Product Management Thoughts

The value of good inputs

Are the projects you are working on not having the intended impact? Do you find yourself working in a company that has a great ‘shipping culture’, but all the things you are shipping don’t seem to be having the right impact? Does it feel like your customers keep asking for more improvements, more changes, while you feel you are making so many changes already?

If you feel like this, it may be that you are not getting the right inputs to help define what you work on next – what follows are some takeaways I got recently on how to potentially address some of these issues.

Last month, I attended the UXDX Conference in Dublin. At the conference, one of the speakers, Paul Adams (SVP Product) from Intercom gave a talk titled The Definition of Done. In the talk he spoke about the hot topic of Outcomes over Outputs. What really captured my interest in the talk was when he made reference to what he felt was the third (and possibly missing) component in the Outcomes vs Outputs debate – Inputs.

Then, late last month, Intercom followed that up with a conversation between Paul and Des Traynor (co-founder of Intercom) on the latest Intercom on Product podcast.

This topic of inputs, and more so, high quality inputs, really resonated with me in terms of how companies (in general) and in the software industry specifically could, and I would argue should, be using inputs across their decision making process to help inform what to build and work on next.

A ‘blue-print’ for creating an inputs-based, product development system

To start – I think it is really important to note that it was stressed in both the talk and podcast that this ‘system’ is something you should keep working on. It’s not a set and forget system – you should obsess over it and place a high value on ensuring that you get good inputs, as the value and impact of your outputs and ultimately outcomes rely on the quality of the inputs.

This is a brief summary of the ‘inputs’ system that Intercom uses themselves:

  • Vision and mission: Most often this is a one paragraph statement – what intrigued me is that Paul described Intercom’s as a 3 page document which continuously gets worked on. Personally, I do think that this is where so many companies get it wrong – they gloss over the value of a clear vision and mission, or class it as something ‘airy-fairy’.
  • Business strategy: This is where you answer how you will go about achieving your vision/mission over the next 3-5 years – and this does not cover specific projects nor is this to be confused with your vision.
  • Business goals: Here you set out the goals you have (and they can change per quarter) – things like: revenue and/or engagement targets this quarter – these help determine what ‘type’ of projects you might prioritise.
  • Prospective customers’ feedback: This comes from your sales team. They should be talking to your customers all the time, and if you don’t have a dedicated sales team in place – figure out how you can be having these conversations with your prospective customers. Don’t put words in the mouths of your customers. Don’t create fictional personas – talk to real perspective customers. They will show you the things you can build and change in your product that would help them decide to use your product vs your competitor.
  • Existing customer feedback: Finally, your existing customers are most often going to be talking to your support team. Intercom call this the CVR or Customer Voice Report and I have touched on this before – but capturing this feedback from your existing customers and translating it into a useable system which allows you to highlight customer needs is a hugely valuable asset.

So how do all these areas of ‘input’ work together?

Once you have all these inputs in place and your system is ‘gathering data’ so-to-speak, the next step is to balance out your customer feedback (both prospective and existing) against your vision/mission, business strategy and business goals.

An example of how this then works is by looking at things like:

  • Is this next quarter more about prospective customers or existing ones?
  • Is it more about try to meet a certain business goal versus strategy?
  • Do you feel behind in your mission and vision, do you need to invest some time pushing your vision forward?

But where does my decision making fit in as the CEO, Founder or SVP?

Some might argue that this system is too ‘bottom-up’ – or someone may pull out the famous Steve Jobs quote that ‘customers don’t know what they want until you show it to them’ and all a company needs is a visionary leader who tells teams what to build next.

Yes, some companies may have a Steve Jobs – they are the lucky few though. As Des said in the podcast – inputs are not something that the founder/management of Intercom thinks of:

If I look at the inputs and think why am I having this idea, and no one else is? It’s easy to think maybe our system is broken, but maybe actually it’s being traded off against something that’s way more important that I don’t know about.

And Paul shared:

People ask: what’s my role, and what’s your role? Des and the co-founders, what do they do? Paul, you run the product, and what do you do? I always explain to people, and they’re amazed by this, that our job is designing the system. And here’s what’s not an input: Des’s idea, Paul’s idea. That is not how we run the company at all.

This system is not bottom-up, this system (to me) is a great example of a cross functional and collaboratory process between all levels that takes into account both existing and potential customer needs, while balancing company vision/mission, goals and strategy.

Finally, putting a system like this in place would take time, and more so, commitment. But, as Paul mentioned at the start of his talk – the ‘software’ business is not like the road-building business. You don’t need to innovate in road building, you just need to build a good road – however, in the software industry, we have to build and ship things fast to stay relevant – but it’s no use building and shipping things based on poor inputs.

Start with the right inputs, identify those things that solve an actual customer’s needs. Building and shipping these things will create value for your customers, which in turn will increase engagement across your product, and then ultimately increase revenue.


Dark patterns vs Growth hacking

I came across an article and related study via a few various places over the past week. If you have not seen it yet, or don’t want to click though – essentially, in February 2019, researchers at Princeton University analysed ~53k product pages from some of the most popular e-commerce sites online and discovered widespread use of “dark patterns” – so basically techniques employed to “manipulate” and “deceive” shoppers.

What was interesting to me was the fact that this list includes things like:

  • Activity Notifications
  • Countdown Timer s
  • High Demand Notifications
  • Limited Time Notifications
  • Low-Stock Notification
  • Pressured Selling

Now, most of the articles you will find on “growth techniques” or the more annoying “growth hacking” term will tend to include suggestions that using methods like these will help drive “growth” – but to me – seeing these listed out here as dark patterns makes me thing of my college Dave Martins post – Don’t Growth Hack – as he explains:

Growth for the sake of growth has never been a good LONG-TERM business strategy. Growth for the sake of growth may appear to work wonders in the short-term, but long-term it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Long-term, growth should be centered around people not numbers or percentages.

I would argue that all of those items in the list above are short-term revenue growth drivers – and while they may make you more money in the short term they will do more damage to your brand and user experience in the long run.

As Dave says in his article too:

Instead of having your north star be growth, what if instead you focused on the success of your users as your primary objective?

I strongly believe that focusing on your users, and actually working to solve their needs will lead to sustainable long-term growth.

Design tips

Design tip: Responsive Design Mode in Safari

There are a number of tools available to see how a website design adapts at various device sizes – I have normally used Responsiantor as my go to tool in the past.

However, a handy one I came across recently was the built in responsive view in Safari. First up – just open any website in Safari:

Now just hit: Control + ⌘ + R and you will enter Responsive Design Mode in the Safari browser:

You can then preview your webpages for various screen sizes, orientations, and resolutions. To exit Responsive Design Mode you can just hit Control + ⌘ + R again.

Read more about the feature on the Apple site here.


How a little bit of intrigue can transform your product

My wife found a brand new book in our local library on a recent visit with our kids – it is titled: The Lost Book of Adventure – a good enough title to keep two young boys entertained for a few hours surely – so she took it out.

I picked up the book (initially at the prompting of my wife) and started reading the note from the editor – below is the first paragraph:

Four years ago whilst trekking with friends through a remote part of the Amazon we stumbled across an old hut. In the corner of the dwelling buried under some fallen palms we found a metal case, sealed shut by years of rust. Intrigued, we carefully opened it. Inside was a collection of notebooks, journals and various sketchbooks – all incredibly well preserved given the environment. We didn’t realise it then, but we had stumbled across the lifetime’s work of an unknown artist and adventurer

And with that, you are swept away into a world of imagination and intrigue. Immediately, what could have been just another book on a few outdoor survival tips for children, was transformed into something magical and different – yes after a while as an adult you do start to realise that the likelihood of the story being true is more unlikely than likely – but they have done such an incredible job continuing to build on that initial intrigue through the little stories ‘shared’ by the Unknown Adventurer through a combination of illustrations, captions and mini-stories that it’s hard to stop paging through all 192 pages of the book. In fact, we’ve ordered our own version to have for ourselves.

It did get me thinking though about how much intrigue or even delight do you design into your product experience – especially right up front? And here I am not talking about some growth techniques to ‘hook’ your customers and keep them coming back for more (potentially against their better judgement) like lots of products are tending to use these days — but just actually making the experience something people would want to write about online and/or share with others via word-of-mouth.

I know in this specific case our whole family will most likely end up with a copy of this book – just because of the effort the authors put into taking something that could have been possibly mundane and transforming it into something intriguing and delightful.

Design concepts Thoughts

A redesign of the mobile boarding pass

Working remotely for Automattic requires you to do a fair bit of travel each year – both for our annual Grand Meetup (in which the whole company comes together), for team meetups and then at times other meetups dependant on the area of the business or projects you are working on.

At the most I have done 11 transatlantic flights in a year 😱✈️ – not as many as other jobs, but more than most jobs I think! As a result of this – you get to spend more time than most looking at boarding passes, be they the printed kind or the mobile/digital kind.

Towards the end of last year – to kill time in the airport lounges and to learn a new design tool – I spent some time thinking about what I would do if I could design a mobile boarding pass from scratch – something that would suit the needs I had found I wanted from a boarding pass. For the sake of the ‘design challenge’, I used an existing mobile boarding pass I had for a Lufthansa flight. Below is the design concept I ended on:

In my design I aimed to group the various information into four main sections on the screen – here is some of my thinking on each section and the information contained in each:

What are my flight details again?

This shows all the primary information as you arrive at the airport or land at a connecting airport – so things like the flight number, gate and boarding time. The aim of this grouping is to allow you to quickly see where you need to be and when – getting you through the terminal faster.

When, where to and what’s the flight status?

This grouping covers where you flying from and where you flying to – complete with a flight status indicator – so a check symbol ✅ if all is okay or an exclamation ⚠️ if there was a delay or a cross mark ❎ if it was cancelled. A long press on the symbol would give you more information regarding the flight status in the case of a delayed or cancelled flight.

How long till boarding starts and how long to get there?

This grouping would make use of the time on your phone as well as your location settings to tell you how long you had till boarding started (a real-time countdown basically) and an indication of how far you were from the gate (how long it would take you to get there) based on your location within the terminal.

Let me onboard!

This grouping contains all the details you needed to get onboard the plane and ideally, this section would swop with the flight status module when boarding commenced – placing it more mid-screen and easier to scan as you go through the checkpoints.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the original Lufthansa boarding pass to compare it against anymore for this post 😞

Blog Uncategorised

The reasons why people choose to use your product

I’ve just finished reading Intercom on Marketing – and I would strongly suggest you grab yourself a copy. It’s a quick read – but that does not mean it is not packed with useful insights on things that you may already think you had a good grasp on. Always be learning!

One one of the things that stood out for me , was in the second last chapter in the book – Des Traynor – one of the co-founders has taken a look at the topic: How people buy your product. I won’t cover the 4 things he covers (you will need to get the book for that) but in the introduction to the chapter, he brings a great nuance to the Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) methodology.

If you not familiar with the JTBD methodology, you can read more about it here, but he shares the famous quote:

People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill. They want a quarter inch hole.

Theodore Levitt

So you may have heard that before – or a version of it shared to you at some conference you attended, but Des goes on to share this bit… 

Some people are so familiar with their problem space that they’ve already made up their mind that they want a quarter-inch drill, and they’re actually going to go searching for a quarter-inch drill bit, not “hanging a frame”.

Des Traynor (Intercom on Marketing)

The JTBD method is primarily used in product design to try help you understand what jobs a customer hires your product for – but you can also use it in marketing to help you map out ways your product can possibly be pitched to potential customers.

It’s a subtle shift from the original meaning of JBTD in my opinion, but from a marketing perspective, it’s a great way to start understanding how you need different kinds of marketing based on the road a customer is on which may lead them to try your product.

Like I said, I highly recommend you get this book. It’s well worth it!