Michelle Chu began her career in publishing as a sales assistant at Backpacker, before working in advertising, layouts, and packaging design. She then moved to digital products and eventually to her current role as Senior Product Manager and Head of Design at Alpha.
Start-up Alpha is a user insights platform for use as a tool in user research. Clients enter their questions or product assumptions into the Alpha platform and get their answers through user insights in 72 hours or less.
Michelle says she has learned that while early-stage startups and global corporations can look very different, they are all made up of people. This means there are a lot of people who get their hands on a product as you try to ship it. She shares some advice on how to navigate politics when building products.
Know who Makes the Decisions
In every organization, decisions are made by a select few. You need to know who is making the decisions in order to influence them. People don’t usually consider trusted advisors when they think about decision makers. This can be anyone in the company who has the ear of a decision makers, like assistants, lower-level executives, even spouses.
You should always be listening to people saying things like “we should run this by so-and-so,” and you should always be thinking two steps above you. Think about your boss, and then their boss. You should also keep in mind that many of these people do not come from product design backgrounds.
Among other things, I am a product manager at Nucleus, a photographer, and a Oakland native transplanted into NYC. In my journey of building product, I’ve found that it is crucially important to think about the meaning and value you want to create in the world, and what it is about who you are that lets you add something unique and meaningful to the products you build.
Define Product Management for Yourself
Product management continues to evolve as new products emerge in the market, and as the discipline and practice itself matures and adjusts to the fast-changing world we live in. With all of this change, it can be challenging to determine where to begin. As you learn more about product management, it’s critical to understand what it means to you, as well as what changes you want to see in the world.
Josh Goldenberg is the Head of Product for Next Caller, a company that does essential telephony, identification, and fraud validation. He has a background in the public and private sectors and he begins his ProductTank NYC presentation with a quote from Steve Jobs, which underpins the central concept of Servant Leadership
Josh takes a brief moment to look at the roadmap of local government. Essentially, everyone answers to the people. However, that means that the people can drastically affect your structure, especially when you have a set budget, rather than being revenue-driven.
To describe the diverse behaviours of work environments where flexible forms of product leadership is essential, Josh also looks at the structures of some big companies, like Amazon and Microsoft. Amazon has one person at the top, with branches coming down and out from them, and Microsoft has a few separate groups with their own leadership trees and one person overseeing all of them. His point with this is that every organization operates differently. Whether it is a government or a company, everyone has different business needs and social interaction methods.
My journey to product management was not what you might expect, but then again, maybe you would. I studied accounting and computers in high school. At 19 I got a job as a computer technician and by 21 I was a computer science major. I then got a job on campus as a network administrator.
Three years later I became a web application engineer at a startup that built software for military and private industries. I redesigned the internal and public web properties and was promoted into my first “product leadership” role. I became director of communications, leading the development of intranets and web applications.
From Startup to Enterprise
A job at a startup means a lot of responsibility. I found I had to be creative, open-minded and motivated to work outside my job description to succeed. Challenges aside, I enjoyed the close-knit teams and easy access to upper management which enabled quick decision making. So you can imagine the culture shock I experienced when I took a graphic designer position with a large technology organization in New York City.
Gibson Biddle has worked in product at several entertainment companies, such as Netflix, Mattel, and EA, as well as educational companies such as Chegg and The Learning Company. In his presentation, he discusses “wicked hard” decision-making and how it is a practiced art, and can be very easy with practice. He discusses all of these experiences through the lens of Netflix, where he was the Vice President of Product.
A Brief History of Netflix
According to Gib, the first idea for Netflix was in 1997, when co-founder Marc Randolph mailed himself an audio CD and it wasn’t scratched when it arrived. Since that was the time that DVDs were starting to show up, he thought that maybe they could be mailed as well.
In 2002, Netflix went public. While they had around 600,000 subscribers at launch, they had a challenge to face. There was a major anthrax scare in 2002, making people afraid to open their mail.
Then in 2007, Netflix launched their streaming platform. They began with 500 movies that were less than admirable to say the least, but they were all they could obtain. By 2013, they made the $100 million investment to make House of Cards. Finally, this year, Netflix has officially reached 100 million subscribers. Netflix may be one of the biggest companies in the world today, but it took almost 20 years and a lot of decisions and challenges to get there.
Many people do not believe that virtual reality (VR) is the future, and think that we will soon simply grow tired of our latest “novelty” or “toy” technology. Roy Peer, however, disagrees. In his presentation at ProductTank NYC, Roy Peer opens his presentation by referencing a common question in the industry: whether or not VR is a fad.
Roy implies that VR is here to stay by referencing the development of the automobile, when popular opinion was that “the horse is here to stay, and the automobile is only a novelty.” The television, the computer and even the iPhone faced similar scrutiny when they were first presented.
Why VR? Why now?
Virtual reality is a new form of storytelling. It is a way for us to recreate our own world in an immersive, essentially limitless way. It is open-ended and allows us more freedom and control of the media experience. Recreating reality can be dated back to 1929 when the television began development. It wasn’t until Oculus raised millions in a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 that we really began to see interest and the entertainment industry began to shift to VR.
Jason Fleitz is Director of Web Operations at LivePerson, where they develop products such as LiveEngage- a platform that gives companies the ability to engage with their customers anytime on web sites, mobile and social networks.
In this presentation at ProductTank NYC, he explains about how designers and developers can work better together on software projects, by adopting some simple tactics and strategies for better collaboration.
Establish Understanding of the Product Vision
Jason starts by recommending that when you are about to begin work on any project with others, the whole team should understand the project vision, goals and objectives. Overlooking these steps happens more often than we realize, which leads to moments where different individuals on the same team are working towards different goals.
By having a shared understanding of the product vision, teams will have a clear perspective on when and how feature decisions are made. By sharing the prioritization process, teams also mature in their knowledge of how the product is designed and how it will benefit the customer.
Jenine Lurie is Founder and Lead Strategist at Disruptive Experience, a New York based design consultancy that applies unique user-centered design strategies to create intuitive and delightful experiences that connect people to products. She has over 15 years experience building world-class products for global brands such as American Express, Kaplan, Sony Entertainment, Financial Times, IBM, and JPMorgan. In this presentation at ProductTank NYC, Jenine explains how to apply user centered design techniques in a way that creates a “disruption” to ensure that customer needs come first when developing products.
Prioritizing Features is Smart Product Development
Jenine begins by explaining the importance of prioritization with features. You should avoid going ‘feature nuts” or going overboard with defining features. Your mission critical task flow should be identified early on, and you should only be developing things that the user wants and/or needs. If a user doesn’t need something, it shouldn’t be on their screen. You should really understand what the features are for which you are designing, and why.
In this talk at ProductTank NYC I recounted five tactics I learned while helping relaunch dozens of digital products over the last decade, and then used to successfully relaunch ICv2.com. ICv2 is a popular trade website for the comic, graphic novel, board game and toy industries.
The goal for the relaunch was a complete design and code overhaul under three constraints:
Time: Neither the designer nor the developer were full-time and Adam, as a board member but not employee of ICv2, also wasn’t full-time.
Real Deadline: Advertising sponsorships were sold around a specific date.
Emotional Attachment: A lot of visitors were attached to the site; it was part of their daily routine, so the relaunch couldn’t be disruptive.
Tactic #1: Mind-Melding
I knew that if I had to constantly triangulate between a busy CEO and a part-time team, that I’d never make deadline. So I spent the first two weeks learning as much about the CEO’s perspective as possible. To do this I built rapid paper and HTML idea prototypes to see how the CEO would react to design and feature changes. After this process, I was able to work with the development team efficiently, without having to check in with the CEO all the time, because I had gained an intimate understanding of the CEO’s perspective.
In this talk at Product Tank NYC, I describe how a class project turned into my first major product build. As head of product management at UncommonGoods, I have used the wish list redesign and its success to demonstrate the value of customer feedback, data analysis, and iterative development. It has since served as the driving force in the proliferation of the PM discipline throughout UncommonGoods.
Finding a Gold Nugget in a Customer Interview
Sometimes the most valuable projects are the ones that nobody is thinking about. At least nobody within your organization. In 2015, our wish list was basically a forgotten feature- old, ugly, and full of bugs. It took an odd comment from a customer interview to lead us into the data for the first time in nine years. Once there, we found a surprisingly deep user base with a common friction point.