Product Management: 5 Lessons from Technology Startups
I was 22 years old when I graduated from college. During my college years, I read a ton of dense philosophical text and solved complex economic problems. This experience, I believe, trained me to think differently than my peers. My first job out of college was a healthcare IT company. During the day I helped facilitate operations for our implementations team. At night I learned how to code and use marketing tools. After a few months, I launched my family’s online business. This was the first time I truly owned a product. Fast forward a few years, we’re now serving customers around the world, automating marketing interactions, directly interacting with customers and growing our reach. Little did I know, I was cultivating my product management skills.
Leading a technology product means working with talented people to achieve a change in user behavior. Whether you’re selling luxury goods, mass-market products or travel, you’re working to make your experience seamless and memorable. Product management is about optimization and imagination. This includes defining strategies for growth across marketing channels, encouraging team members to think of the user experience, championing a culture of empathy and data savviness.
I’ve learned a lot over the years, but a few things reign true across all business.
1. Know Your Customer
Above all else, you should know your customer. Whether your customer is fortune 500 company or an online shopper, you need to know how to speak to your users and align your product with their needs. If customers still have questions about your product after reading your homepage, then you need to revisit the drawing board. You may not get this right the first couple of times, especially when your product solves a convoluted problem.
Your product should be aligned with your copy, marketing strategy, and value proposition. Knowing what customers want is just as important as giving customers what they expect. Knowing what your customers are thinking when they’re interacting with your site will enable you to improve their experience. Improving communication in this fashion will create a community of evangelists, as customers will feel the company understands their needs. You should ask yourself questions like:
- Are customers finding what they’re looking for?
- Where are customers getting stuck in the experience?
- Do several customers experience the same obstacles?
- What do customers think about our product?
- Is our design best suited to solve this problem?
2. A/B Test Everything
There are no sacred cows. Questioning established assumptions breeds innovation and new opportunities. At ID90 Travel, we try our best to A/B test different parts of our application without causing friction so we can incrementally deliver a better product without too much investment. We encourage our team to critically think about our existing product and set forth thought-provoking hypothesizes for us to experiment.
Testing has taught me a lot about the businesses I’ve worked with. I discovered a dropdown cart could streamline the shopping experience for customers and therefore, improve conversion. I learned simply tweaking the design of a feature could lead to increased adoption. Testing different campaign content could improve campaign performance. Sometimes changing how you explain your product could also have a huge impact on the way customers receive your product. It’s essential you work across your organization to define, hypothesize, build, and announce A/B test results. This, in turn, will garner a culture of optimization scientists willing to challenge the status quo with well-thought out experiments.
Check out tools like Optimizely or Google Optimize so you can run A/B tests. Use Google Analytics or FullStory in order to learn what users are and are not doing on your site. Develop a testing plan with your team and publish your results with the company.
3. Measure Everything
We always make sure we can measure our efforts whenever we’re developing a new feature or experience. Whether you store information in a database or capture interactions via Google Tag Manager, your team should be ready to report on their efforts post-release. This data may not be insightful at first, but once it begins to aggregate over time, you may uncover unforeseen opportunities for your product.
If you’re curious, yes, there will be times you’ll discover nothing. There will be “aha” moments and other times, there won’t be any difference. But this is okay, as both outcomes inform you what worked and what didn’t. The point here is to get in the mindset of planning your tagging or analytics strategy for your development team. Not only will you learn from this data, your team will become excited and ask questions around your findings.
Also, one more thing about data. Make sure you democratize your data. Everyone in the organization should have a clear understanding of how everything is performing. Your team members should be able to research answers to their questions on their own. Go ahead, publish your data for the world to see using something like Google Data Studio. You’ll find it’ll create a positive buzz around the office.
4. Break Up Large Efforts Into Smaller Parts
The travel industry is complicated. It’s easy to get lost in the details of a feature. Taking a moment to break down a feature into smaller parts is always better for the efficiency of the team. If you can add value by introducing something on its own, then you know you can break up the feature further. In product management, this is the concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Take a step back and see how you can break up a feature so you can periodically deliver value to your customers more frequently instead altogether at the end.
This is good practice for several reasons. For starters, it’ll reduce the complexity of your team’s tasks and improve their ability to focus on a single outcome. Secondly, you’ll get feedback from customers during the development cycle, allowing you to quickly adjust your strategy along the way. I use this method also for organization purposes and daily life. If you focus on a few well-defined items, you’ll be more successful in completing them than a single monumental project.
5. Do Not Be Afraid to Fail
Product management requires you to flex your intuition sometimes. All of your data could be pointing you towards doing this one thing. However, your solution may not be right or the data is alluding to some other root issue. Test your ideas without too much emotional or financial investment. There will be times your data does not reveal anything to you. There will be times your effort reaps negative return on investment (ROI). This is normal (to some extent). So long as your team has learned from the initiative, you’ll come away more knowledgeable than when you started.
Encourage team members to think outside of the box. Freely exchange ideas, challenging their premises and developing sound plans to test impartially. As a product professional, you cannot be afraid to do what has not been done before. Adopt core values such as empathy, entrepreneurship, and frugality as benchmarks to your culture.
Conclusion: Being Fearless in Product Management
Be bold and test the market to gather as much data as possible. Learn, adjust, test again and re-evaluate. These are the principles of product management, as you cannot throw all your eggs (team) into one basket (singular project). You probably noticed everything comes back to learning about your customer. The more data points you have, the more likely you’ll know what to work on next. As a result, your team will focus their efforts on sound projects with the highest ROI.
Product Management at its core is about being the customer’s champion. Understanding your data is like having a pulse on your customer’s satisfaction with your product. If you can, survey your customers regularly with automation tools like MailChimp & Survey Monkey. If you have the awesome opportunity of being able to sit with your customers, then do so. Ask them questions, have them be your usability test subjects and hear what they have to say in person. You’ll feed all of this information back to your team and ultimately your product.