Focus on product instead of technology

Laurent-Pierre Baculard makes some great points in WhatsApp Grew to One Billion Users by Focusing on Product, Not Technology:

Examples such as WhatsApp demonstrate that real-world innovation, in many ways, looks like an assembly line. At one end is a customer pain point or a potential new market. At the other is a product or service that solves the problem or addresses the market in a way nobody has thought of before. In between, people sit down and force themselves to examine the problem from a variety of fresh angles. Sometimes they tap the lab and bring a radical new technology to bear. But much more often they reach for pieces of technology that already exist and assemble them with new (or old) capabilities to produce a solution that turns the pain point into a delighted customer. Think of it as high concept meets whatever is lying around — an unconventional combination.

The problem comes when we reach for technologies that seem “cool” but can’t actually be linked to any real customer problem.

Yes, after a long break I’m giving the blog another shot. Let’s see how it goes…

Product Managers are not “mini-CEOs”

I enjoyed answering some questions about prototyping and Product Management in startups from the nice folks at Justinmind recently. Among other things I got an opportunity to share my thoughts about a particular phrase we hear a lot about Product Managers, one that I think is quite dangerous for our profession…

What kind of challenges and opportunities face Product Managers in a software development context?

I think the Product Management role is still incredibly misunderstood (and misused). I’ve never liked the “We’re like mini-CEOs of the Product” thing you often hear. Any metaphor you come up with that implies a hierarchy (such as air traffic controller, shepherd) gives Product Managers an incorrect view of themselves as The Boss™, and serves only to alienate teams.

We might be the final decider on some issues, but it’s not because we’re “above” the team. It’s because our jobs are to know about user needs, business goals, technical needs, and how all of it comes together in a successful product. Our jobs are to listen to our teams in their various roles and make sure that everyone knows what they need to know. And then our jobs are to walk with the team in a direction that everyone understands and agrees on. It’s not “here are your requirements, see you on the other side of design!” We still see way too much of that in the industry.

Until we change that perception, which will require a change in attitude from us as product managers, we’ll continue to be viewed as obstructionists in many companies. Maybe the best metaphor to use is that we’re servants. Servants to our customers, our teams, and the product. That’s the opportunity we have to bring value.

You can read the full interview here.

Useful daily standup meetings for remote teams

As with many distributed teams our approach to tools at Wildbit is to try to strike a balance between making sure everyone on the team knows what’s going on, and not having hours of meetings every day. We are very serious about the ability to have a lot of time during the day for focused work, so we sometimes err on the side of not enough meetings. For this reason the team hasn’t done formal daily standups for a while, instead opting for a weekly meeting to do a roundtable of what everyone’s been working on, and what the plan is for the week.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First and foremost, it doesn’t always feel like time well spent—we shouldn’t be spending an hour a week just talking about what we’re doing. That’s why we have planning tools1. Another side effect is that it’s harder to respond quickly when issues come up. If a team member is having a problem, or we didn’t realize before that two projects are related somehow, it could take up to a week to find out what the issues are. So we wanted something better. Something lightweight, useful, and more frequent.

We realized early on that synchronous standups wouldn’t work for us—we just work across too many time zones to find a convenient time, and it also doesn’t make sense to have a standup at the end of someone’s day. We also didn’t want this to be just an update for everyone else, we wanted to make it a useful planning tool for individual work as well.

So we started looking for Standup bots built for Slack, and of course there are tons of them. We ended up signing up for Geekbot because it met our most important criterium: it’s asynchronous. We set up Geekbot to ask each team member (product, design, engineering, and QA—we’re all in this…) a set of questions at 9am in their time zone. This means each team member can use these questions to be thoughtful about their day and what they want to accomplish.

In order to make this more useful for us we also changed the questions a little bit. Usually the first question in a standup is “What did you accomplish yesterday?” This didn’t feel right to us—it felt too much like checking up on each other. Instead, we ask the question this way:

Did you work on what you wanted to yesterday? If not, what happened?

This might seems like a subtle change, but it shifts the focus quite a bit. Instead of listing out the things we did, this question allows us to tell each other if something happened that distracted us from the work we wanted to do, which helps us solve those issues as well. So here’s what our Geekbot setup looks like:

Geekbot settings

Every time someone answers these 3 questions, Geekbot posts a status in our #pm-standup team room in Slack, where we can all read through it on our own time.

There is, of course, nothing groundbreaking about what we’re doing here. But I wanted to write up our process because I know there are many distributed teams who struggle with this. The issue is always the same: How do we have standups that are useful and that don’t feel like busywork that just takes us away from the jobs we’re supposed to be doing? By using an asynchronous bot and adapting the questions to our needs, we accomplished a few important things:

  • Every member on the team takes a few minutes every morning to plan out their day, and troubleshoot anything that might have gone wrong the previous day.
  • Instead of weekly meetings of an hour long where we discuss what everyone’s working on, we now have focused 30-minute meetings every Monday where we solve problems and discuss issues that came up during the week (I keep an agenda as we progress through the week).
  • I am much more equipped to fulfill my role as Product Manager because our updates are more frequent and the signal to noise ratio is extremely high.

So even if your remote team is against the idea of a standup, I recommend you try something like this. Don’t just do what we did though. Choose your own questions, your own cadence, maybe even your own tool. But do something—start with the question “How can we make frequent checkins useful?” and see what the team comes up with.

  1. I have a whole other post planned about using Jira in small teams… 

Best board games for young kids (that are fun for adults as well)

Updated: October 17, 2016

Over the weekend my 6-year old daughter was playing with a pretend wand, doing what every 6-year old is supposed to do to her dad: make him do silly things. She would touch me with the wand and go, “Jump like a frog!” or “Walk around in circles!” And of course, I performed these actions in a crowded park without shame or reservations, because these are the things we do for our kids.

I even added a twist to the game. After performing each action (and once her laughter died down) I would say “Oh, that wand doesn’t work on me, it’s not making me do anything.” Her first few attempts to convince me (“See? You just jumped on one leg!”) failed, so she changed her strategy. She got quiet for a minute, clearly thinking through the problem of how she would get me to admit that she’s making me do stupid things. Then she looked up, touched me with the wand, and said, “Realize that the wand is working on you.” And that was it. How could I continue my ruse without breaking the core internal rules of the game? I relented.

Now, forgive my bias, but that’s a bloody brilliant solution to the problem. It’s a level of meta-thinking that I didn’t think a 6-year old would be capable of. But there she was, foiling my master plan to derive at least some enjoyment from the humiliation she was so gleefully putting me through. I readily admit that in this particular instance I got solidly beaten.

I mention this because there’s something else we’ve been doing a lot of recently, and that’s playing board games together. We started simple (i.e. boring for adults), but very soon moved on to more complicated games, and I think I’m now more excited than she is about our daily play sessions. And I have a feeling it’s changing the way she thinks. I’m pretty sure board games are teaching her how to think ahead, solve problems, and weigh the longer-term consequences of her actions. And maybe—I have to retain some dignity here, ok?—maybe that’s why she was able to beat me so cleverly in the wand game.

So with that pre-amble, I wanted to write down a short list of the games that we’ve enjoyed and play all the time, in case there are any other parents who would like to try this with their kids. We are having so much fun with this, so I highly recommend you give it a shot.

Let’s start simple and move on to the more complicated stuff…

Hisss Game

Hisss is the game we play when our 3-year old insists on playing along. It’s a dead simple color and pattern matching game, but still a lot of fun.

Tsuro Game

Tsuro is a game we found and tried in the game room at the absolutely wonderful Game Masters exhibition at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. It’s quick to set up and easy to play, but it lays a good foundation for thinking ahead and considering how actions that affect you might affect others as well.

Taxi Wildlife

Taxi Wildlife is fun because it’s a very tactile game. The core gameplay requires you to stick your hand in a bag and feel around for the shapes of different animals. It’s a great way to learn about the importance of different senses.

Lanterns Game

Lanterns is where things start to get serious (i.e. really fun for adults). It’s a game that combines a simple pattern matching mechanic with building up enough resources to “buy” the points you need to win the game. We’re spending a lot of time with this one at the moment.

Lotus Game

Lotus is made by the same studio as Lanterns, and it’s just as fun and beautiful. The artwork really is spectacular on this one. I’m not exaggerating when I say that as you build these flowers, it feels like the table you’re playing on is starting to bloom. The rules are less complicated than Lanterns, and it’s a fairly quick game, so it’s a great way to calm the kids down before dinner…

King of Tokyo

King of Tokyo is probably our favorite right now. We tried this out at the unbelievable Guardian Games store here in Portland. When we started I was nervous—the game takes a little while to learn. But once you get it, it goes fast and it’s a lot of fun. I think my daughter loves it because of all the decisions that are required. You roll 6 dice on a turn, and then you have to decide which to keep and which to “reroll” (you get 2 rerolls per turn). The game might seem cartoony, but don’t be fooled—this is a serious game that’s somehow still enjoyable by all ages.

Ticket to Ride

Well, I guess no game overview would be complete without Ticket to Ride. My daughter is obsessed with this one. In addition to the fun and tactile gameplay, it also teaches strategy in a simple way (I’ve already been able to use the phrase “play the long game” in multiple parenting situations…). I haven’t gotten any of the expansions yet, but I hear the 1910 expansion in particular is a very good one.

Splendor Game

And finally, we get to Splendor. Ah, what to say about Splendor. This game was a gift from Rich Mulholland, who came to stay with us for a couple of days on a trip to Portland a few months back. Rich is an obsessed board game geek, and he could see I was a curious newbie, having never played anything beyond Monopoly. So of course he took me under his wing. He taught my wife and I how to play Splendor, and then I took it around to a bunch of friends and got them addicted as well. For a while my daughter asked me to show her how to play it, but I held back, not wanting her to get frustrated—this is a pretty complicated game that I thought wasn’t really suitable for kids.

Well, what do you know. She got it on the first try, and beat me in the second round. It was very hard for me to not just go lie down and sulk for the rest of the day. Being caught between pride in my daughter and embarrassment in my own skills is not a good look on me.

Getting beaten at Splendor

So those are the games we’ve tried and liked. I wanted to pass them on to you, just as Rich passed his favorites on to us and started what I’m sure will be a life-long connection between my daughters and I. Thank you, Rich. What a wonderful thing, to gift someone with a new passion.

Old music, new music, and our not-so-new fear of technology

I get these weird obsessions sometimes—a thing that starts small in my head until it becomes all-consuming for weeks on end. Maybe you can relate? Anyway, my current obsession is centered around jazz, and how much we can learn from it about technology, how we listen to music, and yes, even design.

If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that I just finished reading How to Listen to Jazz, a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I shared screen shots of some of my favorite sections from the book here, but suffice to say it is about so much more than jazz, and I highly recommend it not just for music lovers, but for anyone who works in a creative role.

Right on cue, as so often happens on the internet, I came across Ken Norton’s excellent post Please Make Yourself Uncomfortable, about some of the leadership lessons we can learn from great jazz records (especially the all-time best one, Kind of Blue):

Miles, Ella, and Duke were adept at guiding their bands into the optimal anxiety zone, making them restless and opening up a space where they could create masterpieces. Such talent is also needed in product management. So much of what we’ve learned, our instincts, are to do the complete opposite. We’re told to minimize risk, communicate a clear plan, and document every step. As product managers, our most important job is to help our teams find the place of optimal discomfort—the goldilocks zone of ambiguity and uncertainty.

The same day I read Gretta Harley’s The Slow Listening Revolution, about why she still has a vinyl collection:

Why vinyl? Commitment. In this mid-second decade of the 21st century, music is being taken for granted on a collective scale. An entire generation of music listeners will never pay for music, nor do they believe that they should. The long form music medium has taken a back seat to song culture, yet the average person only listens to a song for approximately 24 seconds before deciding if it’s worth their time to continue to listen. I ponder the substantive value of something that our capitalistic, corporate-model culture places on “free.” When we can listen to a whole song, or usually only 24 seconds of a song without paying for it, do we really value the music? I wonder if we listeners are as committed to music as we were pre-internet? I really like the internet, so these words are in no way a complaint or indictment, but merely observation.

All of this—jazz, new music, old habits—came together as I picked up Dire Straits’s 1985 CD Brothers In Arms, which in some versions had this cover:

It used to be that proclaiming “A FULL DIGITAL RECORDING” was a selling point. Now, the first thing I look for when I buy an album is the phrase Mastered from the original master tapes, a sure sign of its 100% no-digital, analog-only experience.

Or, wait, maybe we’re just being anti-technology in our criticisms of digital music? There has always been a reluctance to adopt new things—a longing for the past and how things used to be. Clive Thompson gives us another example of this historical skepticism in That cursed newfangled technology, “electric lights”:

Robert Louis Stevenson penned “A Plea for Gas Lamps” in 1878, hoping to dissuade London’s authorities from installing obnoxious electric streetlamps like those in Paris. “A new sort of urban star now shines at night,” he wrote, “horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare!”

So I don’t think we’ll solve this particular “which one is better” musical argument any time soon. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that it’s not a new argument, so we should just roll with it. And rock with it1.

  1. Sorry, that’s a really bad joke. I’ll see myself out. 

How to make a product roadmap in 4 days

I just published a big post on our company blog about how we came up with our priorities and roadmap for Postmark for the next few months. From the intro to How we built a product vision and roadmap:

So, armed with some whiteboard markers, a mountain of sticky notes, and one very enthusiastic team, we set off to plan out the next few months of our product. In this post I’d like to give an overview of what we did, why we did it, and how it’s going to help us (and our Postmark customers!) in the coming months.

This one took a while to write and edit, and there’s some nice illustrations as well as downloadable templates, so take a look!

Talk slides: User research challenges and solutions for the enterprise

Today I’m lucky enough to attend Industry Conf in Newcastle, and also do a talk on user research in large enterprises. Industry is a fantastic conference to speak at, and it’s run by one of the best and nicest people in our community—Gavin Elliot. I can’t say enough good things about the conference organization, the venue, and the quality & usefulness of the talks we’re exposed to here.

The slides for my talk, entitled User Research Challenges and Solutions for the Enterprise, are embedded below. For a more detailed write-up you can download a free e-book I made with the folks at UX Pin, called Practical User Research for Enterprise UX.

I want to thank Gavin for giving me the opportunity to speak at Industry this year. I had a blast!

Remote work, open offices, and focus

I recently started a new remote role as a Product Manager at Wildbit. And by “recently” I mean I’m on Day 4, so my experiences with full-time remote work is demonstrably limited. That said, there is one thing so far that I appreciate more than anything else about working in a dedicated office space in my basement: The Calm.

I say The Calm with due reverence because I don’t just mean quietness (I have music playing most of the time). I mean the relaxed ability to work focused and uninterrupted for long periods of time. The joy of this kind of work environment is hardly a new discovery, but since I’ve always worked in open offices this is a brand new and extremely joyful thing for me.

I suspect this is also the reason why everyone in our main office in Philly has their own office. It’s not that I (we) don’t like people. It’s that I get so much more done in a day while working in an environment where I’m able to shut everything else out and just work. The problems with open offices are well documented, of course. From The Economist’s Inside the box:

Open-plan offices are noisier and more interruption-prone. Too much noise causes high blood pressure, sleep problems and difficulty in concentrating. And cubicles’ flimsy walls do little to dampen sound. In studies where sound levels were raised from 39 to 51 decibels—roughly equivalent to moving from an average living room to a road with light traffic—participants were more tired and less motivated.

From Maria Konnikova’s The Open-Office Trap:

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

And yet, despite all the evidence against it, open office plans persist in most companies, and will for a long time to come.

But yeah, it’s Day 4. Let’s see if I go crazy after a couple of weeks…

Boxes and arrows: more powerful than we think

Alex Maughan voices some things I’ve been thinking about as well in a great post on user journey mapping. After one particular project he observed this:

This user flow may seem an obvious solution, but it wasn’t obvious to the company hired to design the app before I got involved, which had up to that point resulted in some very limiting and confusing design flows. I don’t say this to blow my own horn. The point I’m making is had they explored the designs with some rough, high-level journey sketching upfront, they probably would have realised this themselves.

I’ve become increasingly convinced that there is no complicated design problem that can’t be solved with a few hours of collective thinking and some boxes and arrows. Yeah, I get some eye-rolls for my boxes-and-arrows reliance sometimes—especially because the outcome sometimes feels just too simple. But I’m with Alex on this one—these things are only simple in retrospect.

I recently worked on a project where we had to figure out the migration paths of 6 different products, and how they will all work together. We were talking for a long time, but we didn’t really get anywhere until I started drawing it out on the whiteboard. The end result was deceptively simple (some parts blurred out because it’s roadmap stuff):

“That’s it?” we all said of what came to be known as the Tron diagram. Yep, we realized together: that’s it. But it took a few hours of discussion and drawing to get us to the “that’s it” state. So this is me adding my voice to Alex’s in saying: never underestimate the power of sketching flows and user journeys to help us solve difficult problems.

Online experiences begin and end offline

A few years ago I almost went insane with commute-madness (which I’m reasonably sure is a thing). We lived in Bloubergstrand in South Africa, and I worked in the city of Cape Town. This meant that I had to be out of the house and on the road before 6am every morning (and leave work before 4pm), otherwise I would spend upwards of 90 minutes in traffic, as opposed to the more manageable (or so I thought…) 50-60 minutes.

It’s a little too soon for me to talk about the effect that commute had on my mental health, so I’ll just say this: I didn’t handle it well.

So I, along with thousands of my fellow commuters, rejoiced when the city of Cape Town extended the popular MyCiTi bus service out to where I lived. My joy was short-lived though. It turned out that even though they extended the bus line, the City decided not to provide parking nearby. So unless you lived within walking distance of the bus stop (which I didn’t) you were out of luck.

This seemed really silly to me, so I asked about it, and found out that the City didn’t want to provide parking until they could prove that the bus line was successful. It doesn’t take much to see the gigantic failure in logic here. The City didn’t want to provide parking until they could see that enough people used the buses, but not enough people can use the buses if there isn’t parking.

We ended up moving back to the city.

I tell this story because I recently got into a discussion with Vincent Hofmann, based on this tweet of his:

I brought up the MyCiTi thing, and then mentioned how different the experience is here in Portland, where I live now. I bike to work every day, and the only reason I can do that is that the end-to-end experience is designed well. It’s not just about the city installing bike lanes. Neighborhoods have to agree to stricter traffic rules. Companies need to provide facilities for safe bike parking and showers. It’s a collaboration between public and private sectors across the city. If anyone doesn’t pull their weight, the whole thing falls apart.

Luckily, in Portland, it all hangs together really well. Here are some photos of my end-to-end biking experience in Portland:

There is, of course, a big product management lesson here. We often spend so much time trying to perfect the experience people have with our products online, and we forget about what happens before and after they get there. And that’s often where the experience breaks down and we lose customers. As an example, I mentioned in my newsletter over the weekend how frustrating it can be if you can’t contact a company after making a purchase:

It sounds obvious, but it is still amazing to me how many companies see support as a liability. Any opportunity to interact with customers is a good thing. Yes, it’s expensive, and “case deflection” is a very effective way for companies to cut costs, but at what cost? A case deflected—either through finding the answer on a forum, or a customer simply giving up when they can’t figure out how to contact the company—is a missed opportunity to build loyalty and get input on your products.

And this, ultimately, is why customer journey mapping is such an essential activity for any product. It forces us to think about designing the end-to-end experience, from long before people get to our site, until long after.

Evidence of the danger of only focusing on the product experience itself is all around us—just look at the way our cities design public transport and bike commutes. Notice the differences between the two examples I shared above—one set up for failure, the other for success. And let that be a challenge to all of us to think about how people experience our products even when they’re not using our products.


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