Oct 13

The Secret To Successful Products That Users Love From Day One

As a software product manager you have to raise your expectations on what the application will do for the user.

A Twitter Challenge Is Laid Down

Yesterday, @seriouspony tweeted:

A conversation ensued:

And I invoked the God of product design:

Visual Voicemail Is A Metaphor For No Habits

Before the iPhone, voicemail was accessed by making a call, listening to a robotic voice and navigating your messages using the number keys. This required knowledge, and incentives and habits to do well.

Jobs said (in effect) “name + tap is our interface.” No learning, knowledge, or habit required. And he committed to a lot of work on the part of the Visual voicemail app to hide all that stuff on the back end so the user didn’t have to know any of it anymore.

And interestingly, partly as result of this design approach, a habit was formed – the habit of buying an iPhone and checking it all the time.

Applications Must Embed Deep Knowledge To Be Successful

The most popular part of this conversation was this thought, which you can detect in many applications that win their space:

It seemed to strike a nerve with product managers, and was favorited several times. In the Twitter conversation I mentioned Instagram, which automatically takes good (enough) pictures.

To use one of @seriouspony’s key phrases, these applications with embedded knowledge help users kick ass. Want to take some good pictures? You can take photography classes and practice a lot, OR you can use Instagram which will instantly make even non-perfect images look a lot better. No habits needed, no knowledge needed, no incentives needed.

This also echoes comments Evan Williams made recently at the XOXO conference:

“Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time … Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.”

People already wanted to share images of their lives, Instagram just made it faster and better.

It’s Not Just iPhones – Enterprise Applications Win With Knowledge

It’s not just consumer applications that do this. My old product AppManager (from NetIQ), dominated its space because it came with built-in knowledge – simple, default monitoring scripts – while its competitors typically made the customer write and configure their own scripts. And even though the users of the application for the most part could have come up with the settings themselves, the fact that the application already had a good set of defaults meant that they didn’t have to do any thinking and could rely on us to have done that thinking. That meant they could use that cognitive capacity for other, more interesting or valuable things. That meant our customers could kick more ass. And that resulted in us winning that market handily.

Don’t Be Stupid; Take The Load Off

The important thing from the product management perspective is that you have to raise your expectations on what the application is going to do for the user. To get more knowledge into the product so it’s not stupid and takes load off the user, you can’t do the simplest possible thing – you have to do the hard(er) thing.

Jul 13

5 More Features That Product Management Tools Are Missing

My post about the capabilities a product management tool should offer was good as far as it went, but perhaps a little wimpy in terms of coming to grips with the complex nature of product management. So I’m going to dive back into it.

One aspect of complexity is “emergence” and it’s certainly true that designing and developing a great new feature is an emergent activity.

A Complex Process for a Complex Outcome

I write a user story as a crappy first draft, based on a few inputs (customer suggestions, my own insights). Then I go and edit it, and it gets better. Then I have some people review it, and they give me comments, and we start to incorporate those comments into the design process, which often means big changes, like cutting out whole chunks, or dividing the story into multiple features, or creating a whole new epic. At the same time, the team (because it’s a collaborative process) is not just “elaborating” the story, but elaborating its relationships to other things in our world, such as customers who will be affected, or competitors we may be able to respond to.

And there’s always the situation that when you first try the design out in working code, it just isn’t that nice to use. It might just be a matter of tweaks, but sometimes your fundamental concept of the interaction turns out not to work in reality. At some point, after a multitude of changes like this, you have a feature that’s usable, and engaging, that has been tested by users (perhaps in an MVP), and delivers value to the users – and is likely very different from your original concept.

Every input has the potential to drive not just a small change but a large change

The process this feature went through was far from “here’s a suggestion, implement it.” It was far from simply elaboration. Every input had the potential to drive not just a small change but a large change (a familiar aspect of complexity). Some inputs, indeed, resulted in eliminating parts of the design.

How Tools Can Support This Process

In my experience, this is the normal way features come to market. But I have yet to see a product management tool that recognizes that the entity is going to change a lot of over time, and which supports and aids in that process. Sometimes you have to be able to say to the team, “All that stuff we talked about before was interesting, but forget about it – the feature is now these new things.” And if the tool supported semantics like that, it would be a load off my mind.

Other related capabilities that I would love to have:

  1. Transcluding other information
  2. Helping break the story up in a useful way if it gets too big or unwieldy
  3. Versioning stories or groups of stories
  4. Combining the story with other stories that are related or overlap
  5. Creating dependencies between stories

Existing tools don’t support these capabilities well. Of course, you can do all of this in nearly any tool, even Microsoft Word or Excel, but the point is that means you have to manage it all, track the relationships in your head, find the duplications, make the copies, whatever it might be. But these are things that computers are good at. If the application took care of them, you’d have more cognitive capacity for being creative.