In the fifth year of #mtpcon San Francisco, 1,650 product people came together to celebrate our craft and learn from each other. Here is a look at what we learned from this year’s line-up of speakers:
Product Challenges are Universal
Mind the Product founder Martin Eriksson opened the conference by reminding us why we gather each year. While #mtpcon has been coming to San Francisco for five years, the Mind the Product community began nine years ago. And as the community has grown and scaled around the world, we’ve seen that the challenges that product people face are the same, regardless of where we are. Whether you’re working on a consumer app in Singapore, a SaaS product in San Francisco, or a challenger bank in London, we all struggle with the same challenges – and we can learn how to deal with them by coming together as a community.
While we’ve spent a lot of time discussing the mechanics of product management, the most common challenge we hear about is discovery: how to know if we’re building the right things. We have to focus on the basics to answer this question – research, understanding our customers and their needs, and discovering what we could build that is valuable, feasible, and desirable. So we brought together several speakers with different perspectives on this topic to help us think about how we approach discovery.
Banish Your Inner Critic
Before we can understand our customers, we have to understand ourselves. Denise Jacobs had us ask ourselves: “What blocks us from doing our best work?”. It turns out that most of our biggest blockers aren’t external, they are negative voices inside us that plague us with self-doubt and keep us from showing up in our full power. Denise helped us to identify this “Inner Critic” inside, and gave us some tips to reclaim our brains and stop the self-sabatoge.
Clarity and Focus are Very Important
Michael Sippey, VP Product at Medium, pointed us to one of the most valuable jobs of a product manager: prioritization. It is easy to get lost in the “think big” portion of building products, but, unless the creativity is paired with clarity and focus, you can end up building features and products that don’t serve customers’ needs. To create clarity, Michael recommends banishing unordered lists so there is always a #1 priority. He also encourages us to let go of the need to be right (difficult for many product managers) and enlist our teams to help us answer: What problem are we solving? Who are we solving it for? How will we measure success?
Mind the Platform
Brandon Chu, General Manager and Director of Product, Platform at Shopify, gave us insights into the challenges of managing platforms. Platforms can be very useful – opening up your APIs allows other companies to serve user needs that your company can’t support. To aid a platform’s chances of success, Brandon recommends accelerating the “flywheel” – helping customers find the right third-party app at the right time, which makes more third parties want to participate, and helps the platform grow.
He also recommends investing heavily in trust features, even when the ROI might not be immediately apparent, because trust makes platforms stable. Most of all, he says, you should be patient with risk. It can be tempting to close control of your platform early to reduce risk, but product managers must help to keep the platform open to creativity as long as possible to allow the ecosystem to thrive.
Start with Learn
We always talk about the “Build – Measure – Learn” loop of lean product development. But the problem, says David J. Bland, Founder and CEO at Precoil.com, is that we start with “Build”. Why don’t we start with “Learn” instead? Do the customers want it? Could we build it? Should we? If we’re looking to learn about a business, we should be using experiments. David walked us through several methods of testing our assumptions using methods that don’t involve building the product upfront. He challenged us to run experiments, and use our influence as product people to test the business before building the products.
You Don’t own the Customer
It is easy to get caught in the argument of who owns the “Voice of the Customer.” Product managers, researchers, designers, marketers – we all feel that this is a key part of our roles. The truth, points out Tricia Wang, Co-Founder Sudden Compass, is that the customer owns their own voice; no one owns the “voice of the customer” when everyone is talking to the customer! It is our job to work together to facilitate an understanding of customer needs. When we collaborate across disciplines, we can truly uncover what the customer is saying. This shared experience of knowing the customer leads to stronger product-market fit than any one discipline can discover on their own. We have to be vulnerable and work together to better serve people.
Tell Great Stories
Fareed Mosavat, Director of Product for Slack Lifecycle, took us back to the roots of management, reflecting on times where strict hierarchies were the norm. But now, we are not looking for people to simply execute tasks – we’re looking to give smart people the freedom to do their best work. Fareed looks to the film industry and film directors to see what we can learn from making movies. He told us to tell great stories with just enough detail for our teams to paint the picture in their minds. Then unlock creative freedom of the team members, allowing each to contribute in their own way, and connect the dots with feedback. Review your progress before it is ready. Doing this will allow you to act less like a product manager, and more like a product director.
Don’t Just Test. Research
We often jump to the concept of testing when we think about user research, and focus heavily on usability. But what we really need is a deeper understanding of our users, not just validation of ideas we already have. Consultant and author Steve Portigal talked us through the art of user research, providing tips on how to work through qualitative research to thoroughly understand our customers and gain the empathy we need in our roles. Immersing yourself in your customers’ environments and providing plenty of open space for them to tell their stories will allow them to relax, and provide the insights you need to find the real opportunities for impact.
Products Have Power in Society
Product leader Kathy Pham joined us to talk about ethics in tech. We are past the point where we can just build products without thinking about the larger impacts. Technology failures and poorly designed services can have an impact on human rights, safety, and democracy. We own the product lifecycle, so we should be advocating for the user. Discussions of ethics in tech are not new, and we need to recognize that the power lies with the product builder. It is incumbent on us to think about the impact of the things we build, and to have contingency plans for when things go wrong. We should also honor expertise, recognizing that we may not have all the answers within our teams. We should seek out the people who know about the subjects we’re tackling in order to evaluate the ethical impacts correctly.
We All Want the Same Thing
Elizabeth Churchill, Director of User Experience at Google, brought us a case study, and took us through the process of building the Google Material Design system to understand the importance of research. A product of this scale is so much more than just a design system – Google wanted a system that would inspire builders. As she walked the audience through the story of Material Design, Elizabeth highlighted the collaboration points between product, design, research, and engineering, and pointed out that we’re all interested in the same thing: research that will lead to great products!
Show Your Work
Product discovery coach Teresa Torres closed the day by talking about our desire as product managers to have the “right answer”. We build roadmaps and present our plans to stakeholders hoping for their approval, but when the highest paid person in the room has a different opinion, we often change direction. We create this problem ourselves: when we show these roadmaps, we ask for opinions on our results without showing our working. We back our “best idea” up with data, but rarely present more than one “best idea”. Teresa advocates using a tool called the Opportunity Solution Tree, which allows us to map the entire opportunity space and explore where we can really provide the most value for our customers. When we focus on the opportunities rather than the solution, we can be released from needing to find the “right answer”. We are not one feature away from success and we never will be, so we need to show our work and embrace the team effort of building product. This will allow us to find better options overall.
We’ll be returning to San Francisco in the Summer of 2020, but this year’s conference is over, and we’re back in our day-to-day work. But the learning doesn’t have to stop here! We’ll be posting the full videos of each talk over the coming weeks so you can share what you learned with your team. You can also stay connected with the community. Find your local ProductTank, join us on Slack for product-related discussions, or join us for product management training or at one of our other conferences. We’ll see you soon!