Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Why Products Really Suck, Part 3

I've written a bit about Why Products Suck. I wrote about how your own team might be wrecking your product. I even wrote about how Steve Jobs may have wrecked your product (and your CEO).

But there's one party more likely to do damage to your product than anyone else: You.

That's right, the person most likely to mess up is you: the product manager/designer. You're the one in charge. You're the one with the vision, the master plan. You're the one in charge of design and guiding the team.

Unlike the developers, QA, and schedule wranglers (who all have relatively defined and tangible jobs), your work has to mostly be done in advance of the sprint. You create the plan which never survives first contact with the enemy, and then have to constantly revise it and adjust it.

You're also a human, and probably working on multiple projects. You're probably going to make mistakes, and you are most likely to result in the product going bad.

Even if you don't actually wreck it, you're the "single neck to wring", and in any decent company, you'll be held accountable.

Here's a few tips on how to avoid ruining your own thing:
  • Have a vision. By that, I don't mean some airy, vague notion of what you're doing, I mean have concrete goals. Why are you building this thing? What problem is it really solving? How is it differentiated from other products in your space?

    Write down what your product is supposed to do for users and put that written vision or motto someplace where you can see it every day. Make sure everyone else knows what it is, too.
  • ...But don't be a slave to your plan. Things change. The world changes. Adapt your plan as needed. There's no point in launching a product behind the curve, or refusing to acknowledge new information
  • Collect data, but don't design by committee. You need to be aware of what your stakeholders and customers want...but great designers have a way of both understanding the real/underlying need driving most feature requests (whether from customers or management) and then synthesizing a product that solves problems while still feeling cohesive, unified, and compelling.
  • Don't blindly copy. Copy with understanding and intent! You should be looking at other products, and you should not be afraid to lift or emulate models that work. If there are "standard" ways of presenting certain UI elements or tasks, you should probably use them. But you should do this with a deep understanding of how and why those elements were originally included. It is true that a valid approach is to simply "copy the market leader" (see Rdio and Spotify, Spotify and iTunes), but without understanding how the original works, you're just doing cargo cult design.
  • Kill your ego. Good product managers are empathetic and are able to look past their own biases and opinions. Understand how users will perceive and use your product. You're just one user, and you almost certainly aren't paying for your product. Even if you are representative of the target demographic, your objective is to think beyond your own personal whims, preferences, and biases.
  • Value your team. Unless you're a one-man shop, "your" product is actually "your team's product". And if you're like most product managers, you're not coding, you're not creating graphics. Collect input from the team members, and recognize how important they are to your success.
  • Manage! Building consensus and keeping people involved does not mean letting them do whatever they want. Your job is to make hard choices with intent and meaning.
Ultimately, the product - and its success or failure - is your responsibility. You get dealt a particular hand, and you have to play it as best as you possibly can.

Make sure you're not the one who wrecks it!

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