploration,” He says: “With the Covid flagged funerals for example, there would have been a time when we would have taken that to the business and asked what’s the outcome you want to achieve? We would have done some user research, we might have done a design sprint, and then we might have gone to build. Instead we had to say the outcome is a verification process and the way that we’re going to do that is by having a flag on this screen that works in this way. It was uncomfortable and it’s not how we always want to work, but there was a recognition from everybody that we were time poor.”

Other Co-op businesses have unexpectedly benefitted from the pandemic. In 2019 the Co-op set up an online repeat prescriptions business, but it failed to get much traction. Adam explains that people refuse to acknowledge the many steps and inconvenience of filling a prescription – you ring or see the doctor, collect the prescription, take it to the pharmacy and wait for it to be filled – so selling the benefits of this new service was really challenging. He adds: “They know it works – and they don’t know if your new solution works.” But a pandemic and the need to walk into a building where there might be other sick people to fill a prescription delivered the impetus that had previously eluded the Co-op. “Two days in a row, the whole business grew by 100%,” Adam says.

The pandemic provided the impetus that led to success for Co-op’s online repeat prescription service (Image: Shutterstock)

Look for Behaviour Changes

Adam is now looking for opportunities within Co-op’s products and services where people’s behaviour has materially changed and whether there is a window of opportunity to solidify that change in behaviour. He points to a product called Cooperate, which is like Eventbrite or Meetup, but for community activities –  community yoga classes, volunteer opportunities and so on. When the UK went into its first lockdown Adam’s team pivoted this product to create a matching service so that people who needed help could be matched with people who were willing to help in that community. But now they’re turning their attention to its use for online events. Adam explains: “Early on in the pandemic, people thought online events were not bound by geography. But a behaviour change that we’ve identified is that even for online events, people do want to stay local. There had been a decline over the last 30 plus years in participation in community events, but the pandemic has altered this. I’d never spoken to half the people that live on the street I live on, but come April, we were doing a community quiz every Sunday. We’ve realised that even if events are online, they still need to be local. You don’t want 500 people joining you online for the community yoga class. It speaks to the social isolation that a lot of people have gone through and connecting with someone that is near that you know, that you can see post-pandemic, lifts your spirits and gives you a bit of hope for the future.”

All About the Customer

For Dan Joyce, general manager for EMEA at Safety Culture, which produces a safety inspection app called iAuditor, the pandemic has also been very interesting. Business is up, and Safety Culture has made an acquisition, with the decision on this accelerated by the pandemic. Listening carefully to customers has been vital during this time, he says, and the business has made lots of product changes in the last six months or so, much of which has been in response to how customers have needed to adjust.

“We’ve run a lot more customer advisory boards,” he says. “We’ve pulled a lot of our strategic, larger customers into meetings and done roundtables with them to understand what their challenges are, how those challenges are evolving and what we can do in our product to better support them.” Safety Culture bought mobile education platform EdApp in September 2020, so that customers can create their own learning materials, an acquisition that was accelerated because of the pandemic. Says Dan: “Now, if customers spot that an area, a tool, or an outlet is underperforming, whether it’s in PPE compliance, or the coffee isn’t hot enough in the coffee shops in a certain area, they can use EdApp to trigger learning courses for their managers, stores or sites in that area.”

Dan says that obsession with the customer and the customer problem is more important than ever, and that product managers need to help customers pull features out of a product rather than pushing new features at them. Another big focus should be UX, he says, because “no amount of great functionality can make up for a poor user experience”.  “Especially when you’re talking about B2B software, it’s quite often Jetsons at home or Flintstones at work. We’re used to slick and intuitive apps in our personal lives but often when we get to the workplace, we’re forced to use archaic systems.”

Look After Your Digital Virgins

This point is emphasised by Jonathan Hassell, founder and CEO of Hassell Inclusion, a business that helps organisations embed inclusive design and digital accessibility into their products. Jonathan observes that because Covid has sped up digital transformation and forced many B2B businesses to pivot to B2C, product managers are under huge pressure to deliver the whole roadmap in less time. “Quality can suffer… we’re finding that organisations are making really quick procurement and strategy decisions and missing people with disabilities and especially older people.”

Many people are shopping online for the first time (Image: Shutterstock)

Many older people are choosing to go digital for the first time – Jonathan says his 83-year-old mother spent three hours with “a saint in the Tesco call centre” the first time she tried to shop online – so there’s potentially a huge new audience for businesses among older people who are going online as a way of coping with Covid. In fact, a recent UK study, according to the Wall Street Journal, found that 58% of people age 65 plus have increased their use of technology in the past six months, but only 42% of them say they find technology straightforward to use and 13% say they find going online a frustrating experience. Says Jonathan: “Older people who used not to want to use digital technology are now saying, if the technology will work for me, if you can meet me halfway and make this stuff easier to use, then either you have me as a new customer, or potentially you have not lost me as a customer.”

No business wants its call centre flooded with calls from older people saying they can’t use their website, so websites need to be simple and usable, and product managers need to be mindful that many of their new customers may be digital virgins. “For example, my mum didn’t realise that the metaphor used for online shopping is that you put things into a shopping cart,” says Jonathan, and he adds that a lot of the icons and metaphors we use online may have no resonance with large sections of a customer base. “A save icon is usually a floppy disk, which means nothing to lots of young people,” he adds. He also points out that, economically, the world can’t bear huge numbers of older people who are disenfranchised from technology, so every older person then is either a drain on customer services, or presents a very real opportunity for a digital team.

Leverage Your Position

Mind the Product itself is a business that has been forced to pivot. Prior to the pandemic the business’ main source of revenue was in-person conferences, a revenue stream that disappeared overnight in March 2020. But the pandemic is just one example of the way things can go wrong, as Mind the Product’s managing director Emily Tate says, and she advises that businesses examine their agility and adaptability: “To me, Covid was a reason that a lot of businesses had to quickly rethink what their business looks like. So I think we can use the experience to look at business resilience.” It may be time to do some risk assessment and analyse where the majority of your revenue comes from and what keeps your product alive. Says Emily: “Our primary revenue source of in-person events evaporated overnight. It made us realise we were going to have to fulfill our mission in a different way. It’s really forcing us to kind of rethink what our business is overall, and I think that, in the long term, the business will be better for it.”

Emily says that maybe it’s time to apply the assumptions mapping exercise you do for a new product to the whole business. She also says that it’s important to recognise that the business environment is hugely volatile and not get too caught up with planning. “Don’t get too granular,” she says. “Maybe pull it up a level and think about, directionally, where you’re trying to go. Frankly, this is a good time for product managers. We want to get out of the cycle of committing to feature-based roadmaps on a 12-month cycle, but we haven’t had the leverage in organisations to do that. This is the perfect time to help your organisation to recognise that you can’t plan ahead for 12 months.”

Look After Your Mental Wellbeing

As many have pointed out, no one is in a rush to return to the office and remote working is here to stay for product teams and others. Randy Silver comments that seven, eight months plus into the pandemic if the business was likely to fail, chances are it has already done so. He asks: “So where are you now? What kind of runway do you have? How do you protect the sanity of the people working for you and for your customers? Is your service essential? What about it is essential, who is it essential for?”

He says everyone is now doing the planning and budgeting that they’ve previously always done in person, maybe even with staff who have come onboard during the pandemic, and have never met the rest of their team in person. “Companies may have become comfortable with hiring during the pandemic, but it’s really hard to do team forming and norming when you’ve never met people. You can extend relationships virtually, you can create relationships in virtual, but it takes a lot longer, and you have to be a lot more flexible.”

He sees that some people are desperate to get back to the office for some variety, and there’s some fatigue with the work Zoom socials that became popular at the start of the pandemic. He says it’s time to attend to your own mental wellbeing: “We now spend so much time online. One thing I’ve tried to do is go ‘Marie Kondo’ on my schedule and look at every meeting. I say ‘Why are we doing this meeting? Is this meeting sparking joy? Is it providing value? And if the answer is no, then I ask can I cancel it? Can I change the format, make it a text update, hold it less often, change who’s coming?’ I look at how I can make each of these scheduled things valuable.”

In Summary, What Should you be Doing?

  • Talk to your customers: As decisions are being made more quickly, often with less consultation, product managers should be talking to customers more than ever.
  • Focus on the user experience: Lots of older people are going online for the first time as a way to cope with Covid, so product managers need to be mindful of their needs.
  • Identify pre and post lockdown behaviours: Look for shifts in behaviour, attitude and perception, so that you can start to adapt products to long standing behavior changes. It’s more than a superficial “everything is online now”. If you just take things at surface value, as Co-op could have done with its online event product, you can end up with something that’s a long way from what people want.
  • Ask bigger questions: Look at your business model and ask what else could go wrong, and how you would respond.
  • Leverage your position as a product manager: You can use Covid as an opportunity to persuade the rest of the organisation to think differently about product planning
  • An increasing number of people are very fatigued by the current situation, and it’s having a big impact on their mental health. It’s an opportunity to look at people’s mental wellbeing, the support that can be put in place by organisations, and examine how to allow people to take better control of their mental health.

Further Reading

The Covid-19 Digital Report: 15 Trends Across 600 Applications
How Digital Helps you Create an Inclusive Workplace
Shaping the new World of Work, Lessons From Lockdown
How to Leverage Technology Transformation Opportunities Post-Covid-19

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