The most important job of a product leader

Excerpt from How to Run a Quarterly Product Strategy Meeting: A Board Meeting for Product by former VP/CPO at Netflix and Chegg, Gibon Biddle:

I think the most important job of a product leader is to outline a cohesive product strategy, along with metrics and tactics against these strategies. The way I define the product leader’s job is to delight customers, in margin-enhancing, hard-to-copy ways.

Your product strategy should define your key hypotheses about how you plan to deliver on these three dimensions. The metrics are how you measure your progress, and the tactics are simply projects or experiments against each of your key strategies.

Notes:
(i) Thank you Alon Zieve for the article recommendation.
(ii) Cf. First principles for startup founders (and product managers).
(iii) Cf. The heart of any growth strategy is core product value.

Hire a Director of Research for your product team

Edited excerpt from How We Accidentally Invented Job Stories by Paul Adams, VP Product at Intercom:

We place a huge emphasis on research. We hire people with direct research experience, and everyone on the product team talks directly to customers. We also hired a Director of Research much earlier than most other startups.

While it’s obvious you should be talking to customers frequently to try and understand their needs, it’s not obvious what the best tool to do that is. So we created our own process, Job Stories, based on the Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD) framework. This ensures the team is research driven, that team members understand their problem so well that they can capture it in a concise format, and that the summary of the problem is actionable for all the design and engineering team.

Notes:
(1) Since the goal of research is to improve your product, the Director of Research should report to the VP Product.
(2) One of the key insights here is that the entire product team should be talking to customers, but often they don’t know how to, or they don’t have clear enough goals for their conversations. The Director of Research can set goals and a format for these calls.
(3) For more on Job Stories, see Paul’s full article, and also Why product managers should frame every product task as a Job To Be Done.

First principles for startup founders (and product managers)

Edited excerpt from Building Products by Julie Zhou:

1. A product succeeds because it solves a problem for people. This sounds very basic, but it is the single most important thing to understand about building good products.

2. The first step in building something new is understanding what problem you want to solve, and for whom. This should be crystal clear before you start thinking about any solutions.

3. The second question you should ask yourself is “why is this particular problem worth solving?”

4. If the audience you are building for is narrowly defined (and one that you are a part of), then you may be able to rely on your intuition to guide your product decision-making. If not, then you should rely on research and data to inform your decisions.

5. The problem you’re trying to solve should be easy to communicate in a sentence or two and resonate with someone from your target audience. If not, consider that a big red flag.

Notes:
(1) The most common error I’ve seen among seed-stage startups is that they devote insufficient time to understanding the user’s problem before thinking about their proposed solution to it. The Job To Be Done framework prevents that error, because it forces you to research and define the user’s “Job To Be Done” in isolation from your proposed solution.
(2) “If the audience you are building for is narrowly defined (and one that you are a part of), then you may be able to rely on your intuition to guide your product decision-making.” See: The benefits and risks of founding a startup to satisfy a personal need.
(3) Cf. (i) What problem are you solving?, (ii) Four simple questions to help you get product-market fit, (iii) Documenting your product-market fit hypotheses.

Why optimization alone can’t create great products or companies

Edited excerpt from Before Growth by Sam Altman:

Startups that don’t first figure out a product some users love also seem to rarely develop the sense of mission that the best companies have.

Notes:
(1) There’s so much literature about optimization and speed of iteration, it’s possible to forget that great companies are built from truly great products.
(2) Great product teams have three skills sets: user centricity — focus on a Job To Be Done that is important to a large number of people; vision — for a product which addresses that Job To Be Done in a way that users love; and speed — commitment to rapid testing, optimization and feedback loops.
(3) Cf. (i) The three steps to building a great company, and why most startups fail on the first step, (ii) Cosmetic changes to your product won’t fix low user engagement and retention and (iii) Don’t be satisfied with sales, seek love.

To improve your product process, try the 25 minute design sprint

Edited excerpt from The 25-Minute Design Sprint by Chris Thelwell:

The 25 minute design sprint forces designers to work quickly and focus on what they can learn rather than what they can produce. It’s based on the Pomodoro Technique, which uses blocks of 25 minutes followed by five minute breaks to focus attention on getting something done. It can be used continuously throughout a project, breaking all parts of the design work into 25 minute slices, or stopped when you feel you are getting somewhere and have clear direction.

The Process
1. Using a timer, set up 25 minutes for the first sprint.
2. Each designer works individually for 25 minutes to create and explore ideas, ideally using sketching first. Include at least 10 minutes of researching and gaining inspiration.
3. When the 25 minutes ends, everyone stops what they are working on. (Don’t give in to “I just need another five minutes”.)
4. The whole team comes together to discuss and share their ideas.
5. The team decides if each designer should persevere (develop their ideas) or pivot (try something different) in the next sprint.
6. Take a five minute break from work.
7. The sprint process then starts over again.

Notes:
(1) Here’s Wikipedia on the Pomodoro Technique.
(2) A design sprint can only succeed with clarity about the Job To Be Done. So go over the Job Outline with the team before you start the sprint, and ensure everyone has answers to the Five questions to ensure product designers focus on the Job To Be Done.
(3) See also: Why product managers should frame every product task as a Job To Be Done.

The heart of any growth strategy is core product value

Excerpt from A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Chamath Palihapitiya About Investing and Business by Tren Griffin:

Users are only ever in three states — they’ve never heard about it; they’ve tried it; and they use it. What you’re managing is state change. So the framework is, what causes these changes? The answer should be rooted more in preference, choice and psychology than in some quantitative thing.

What I want to hear about is the three most difficult and hard problems that any consumer product has to deal with. How to get people on the front door? How to get them to an ‘A-ha’ moment as quickly as possible? And then how do you deliver core product value as often as possible?

Notes:
(1) “The answer should be rooted more in preference, choice and psychology than in some quantitative thing.” Another way of putting this: the core of any growth strategy must be a great product which helps your customers achieve a valuable Job To Be Done in a compelling way. See Is your product a “must-have” according to this definition?
(2) Cf. The only way to build a massive business.
(3) Cf. Don’t be satisfied with sales, seek love.

Why product managers shouldn’t overrate simplicity

Edited excerpt from Simple just isn’t that important by David Heinemeier Hansson:

“Simple” is just one of the many qualities we can use to evaluate products, and it is by no means the most important. Simple is overrated!

Here are but a few qualities I’d take over simple: Useful. Clear. Fun. Satisfying. Inspiring. Endearing.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Frictionless vs. minimalist product design.
(2) Cf. Minimum viable product vs minimum acceptable product.

For growth, focus on the marginal user

Edited excerpt from Growth by Alex Schultz, VP Growth at Facebook:

Building an incredible product is definitely about optimizing it for the people who use your product the most. But when it comes to driving growth, people who are already using your product are not the ones you have to worry about. What you need to focus on is the marginal user. The one person who doesn’t get a notification in a given day, month, or year.

We looked at new users, resurrected users (people who weren’t on Facebook for 30 days and came back) and churned users. For pretty much every product I’ve ever seen, the resurrected and churned numbers dominate the new user account once you reach a sensible point of growth a few years in. And all those users who are churning and resurrecting had low friend counts, and didn’t find their friends so weren’t connected to the great stuff that was going on on Facebook. So the number one thing we needed to focus on was getting them to those 10 friends, or whatever number of friends they needed.

So when you’re thinking about growth, think about the user on the margin.

Notes:
(1) Thank you Aaron Frazer for the article tip.
(2) “Focus on the marginal user” — Josh Elman says the Twitter team similarly focused on the lowest four steps of user engagement — see Identify your engagement ladder.
(3) Re. “For pretty much every product I’ve ever seen , the resurrected and churned numbers dominate the new user account once you reach a sensible point of growth a few years in… So the number one thing we needed to focus on was them” — Cf. A simple metric to measure the quality of your user growth.

How to ensure new product initiatives are user-centric

Edited excerpt from Two Quick Exercises for Creating a Winning Product Strategy by Jerry Cao:

Before you begin to define the features and details of your product, imagine what users would say about the final version:

Write a tweet from the perspective of future user. You’re trying to capture the core essence of the product. What will users like or dislike about the product? How enthusiastic are they, and what can you modify to increase their enthusiasm? This activity forces you to focus on the single differentiator that defines every memorable product.

Write a fake press release. Conceive the ideal product in your head and write an announcement to prospective users about it, listing out the problems it solves, a summary of how it works, a catchy title, instructions on the first steps, and even a call-to-action. You can even write pretend testimonials about what you want customers to say.

Notes:
(1) Amazon product managers start new initiatives by writing a press release, according to Ian McAllister. See his detailed description of how to do it.
(2) In Ian’s press release outline, he includes Problem, Solution and How To Get Started. Compare this to Josh Elman’s categories in A framework for growth hacking using Job To Be Done.

Identify your engagement ladder

Edited excerpt from Building your growth model and Ladder of Engagement by Josh Elman:

As you think about your product and what it takes to become an expert, I like to break this down to steps into something I call the “Ladder of Engagement”. You should be able to break down your product into specific skills or tasks someone needs to understand to get the most out of your product. Not all users will (or need to!) make it to the top of the ladder to get value out of it. But you should understand what tasks in your product require more understanding of your product.

This might be easier with an example I created for Twitter when we were just starting the growth team. This was the Twitter Ladder of Engagement: (1) Understand what a Tweet is, (2) Start following people you are interested in / friends with to make a basic timeline, (3) Start checking and reading your timeline to see what’s new, (4) Make sure you have mobile apps installed so you can go back and forth with the web app, (5) Begin to engage and participate — @ reply, retweets, favorites and even Tweet yourself, (6) Run your first searches and see what other people are saying on Twitter. (7) Learn to build your following (we didn’t expect most users to get here, but we expected power users would care and want to).

This ladder was valuable for us as we built the growth and onboarding flow. We focused primarily on 1–4 to get people going, and then step 5 as users were more prepared. It helped us decide which areas of the product to focus on, and helped us explain the product to users in a more stepwise fashion.

Notes:
(1) Cf. How to reduce friction in your product.
(2) Cf. Getting users up the engagement ladder.

How to discover what your users really care about

In this brief video tutorial, Joe Natoli recommends a simple process for product managers:

  • Get the internal stakeholders to list the categories of information they think users of the product care about, in order of importance.
  • Then, ask users what categories of information they care about. Don’t anchor them with the categories you’ve come up with — ask open ended questions.
  • Present the results in a three-column table: Column 1: information category. Column 2: how we thought users ranked it. Column 3: how users actually ranked it.
  • Benefits: “It shines a light on the fact that what the people in the room think is important and what users or customers think is important are often not the same thing. It forces everyone in the room to step outside their preconceptions and inherent biases and put themselves in the shoes of users and customers. And it’s the quickest way I know to develop a clear, simple model for Information Architecture, saving everyone a tremendous amount of time, debate and headache.”

Notes:
(1) Thank you Daniel Riedler for the tip.
(2) It’s worth watching the video — it’s short, well produced, and informative.
(3) If you yourself are a typical user of your product, it’s easier to get user-centric design intuitively right. But if you’re not a typical user of your own product, forcing yourself to write down what you think users care about is critical. It uncovers your assumptions, opens them up for discussion, and makes them easy to test.
(4) This can also be useful within the Job To Be Done framework: once you’ve stated your users’ Job To Be Done, list and rank the requirements for performing the job successfully, and then validate them with users.

Frictionless vs. minimalist product design

Edited excerpt from Frictionless product design by Steven Sinofsky:

Frictionless and minimalism are related but not necessarily the same. A design can be minimal but still have a great deal of friction. The Linux command line interface is a great example of minimal design with high friction. You can do everything through a single prompt, as long as you know what to type and when. The minimalism is wonderful, but the ability to get going comes with high friction.

Minimalist design is about reducing the surface area of an experience. Frictionless design is about reducing the energy required by an experience.

Notes:
(1) Product managers should care about friction, not minimalism. Minimalism only matters if it reduces friction.
(2) Cf. How to reduce friction in your product.
(3) Cf. The best products satisfy a frequent user need with minimum friction.

How to reduce friction in your product

Edited excerpt from Frictionless Design Choices by Steven Sinofsky:

1. Decide on a default rather than options. The more testing you do the more likely you are to find a cohorts of people who prefer different approaches. The natural tendency will be to add an option or setting to allow people to choose their preference or worse you might interrupt their flow to ask preference. Make a choice. Take a stand. Every option is friction in the system (and code to maintain).

2. Create one path to a feature or task. Where there was once one path to get to a feature you now think about adding multiple paths, leading to shortcuts, floating buttons, context menus, and more. All of which are favored by your early adopters and add friction for everyone else.

3. Offer personalization rather than customization. The theory is that customization makes a product easier to use because every use case is different enough that the time and effort saved by customization is worth it and important. In managing a product over time, customization becomes an engineering impossibility to maintain.

4. Stick with changes you make. When you change how a feature used by lots of customers works, it’s tempting to introduce a “compatibility mode” or a way to turn your new product into the old and comfortable product. Doing that creates a technical debt that you can never dig out of, and means your product will be surpassed in the marketplace.

5. Build features, not futzers. You’ll receive a lot of input from early customers to enable slightly different options or adjustments which will add friction to your product without growing the breadth of scenarios your product enables. Stay focused on delivering features will enable your product to do more.

6. Guess correctly all the time. Many of the latest features, especially those based on machine learning or statistical models, involve taking action based on guessing what comes next. These types of features are magical, when they work. The challenge is they don’t always work and that drives a friction-filled user experience.

Notes:
(1) Cf. The best products satisfy a frequent user need with minimum friction.
(2) Cf. Why another new feature won’t get people to use your product.

How to identify your ideal customer

Edited excerpt from How to Find Your Ideal Customer by Sachin Rekhi:

1. Generate candidate customer segments. First, take an inward look at your existing customers, using available customer registration data, your analytics tool’s demographic segmentation capabilities, customer surveys, tools like FullContact, Clearbit, Pipl, ZoomInfo, and MaxMind’s IP Address database, and interviews with sales reps, account managers, and customer service reps. Then, take an outward look across the broad industry by reaching out to industry experts, analyzing competitor websites, marketing materials, and customer forums, and by conducting potential customer interviews.

2. Determine the most meaningful attributes by which you can segment and cluster your candidate customers. Some of the most common segmentation attributes include use case, role, demographics, firm characteristics, and psychographics (like willingness to try new solutions, personality characteristics, and personal goals).

3. Evaluate the attractiveness of each of your determined customer segments based on attributes that you’ve developed. Typical evaluation criteria include segment size, resonance with value proposition, willingness to pay, strongest delivered value, acquisition strategy, and strategic fit. As you start to build up an existing customer base, you can start directly measuring the attractiveness of given customer segments empirically by studying product engagement rates, analyzing monetization and churn metrics, analyzing sales funnel conversion rates, and conducting NPS surveys.

Notes:
(1) With the Job To Be Done approach, customer characteristics are not the primary focus, because different types of people may share the same need for a job to be done. But identifying the characteristics of your ideal customer can still be important, because they are relevant to pricing, marketing and sales channels.
(2) Cf. How to learn about your customers.
(3) Cf. Why it matters who your early customers are.

Three simple rules to ensure your product team is goal-driven

Edited excerpt from How to say “No” to your CEO’s random product ideas by Brian de Haaf, CEO of Aha!:

As the lead product manager, you hear about the “great new idea” on a daily basis from every team. Each person making suggestions seems to have good reasons why you should add their idea to the product roadmap. Here’s how to say “no”:

1. Goal first. Set your product strategy and then be proactive about communicating it within the rest of the organization. Define your vision and make sure everyone understands it, then your strategy can say, “No” for you.

2. Score ideas. You should rank features and prioritize the ones that will have the greatest impact on the product and the company.

3. Share your roadmap. Our product team shares our roadmap regularly with the entire organization. This ensures that we are all on the same page and working towards the same goals and initiatives.

Notes:
(1) There’s some valuable advice here, but the mindset of the article — how to say “no” — seems wrong to me. Instead, consider Sam Altman’s advice for product managers to “listen to everyone, then make your own decision”, and Seth Godin’s approach in When you’re given advice, here’s how to listen with an open mind.
(2) I’m a skeptic of product roadmaps. At Seeking Alpha, we find that long roadmaps make little sense. It you have a product roadmap stretching out six months, for example, that’s the same as saying “No feedback from customers or the market, and no results of any tests will impact what we do for the next six months.” That’s obviously crazy.
(3) Instead, a better approach is to have only your top three or five ideas ready for testing or launching. You can revise the list right up until the last moment before development. All your other ideas should be kept in a list — and you can score them there, as Brian de Haaf suggests. So I’d change his third suggestion to “Share your idea list”.
(4) Cf. The best growth teams maximize the velocity of tests and Why another new feature won’t get people to use your product.

Don’t become fixated on your own product idea

Edited excerpt from 3 Startup Lessons I Learned the Hard Way by David Cancel:

Like almost all startup founders I spend way too much time obsessing about my ideas. Guess what? Nobody cares about my idea, and they don’t care about your idea, either. Nobody.

People are selfishly motivated first and foremost — they want to know how you are going to help them, not what you think would be cool to build. Focus all your energy on solving a critical problem. Forget your idea.

Notes:
(1) Perhaps this is too extreme. Instead, consider: “The best product managers are those who can define and articulate clear and consistent product vision while constantly evaluating it. This duality is one of the hardest things in getting product management right.” — from Feedback versus vision in product management. See also Balancing product vision and listening to customers.
(2) Having said that, it’s important to recognize the balance of risk: there’s a greater risk that you’ll neglect what users want in favor of your own ideas than that you’ll neglect your own ideas in favor of what users want.
(3) “Focus all your energy on solving a critical problem” — see Build your product to explicitly address a “Job To Be Done” and How to identify your customers’ “Job To Be Done”.

The best growth teams maximize the velocity of tests

Excerpt from Growth Lessons Learned from LinkedIn by Sachin Rekhi:

Given there is absolutely no substitute for simply running a test to know whether it’s going to be successful, the very best growth teams optimize for velocity of A/B tests they can run.

There are a lot of things that slow down testing velocity – all of which can be optimized. Ability to divide up your audience into orthogonal sub-segments is important to ensure your tests don’t interfere but you can run as many as possible simultaneously. Improving the throughput of test analysis is important so you limit the time you can decide whether to ramp a test or move on to the next variant. Developing a backlog of upcoming tests and regularly grooming that backlog will help you ensure you always are prepared for the next test. Streamlining your test ideation and brainstorming process will also improve the speed of getting good variants to run.

The point is the single most important thing a growth team can do is not picking the right variant to test, but simply increasing the velocity of tests you are running.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Instilling a culture of experimentation from day one.
(2) Cf. Three advantages of experimenting a lot.

Why another new feature won’t get people to use your product

Edited excerpt from The Next Feature Fallacy: The fallacy that the next new feature will suddenly make people use your product by Andrew Chen:

The average web app faces a precipitous drop-off between initially attracting a user and retaining them over the first month. Of 1000 users who visit your homepage to check out your product, 20% sign up, of whom 80% finish onboarding, of whom 40% visit the next day after signup, of whom 20% visit the next week after signup, and 10% visit after 30 days after signup. After 30 days, 20 users (out of 1000!) are Daily Active Uniques.

Two mistakes are often made when designing features meant to bend this engagement curve.  First, too few people will use the feature, particularly if the feature targets engaged/retained users rather than non-users and new users. And second, too little impact is made when they do engage, especially if important or key functions are displayed as optional actions outside the onboarding process.

Picking the features that bend the curve requires a strong understanding of your user lifecycle. First and foremost is maximizing the reach of your feature, so it impacts the most people. It’s a good rule of thumb that the best features often focus mostly on non-users and casual users, the reason being that there’s simply many more of them. Similarly, it’s important to have deep insights into what users need to do to become activated, so that their first visit is set up properly.

Notes:
(1) Cf. Facebook’s most important advice for product managers.
(2) Cf. Andy Johns on how to build a winning product.
(3) Cf. Facebook’s Julie Zhuo on combatting feature creep.

Guidance for product managers: success = simplicity + focus

Edited excerpt from 16 product things I learned at Imgur by Sam Gerstenzang:

1. Every interface can be made simpler. One useful technique is to have a separate meeting focused just on cutting and simplifying. You can also appoint an individual ‘cutter’ to take this role outside of the meeting, but only after brainstorming.

2. Every feature you launch is a feature you’ll need to support with users, infrastructure and development. So launch as few things as possible.

3. Find the one thing you need to get right and spend most of your time on it. You can screw up basically everything else.

Notes:
(1) “Find the one thing you need to get right and spend most of your time on it.” This applies to everyone, not just to product managers.
(2) Cf. (i) The most important goal for every manager is to say “no” to good ideas, and (ii) the more specific application of this for product managers.

Cosmetic changes to your product won’t fix low user engagement and retention

Excerpt (with edits and wording changes) from Why consumer product metrics are all terrible by Andrew Chen:

It’s common to see that the vast majority of your users, often over 90%, aren’t engaged on a daily basis. When you look at the retention curve [number of users active x days after signup], usually there’s a very steep drop-off over the first week or two, and then it starts to stabilize. But overall you lose a ton of active users, a result of (i) how many users sign up and actually try out your product (onboarding), (ii) how many days they are active within a month (frequency), and (iii) how useful your product is over time (long term retention).

Given that frequency is often low – 3 or 4 active days per month isn’t uncommon – when you pair that with crappy onboarding or retention, then very quickly you’ll see that getting 10% of your users to come back every day is an amazing feat. Anything more than 10% of your total users coming back every day is a success case! More often it’s 5%, or even lower.

So what if your metrics aren’t at this level? This isn’t something that’s easily fixable with something superficial, like more email or push notifications. I’ve yet to see a product with horrible DAU/MAU get fixed using cosmetic changes.

Changing engagement metrics might be the hardest thing to do with products, though. You can make your onboarding better, or get people to invite incrementally more friends. But getting them to come back over time, that’s not something that’s easy to solve using optimization techniques.

Notes:
(1) “Changing engagement metrics might be the hardest thing to do” — but it’s also the most important, because user engagement is the bottom of the funnel after marketing and onboarding. Any success in marketing and onboarding will be discounted if you have poor user engagement.
(2) For this reason, as Ben Yoskowitz argues, ongoing engagement is the top priority in product development.

Addictive product = high content liquidity + high signal-to-noise ratio

Edited excerpt from my article Thoughts On Twitter’s Growth Problem, And Why It’s Losing To Facebook:

Twitter’s problem is that it has low user engagement, measured by the ratio of daily active users to monthly active users (DAUs/MAUs). What’s the cause of Twitter’s low engagement problem?

The key to user engagement for Twitter is that the product must combine high liquidity of content with a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Twitter excels in content liquidity. When you follow enough people, you get a ton of frequently updated content. But signal to noise ratio is a big problem for Twitter, in contrast to Facebook.

To understand why there’s so much noise on TWTR, you need to look at what Twitter users are incentivized to do. The most visible measure of success on Twitter is number of followers. So how do you maximize the number of followers you have? Here’s what Twitter marketing experts say: Tweet frequently. Tweet aphorisms. Always use images. Use software to retweet at optimal times. Follow as many people as you can. “Favorite” as many tweets as you can. Auto-follow anyone who follows you.

The problem is that none of these activities are aimed at generating genuine value. By not incentivizing individual users to maximize signal to noise ratio, Twitter incentivizes its users to generate noise. That leads to low signal to noise ratio in the user experience, makes Twitter a less addictive product, and lowers Twitter’s user engagement.

Notes:
(1) High content liquidity is related to frequency of habit. If something changes frequently and is important, you’ll check it every day, and possibly multiple times per day.
(2) This isn’t applicable only to B2C products. Even SaaS products sold to enterprises need to have a core user experience which generates addictive use.
(3) Cf. (i) How valuable is your product? Google’s “toothbrush test”, and (ii) The best products satisfy a frequent user need with minimum friction.

Google’s “toothbrush test” — how valuable is your product?

Edited excerpt from In Silicon Valley, Mergers Must Meet the Toothbrush Test:

When deciding whether Google should spend millions or even billions of dollars in acquiring a new company, its chief executive, Larry Page, asks whether the acquisition passes the toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better?

Notes:
(1) Marissa Mayer came from Google. So it’s not surprising that she also believes that The best products satisfy a frequent user need.
(2) To what extent is frequency of use critical for SaaS and subscription businesses? See The relationship between frequency of habit and customer retention.
(3) Thank you Selig Davis for the tip. Selig is Seeking Alpha’s head of mobile products — iOS app and Android app.

Building a valuable product — a checklist of questions to answer

Edited excerpt from Customer Interviews: So you’ve decided to take your startup seriously by Tacklebox:

  1. Are you building a pain killer or a vitamin? Do people need a solution to this problem, or is it a “nice to have”?
  2. How do customers solve this problem now? What’s the exact process? How do they feel during this process? What are the biggest pain points? Specific products, workarounds, “hacks,” etc.
  3. How much money/time does this problem cost people now? If you can, get a sense of how much they’d pay to have it solved properly.
  4. Who has this problem? Establish a persona for the customer who needs your product the most.
  5. Are you on the right track? Validate your assumptions to this point.
  6. What is everyone missing? Where are the holes? What are customers missing? What are the products they use lacking?
  7. Are customers locked into some existing solution? What would it take to get them out of it?
  8. What would a product look like that made this experience 10x better than what currently exists?

The best products satisfy a frequent user need with minimum friction

Edited quotes from Marissa Mayer, quoted in A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Marissa Mayer about Business, Management, and Innovation by Tren Griffen:

When you can make a product simpler, more people will use it. When react to a product by thinking “Wow; this helps me do something I didn’t think I could do, or helps me do something I didn’t think I could do this easily” — that’s the mark of a great consumer product.

I think a great product is something where you see an acute user need and you solve it in a way that is frictionless and beautiful. You really hope there’s an element of personality and delight there.

But I do think it’s identifying the need and then finding an easy way to solve it. Sometimes you can solve it straight and head on, sometimes you solve it in an interesting way, sometimes it’s about innovation, sometimes it’s about coming at the product very much head on — but it’s really about having an eye for design and eye for the user need. How to not get in the user’s way. How can you just help someone immediately get something done, especially if they’re doing something every day, multiple times per day, you really want it to be something that is easy and fast and simple with nothing in the way.

Notes:
(1) Re. “frequent user need” — see The relationship between frequency of habit and customer retention.
(2) Re. “with minimum friction” — see Andy Johns on how to build a winning product.

How to group your product features into plans aligned with customer needs

Edited excerpt from What I Learned From Increasing My Prices by Ruben Gamez:

Before thinking about price, I had to restructure my features / pricing plans. This meant that I first needed to identify my customer segments properly.

To segment customers I needed to understand exactly which people were getting value out of Bidsketch, put them into related groups, and find out the differences between each of those groups.

I started off by sending several surveys and having conversations with customers. Once I had a couple hundred responses I created a targeted list of everyone that considered Bidsketch a “must have” product.

I researched every one of these companies by looking up their usage data (to cross reference with survey results), and checking them out online.

Some of the questions I was trying to answer at this point: What industry do they belong to? How many users do they have? How often do they use Bidsketch? What features do they use the most?

The next step was to have phone calls with most of the founders/CEOs on the list. Some key questions I asked in my phone calls: How many employees do you have and how many people use Bidsketch? How much time does Bidsketch save you on each proposal? How important is feature X to you/your team? Describe your typical/ideal proposal workflow.

The point of this research was to discover specific attributes that would better help me segment customers. I was also attempting to find out which key features were most important to each of these segments.

I found that I had three main segments, and it became clear which specific features each of these segments valued most and which metrics I should target. I created a list of the top features and ordered them by importance. Then, I removed core features or the ones that every segment would expect a product like mine to have.

(Thank you Andrew Fine for the tip.)

How to set priorities in product development

Edited excerpt from Prioritize Product Development by the Four Stages of Use by Ben Yoskowitz:

When prioritizing feature development I like to think of a product in four pieces. These are actually the steps a user goes through during their lifecycle with your product (listed in reverse). Think of your product less in terms of features and more in terms of the experience you’re trying to provide from start to finish:

1. Ongoing Engagement: How do you make sure users get continuous value from your product? How do you make sure they return? Make sure your product is sticky and prioritize features that will drive usage. Early on most of your prioritization should be around increasing usage (DAU, WAU, MAU) and to a lesser extent decreasing churn.

2. First User Experience: What do you want people doing as soon as they start using your product? How can you get people to an “Aha!” moment quickly? Think of the first user experience as separate from onboarding. Onboarding gets people through the door; the first user experience gets them doing something important/valuable once they’re in. Prioritize the first user experience early and learn as quickly as you can what your best users are doing in your product.

3. Onboarding: How can you get people signed up? Where is the friction in your sign up process that you can eliminate?

4. Marketing/Growth: How do you get users to your product? How do you get them to the front door? Product development and prioritization at this stage may not touch the core product itself, but it’s critical to the company’s success.

Try focusing on one of these at a time and not spreading yourself too thin. Get your whole team aligned on the key problem you’re trying to solve. Let people go deep into one of these areas and give them the freedom to brainstorm all over the place.

Minimum viable product vs minimum acceptable product

From Minimum Viable Product or Minimum Acceptable Product by David Cummings:

In some B2C cases, and many B2B cases, the market demands a minimum acceptable product. A minimum acceptable product is a minimum viable product plus a few (not too many!) niceties people expect in a quality product. The niceties could include items like the password reset option and other generally accepted features. A minimum acceptable product still should not be developed in a vacuum and driven with close customer input. One rule of thumb I like is that the minimum viable product should be built and launched in 90 days with the minimum acceptable product no more than 45 days after that.

How to increase active users

From The Importance of Understanding Your Best Users by Ben Yoskovitz:

1. Define a “good” user for your product/business (which depends on the product, business, and stage you’re at). Be aggressive (aim high!) and don’t cheat yourself. Be intellectually honest.

2. Look for commonalities amongst those “good” users (it could be anything!)

3. Figure out how to get more “good” users (could include feature experiments to encourage more/different usage of your product based on what good users do, could be a shift in market / marketing strategy, etc.)

4. Rinse and repeat.

Getting users up the engagement ladder

Excepted from Engagement is a Long-Term Process by Ben Yoskovitz:

By now you should appreciate the importance of onboarding users. But beyond onboarding, you should think of engagement – long-term engagement – as a process.

For example, let’s say you have a user-generated content site that only wins big if you can convince a lot of people to submit a lot of content. It’s a fairly big ask, even for the small percentage of crazy people that are obsessed with the subject matter. You could push users to submit content right away, making the big ask, but you’ll likely confuse or scare them. They’re not ready to commit the first time they come across your site; they need to be wooed first.

Instead, you should engage these users in a lighter way before making the big ask. They need a light touch way of interacting and creating value (for you and themselves) before they decide to invest more time. Maybe you ask them to “like” or vote on some of the content that exists on the site first, before asking them to create content of their own. Clicking a single button is pretty easy for a user, and it’s something they already know how to do (from other sites / apps).

Provide opportunities for early users to engage in common ways, so there’s no learning curve and they get an immediate reward. Look at all the “features” on your site or in your product and figure out how one leads to the next. Each step along the way has to create value for you and for the user.

How data should improve your product

Excerpted (with edits) from How Airbnb used data to propel its growth to a $10B valuation by Max Song and Carl Shan:

Airbnb head of data science Riley Newman sees the collective data as the “voice” of the customer. Data scientists serve as the megaphone that amplifies the voice of the customer by teasing out their desires from the logs of customer interaction, and interpreting them into actionable decisions for the product, marketing and customer support teams.

Example: As a marketplace, search is at the heart of Airbnb’s matching. However, in the beginning, Airbnb didn’t know what kind of guidance to give customers. So they started with a simple solution, returning “the highest quality set of listings within a certain radius from the center of wherever someone searched.” Then, as  Airbnb acquired more data they found that by substituting their initial model with a user-data driven one, they were able to see an increase in customer bookings and satisfaction.

As Riley describes: “We decided to let our community solve the problem for us. Using a rich dataset comprised of guest and host interactions, we built a model that estimated a conditional probability of booking in a location, given where the person searched. A search for San Francisco would thus skew towards neighborhoods where people who also search for San Francisco typically wind up booking.”

Notes:
(1) Note the job description of a data scientist in a startup: To interpret data into actionable decisions for the product, marketing and customer support teams.
(2) Thank you Guy Cohen for the link.

Balancing product vision and listening to customers

From Pros and cons of Push and Pull product positioning and differentiation by John Gannon:

In my view, there are two types of product positioning and differentiation: Push and Pull. Both have benefits and drawbacks:

Push assumes that you understand the market and your customers well enough that you can come up with some positioning that sets you apart from the competition. You have a vision and hypothesis about why you’re different and better, and you push that message to the masses, without extensive customer validation.

Pull implies that your customers tell you what features, functions, positioning, and messaging that they find most compelling. You use these “pulled” items as the crux of your messaging and positioning versus a hypothesis about the messaging and positioning that will resonate with a customer. This is how the Customer Development guys would argue that you should develop your messaging and positioning.

Notes:
(1) Push = product vision. Pull = listening to customers.
(2) April Dunford: “I don’t think that it’s one or the other and done properly the first scenario turns into the second.”
(3) Finding the right mix of vision and listening is hard. It varies over time, and getting it wrong can lead to failure.

How important is signal-to-noise-ratio in your product?

From The First Form Of Communication That Changes Depending On Who Is Using It by Tomasz Tunguz:

Twitter is the only communication form that doesn’t require systematic processing of messages. Most of us respond to email, SMS, voice mail and phone calls with dogmatic diligence. In the Twitter stream, users are panning for gold, balancing signal and noise in a much more equal quantities than voicemail. Missing a few thousand tweets doesn’t really matter.

Notes:
(1) This is why Twitter is great for casual content discovery but not for tracking must-know information. Low signal-to-noise ratio (“panning for gold”) = low level of information importance.
(2) If you’re in the business of providing must-know information, you should obsess about the signal-to-noise ratio of your product. Your users will give you their “dogmatic diligence”, and noise inside their stream of must-know information will deeply frustrate them.
(3) This is why we care deeply about our signal-to-noise ratio at Seeking Alpha. News and analysis that move the prices of the stocks you track is must-know information. We push this information to over 2 million investors and business people via email alerts and app notifications, channels which are used with “dogmatic diligence”. So we owe our users an extraordinarily high signal-to-noise ratio.

The 3 conditions that create virality

From Real Engines Of Growth Have Nothing To Do With Growth Hacking, quoting Ooga Labs co-founder Stan Chudnovsky:

The most powerfully growing products do three things at once:
1.They make you look smart to the people you invite.
2. They give real value to you when the people you invite join.
3. They give real value to the people you’ve invited once they sign up.

Notes: (1) Why does the recommendation need to make you look smart? Isn’t it enough that the recommended product gives real value to you and to the person you recommend it to? (2) Funny how statements of what should be obvious are nonetheless so enlightening. Cf. The 3 conditions of a great fremium business. (3) Thank you Guy Cohen for the link.

Andy Johns on how to build a winning product

From Real Engines Of Growth Have Nothing To Do With Growth Hacking, quoting Andy Johns (ex-Facebook, now Wealthfront):

Having a clearly-defined user in mind is one of the keys to building a product that grows like mad. This is about clearly describing your product, then reducing friction all the way down. “With every product I’ve ever worked on just explaining the product in clearer, more compelling ways has led to big wins.”

“Real growth is about finding and removing friction.” The opportunities to eliminate friction are usually huge… they can take years to fully uncover.

When you’ve nailed your product, you’ll know it. Your retention will be great and people will happily engage with your emails or push notifications. Startups should “understand where your success is coming from today and double down on what is already working. If these channels are working for you without any real effort on your part, then there are huge opportunities to expand on them.”

Summary: (1) Be clear about your target user. (2) Force yourself to articulate your value proposition. (3) Double down on what’s working by removing frictions.

The core of product management

From So you want to manage a product? by Rohini Vibha:

What product management is

  • Being the heart, mind, and voice of the user
  • Facilitating cross-functional teamwork
  • Making product trade-offs
  • Meeting an end-goal with fixed time and resources
  • Leading people along a product journey
  • Being positive and practical
  • Making tough calls with little information

What product management is not

  • Being the most important voice
  • Being the only idea-generator
  • Being a designer
  • Being a programmer
  • Managing QA
  • Optimizing websites
  • Writing marketing collateral

Profile of a growth hacker

Excerpt from Sean Ellis:

After product-market fit and an efficient conversion process, the next critical step is finding scalable, repeatable and sustainable ways to grow the business. If you can’t do this, nothing else really matters. So rather than hiring a VP Marketing with all of the previously mentioned prerequisites, I recommend hiring or appointing a growth hacker.

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth. Everything they do is scrutinized by its potential impact on scalable growth…

The common characteristic seems to be an ability to take responsibility for growth and an entrepreneurial drive (it’s risky taking that responsibility). The right growth hacker will have a burning desire to connect your target market with your must have solution. They must have the creativity to figure out unique ways of driving growth in addition to testing/evolving the techniques proven by other companies.

An effective growth hacker also needs to be disciplined to follow a process of prioritizing ideas (their own and others in the company), testing the ideas, and being analytical enough to know which tested growth drivers to keep and which ones to cut. The faster this process can be repeated, the more likely they’ll find scalable, repeatable ways to grow the business.

Identifying the moment a user becomes truly engaged

Excerpted from Mattan Griffel:

Growth teams at the some of the most successful startups have learned to identify leading indicators of whether a user will turn into an engaged user later on. Josh Elman, Twitter’s product lead for growth and relevance until 2011, took a look at their usage numbers and realized that once a user follows 30 people, they’re more or less active forever… Chamath Palihapitiya, who ran Facebook’s growth team, said that the Aha! moment they used was a user reaching 7 friends in 10 days… Nabeel Hyatt, former GM at Zynga, realized in their case that if someone came back the next day after signing up for a game, they were much more likely to become an engaged and paying user…

In most cases, the best way to identify these moments is to look at different cohorts of users that became engaged and cohorts of users that didn’t and see what sorts of patterns emerge. Once you’ve identified your Aha! moment, focus your UX to get as many people to reach that moment as soon as possible. Try to get them to complete that step during their first interaction with your product.

Notes:
(1) One word of caution about this excerpt: it confuses the “Aha! moment” with the actions which bring a user to that moment.
(2) Using Facebook as an example: Facebook’s “Aha! moment” is an experience of connection to your friends. The way the user gets to that experience, Chamath discovered, is by adding 7 friends in 10 days.

Instilling a culture of experimentation from day one

From FirstRound Capital:

As part of the onboarding process at Airbnb, the company encourages new employees to ship new features on their first day at the company. It earns them their sea legs and shows that great ideas can come from anywhere. This approach yields results in unexpected ways.

For example, one Airbnb designer was assigned what seemed like the small task of reevaluating the “star” function. In the original Airbnb product, users could ‘star’ properties to add them to a wish list… “Our new designer… explained [that] our service is so aspirational. Why don’t we tap into that? He goes — I’m going to change that to a heart.” Sure enough, the simple change from a star to a heart increased engagement by over 30%.

In short, let people be pirates, ship stuff and try new things.

Three advantages of experimenting a lot

From an interview with Intuit CEO Scott Cook:

Three things happen [if you experiment a lot]. One, you make better decisions because it’s actually real consumers or real production methods that aren’t based on theory or a PowerPoint…

Two, you enable your most junior people to test their best ideas, and when in you’re doing PowerPoint presentations, whose ideas are most likely to get lost?

The third is, you get surprises more often, and surprises are a key source of innovation. You only get a surprise when you are trying something and the result is different than you expected, so the sooner you run the experiment, the sooner you are likely to find a surprise, and the surprise is the market speaking to you, telling you something you didn’t know. Several of our businesses here came out of surprises.

And he concludes:

Now we teach our leaders that it’s your job to put in the systems that enable your people to run your experiments fast and cheap and to keep making them faster and cheaper. Yield as many of your decisions off to the experiment as possible.

Sustainable growth hacking

From The Risks of Growth Hacking and How to Build Authentic Sustainable Growth by Sean Ellis:

The best growth hackers are constantly testing and tweaking new growth hacks. During this process it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. When this happens, growth eventually falls off a cliff.

Sustainable growth programs are built on a core understanding of the value of your solution in the minds of your most passionate customers. Your drive to develop growth hacks should be based on a burning desire to get this “must have” experience into the hands of more and more of the right customers. Growth hacks built from this frame of mind are the ones that build large sustainable businesses.

Note the similarity between Sean’s emphasis on the “core understanding of the value of your solution in the minds of your most passionate customers” and Chamath Palihapitiya’s advice to growth hackers to understand the foundation of the user experience.

Two key questions for every manager

From an interview with Intuit CEO Scott Cook:

The one [example] that hit home was how Google beat Yahoo. I talked to Yahoo people about it. They said, “We got beat because Google runs itself as a series of experiments run by its engineers. They are constantly trying new things at a ferocious rate. A Google chief scientist says they run 3,000 to 5,000 experiments a year. If you use Google in a week, you’re likely to be in three experiments. You don’t know you are, because they are experiments. Guys at Yahoo were saying, “They just outran us. We tried management, all the stuff that management did, but we didn’t have that experimentation engine.

There’s a pattern here. Both companies [Toyota, mentioned earlier, and Google] make much better decisions because they don’t rely on hierarchy, PowerPoint, persuasion. They’re making decisions based on real experiments.

Based on this, managers should ask themselves two simple questions: (1) How many experiments are my team running at any moment? And (2) How rapid is our pace of experimenting?

The best product and growth hacking advice ever

Here’s the best advice I’ve ever seen for product managers: Chamath Palihapitiya talking about core user experience and its relationship to growth hacking.

According to Chamath, the product team’s most important task is to figure out the foundation of the user experience, namely:

  1. How do you get people through the door?
  2. How do you get them to an “aha!” moment as quickly as possible?
  3. How do you deliver core product value as often as possible?

But perhaps many of us need to start a stage earlier by answering the question: What is my “aha!” moment for users?

Start by describing the “aha!” moment in words. It should (1) fulfill an important user need, and (2) be unavailable elsewhere, ie. be your competitive advantage. Then, your product team must ensure that those words are translated into a delightful user experience.

Answering the question What is my “aha!” moment for users? also leads to extreme focus and clarity, as it must be a single core experience, not a collection of features or experiences.

Product advice “I wish I had three years ago”

“Here’s advice I wish I had three years ago”, writes Ryan Hoover. Of the 30 pieces of advice, here are the 7 most relevant to product managers:

  1. Don’t be so clever. Obvious is usually the better product decision.
  2. Have a vision and thesis of the future but don’t overshoot the market, ignoring what people ask for today.
  3. Product complexity isn’t just a technical burden but an education hurdle for customers and new hires. Just because it’s easy to implement doesn’t mean it isn’t costly.
  4. The last 5% often makes all the difference.
  5. Engage and include engineering very early in the product design process.
  6. In the words of Kanye, “Everything I’m not, made me everything I am.” If you’re saying “no” infrequently, you’re probably making bad product decisions.
  7. Product design and usability is important for any product. B2B companies don’t get a pass. They serve people too.

For product managers: “The best startup advice I’ve heard”

“Here is some of the best startup advice I’ve heard or given (mostly heard)”, writes Sam Altman. Of the 95 pieces of advice he offers, here are the nine I found most interesting for product managers and product-focused founders:

  1. Make something people want.
  2. In the current pivot-happy world, good ideas are underweight.  It’s worth the time to think through a good one.
  3. Obsess about the quality of the product.
  4. Listen to everyone.  Then make your own decision.
  5. Simple is good.  Be suspicious of complexity.
  6. Most things are not as risky as they seem.
  7. It’s better to make a decision and be wrong than to equivocate.
  8. It’s easier to sell painkillers than vitamins.
  9. Surf someone else’s wave.

How to empower product managers

From Amir Elaguizy‘s blog:

I have a product manager friend who quit his job at a fairly well known startup recently. Over beers he told me the main reason he quit was simple: the creative director of the company wanted approval of all A/B tests. His assertion was that any changes that may result in users receiving a subtly worse experience for a day could damage the user’s perception of the application. Therefore he needed to personally approve and design any A/B tests, even against as little as 1% of traffic. The creative director was a cofounder; my product manager friend was not. My friend put up with it for a while, and then quit.

I mentally contrast this to a story Mark Zuckerberg told when I heard him speak in July. Mark told us about an internal tool he is proud of which allows an individual to test a new feature against a small slice of production traffic. The goal is to allow an individual to prove his or her way is better without having to convince anyone. Compare Mark’s approach with the approach of the creative director that drove my buddy to quit. Mark’s goal is to make the individual as effective as possible – in a word, to empower them. The creative director’s goal was to maintain as much personal control as possible.

How founders can stay involved in product without disempowering product managers

Excerpt from Seth Sternberg:

I came upon a way of managing product where the founder maintains product direction, even at quite a detailed level, without disempowering.  It turns out it’s all about cadence of feedback and expectations. Here’s how to do it:

Once you have a PM or two, you likely have multiple areas of the product you pay attention to. For each area of the product, set up a weekly meeting with you, the PM, the lead engineer and the lead designer. Don’t make these too frequent – twice a week at most early on in a product lifecycle. Probably no less than every 2 weeks for a more mature product. In these meetings, you have free reign to give very detailed feedback. You can get quite detailed. But then when the meeting’s over, it’s over. No drive-bys, no random comments. Wait for the next one. The only exception, of course, is if the team proactively comes to you asking for guidance. I’d suggest settings up twice weekly “office hours” as an open forum for these types of questions.

A framework for product management

Excerpts from Slava Akhmechet:

The most important aspect of product management is categorizing features into three buckets: gamechangers, showstoppers, and distractions.

  • A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature.
  • A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand.
  • A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Empirically, successful products have one to three gamechanging features, dozens of features that neutralize showstoppers, and very few features that are distractions. Your job is to build an intuition about your space to be able to tell these categories apart.

If you’re doing more showstopper features than you absolutely need to, you’re wasting resources.

If you’re doing more than three gamechanging features, you’re wasting resources. Empirically, few disruptive products are good at a dozen things. Shipping gamechanging features is hard. Three is probably the most you can get away with, and even that is a stretch.

Finally, if you don’t pour enough creative energy into any given gamechanging feature, you’re wasting resources.

Facebook’s most important advice for product managers

Facebook’s VP Advertising Andrew Bosworth gave a speech. After it finished, Seeking Alpha’s Aaron Frazer, who heard it, emailed me this:

  • Adding features doesn’t add users; focusing on your best features does.
  • Every added feature adds complexity for new users to struggle with.
  • Leaders must pare products down so new users can comprehend them.

This is close to what Jack Dorsey says, but even stronger.

How to develop a culture of “yes”

From Ben Foster:

“No” is not a complete answer; a complete answer is, “yes, if only we had <fill in the blank>”. You’d be amazed how often simply stating what would make things easier can do… for relationships, for earning trust, for identifying root issues, and most importantly for driving innovation.

Also make a point that good ideas can originate from anywhere. Then take those ideas seriously when they’re presented. And recognize that ideas you hear (as a Product Manager) are typically shorthand for problems and solutions. Usually, with a little abstraction, you’ll discover some real nuggets.