Fidget no more

Listen, I held out as long as I could with this whole fidget spinner thing. Sure yeah “It’s only $3, Dad!” but I just couldn’t get myself to do it. And then my 7-year old used the age-old trick used by 7-year olds for centuries: she went over my head and convinced my wife to buy one for her a couple of weeks ago.

Of course, the joke’s on her, because the fad is basically over. Why so soon? In The Rise of the Fidget Spinner and the Fall of the Well-Managed Fad Charles Duhigg takes a fascinating look at why fads… well, aren’t what they used to be. It all comes down to how they used to be managed carefully by marketing & sales departments, as is still the case with Beanie Babies:

In reality, though, all these middlemen were often crucial to ensuring that the pie was baked at all. As Osborne learned when she started selling Beanie Babies, middlemen like Joyce are often the ones who turn a fad into a sustainable business that creates jobs. You might think a company’s main function is to make stuff. But that’s usually wrong. Making stuff is often the easiest part of what a company does. It’s everything else — marketing and defending intellectual property, coming up with distribution strategies and knowing when to stop manufacturing Peanut the Elephant — that’s the hard part. That’s what middlemen do.

Anyway, consider this your PSA that we appear to have finally seen the last of those ghastly things.

Personas and Jobs-to-be-Done: a match made in heaven

I’m guessing that not everyone is going to agree with NN Group on this one, but I’m on board with their article about Personas vs. Jobs-to-Be-Done:

With the popularity of the JTBD paradigm, there are calls in some corners to abandon personas, suggesting that JTBD has emerged as a more useful technique. This point of view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of personas as primarily demographic representations of users, missing the key behavioral considerations that are essential to good personas and that provide much needed guidance for interaction design and product strategy.

The thing is that, as I have written in Job stories are great, but personas aren’t dead, we shouldn’t confuse marketing personas with design personas, which are specifically created to guide the development of product features. Design personas are based on needs, goals, and dimensions that have a direct impact on their interaction with the product.

Good design personas are complementary to JTBD, not in conflict with it. As NN Group further explains:

Well-executed personas are based largely on rich behavioral characteristics, attitudinal data, and insights about mental models, and they require qualitative research with real users to uncover the why behind users’ behaviors. These rich personas typically will include information related to specific goals that users must achieve when they use the product; these goals are directly comparable to the information found in the jobs-to-be-done definition.

So instead of choosing between Personas and JTBD, I’d like to have both, please. I’ll use Personas to get a better understanding of the goals and needs of our target market, and I’ll use JTBD to help create the products that will meet those goals and needs.

Using mind mapping to clarify your job and bring order to task-switching chaos

In a recent blog post about our 4-day work week experiment at Wildbit, Natalie (our CEO) wrote about some things we’re doing to focus our jobs a bit better. The example she used in that post is the exercise I went through to clarify my role as product manager, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that process a little bit more.

If you’re in a position where you’re a little unsure about the focus of your role, or what exactly you should be working on day-to-day, you might find the process I describe here useful to help you figure it all out.

What exactly would you say you do here?

Even though no one can quite agree on how to define the role of the product manager (but you should totally read my book about that), I think we’re all in agreement that it requires lots of different kinds of tasks—which results in lots of context switching. This means that focus is a constant struggle for PMs. Yes, this is true for many roles, but it is especially true for PMs since the ability to switch between different tasks is so central to what we do to help keep things moving.

The issue is not just that switching contexts all the time is hard, it’s also that knowing what to switch to next can be such a challenge. PM minds are in a constant state of prioritization and reprioritization.

It’s with this as background that Natalie and I had a very long 1:1 a few months ago as we realized I’d drifted away slightly from what my core focus at Postmark needs to be. As we got our development process nailed down, that part of the business needed less involvement from me so I started to spend more time on things like metrics frameworks and improving our prioritization methods. Because that’s just what PMs do—we look for things to fix, and then we jump in.

I had a huge realization that I was starting to spend time on the wrong things when Natalie said to me,

Rian, stop trying to turn us into a big company.

That is arguably the most important thing she has ever told me. Because that is exactly the path I was inadvertently going down. Process improvements aren’t bad, but at that time it was not what the team needed. So we got to work to find out what our team needs in our context and our culture.

Mapping a chaotic role into submission

Natalie encouraged me to go through an exercise she has gone through before. It involves creating a detailed mind map of all the things you do during a particular week, and then using that to identify and prioritize your focus areas. I jumped into MindNode, and after a couple of weeks of working on it with Natalie, we came up with the following map of what my focus areas should be:

Mind mapping your focus areas

It looks all neat and sensible now, but it’s worth mentioning that the process was messy for a quite a while. My natural propensity for order made me want to start at the left with the big buckets of my role, and then expand to the right into more and more detail. In practice it didn’t work like that at all. I ended up starting with cataloging some of the mid-level tasks I spend my time on (such as Regular customer calls and Prioritization). With those things as a starting point I then branched out—sometimes to the right (Customer calls leads to defining that we should talk about Pain points), and sometimes to the left (Prioritization leads back to a larger Planning bucket).

I also ended up deleting a bunch of stuff on the far right during my discussions with Natalie. Specifically, we started to see where I was doing too much of the things that the marketing team was doing already. Once we had a visual picture it was easy to see where I need to scale back, and which areas need more definition.

Bringing order to day-to-day tasks

Once this was done, as I stared at the map for a while, I wondered if I could somehow use it to make my days a feel a little less arbitrary. So I took it one step further and simplified my role as a progression from Listen to Think to Act:

Mind mapping your focus areas

This model now helps me prioritize my days when it comes down to deciding what to work on. If I’m in Listen mode I’m more likely to spend most of the day on calls and discussions with the team and customers. Other days are primarily focused on Act so I tend to spend a bunch of time in JIRA or Basecamp creating the content we need on projects.

This has helped a lot with the scattered feeling I often got when switching contexts too much. I still switch between tasks, but keeping it in the same “family” helps so much with focus and productivity.

In summary—I think you should do this

Creating this mind map has been an eye-opening experience for me. It not only helped me to clarify what I should work on (and when), it also constantly ensures that Natalie and I are on the same page about what I should be spending my time on. This is especially important as a remote employee where we don’t catch up all the time about what I spend my time on.

Natalie and I look at my focus areas together and discuss any changes we might need to make. But other than that, I feel confident that I’m doing the stuff that’s most important for our team, our customers, and the business. I like that feeling a lot.

Good/Bad Product Manager: the Wildbit perspective

I think most of us know Ben Horowitz’s classic Good/Bad Product Manager post. At Wildbit we have a whole section of similar Good/Bad posts to help define our take on various roles — but until recently, the Product Manager slot was empty. I started working on our take on the Good/Bad Product Manager debate a while ago, and we finally published it last week.

I realized that the most important lesson I learned about product so far at Wildbit is the importance of a happy and effective team, and how much of a Product Manager’s time should be spent on that:

No amount of workshops, sticky notes, or JTBD theory will help you create consistently awesome products that customers love if you don’t work with a team that is fulfilled and motivated.

That might be a slightly controversial idea, and it might not work for every organization. But it certainly works for us. So here it is, our perspective on what it takes to be a good product manager.

Running and breathing and problem-solving

I want to tell you a quick story about running. And I know it’s a little weird to make everyday life stories about product design but I can’t help myself, so I’m going to do that at the end. Let’s be cool about it, ok?


I hate running. I’ve always hated running. A couple of weeks ago my friend Jason came over for a visit and started asking me about it. He wouldn’t let up. Bastard kept pressing. “Why do you hate running so much?” Over and over and over. Eventually we narrowed it down to breathing. I’ve always felt uncomfortably out of breath when I run. This is when my wife joined the party, and feeding off each other, they kept at it.

What felt like hours later, through their incessant questioning, we figured out that I’ve been breathing ridiculously wrong during my runs for two decades. For reasons that I am unable to explain, I’ve always timed my in-and-out breathing with every third step. Not second. Not fourth. THIRD. The result is that I’ve basically been hyperventilating through my runs for the better part of 20 years.

Anyway, they coached me for about five minutes on how to breathe. Turns out — and this is going to blow your mind — your body knows when it has to breathe. All you have to do is stop trying to force some kind of rhythm. Just focus on getting as much oxygen into your lungs as you possibly can, and then letting it out slowly. Your body will find its own rhythm.

The next day I tried out this revolutionary breathing mechanism. Not only was it enjoyable, I ran faster and further than usual. Last weekend, not even two weeks after they accosted me, I went for a 10k run. It was my fastest 10k ever, and more importantly, I enjoyed it.

Portland 10k

I keep switching back and forth between being really pissed that I’ve been doing it wrong for so long, and ecstatic that I’ve been able to figure out the issue. I’m still blown away that a change in breathing can have such an immediate and enormous impact. Mostly, I’m thankful for my friend and my wife, who persisted way past the point of annoyance, and gave me a new lease on running (and, not to be dramatic, but life too).

Here’s where we get to the product design bit. This experience taught me another lesson, something that’s already deeply ingrained but I still forget it sometimes:

You cannot come up with a good solution before you understand the problem completely.

I tried that shortcut with the running thing. I switched up the cadence, or tried to just “break through the wall”. It wasn’t until someone pushed me to get to the cause of it all that we were able to find the right solution. So I resolved to be just a little more annoying at work. All it really comes down to is asking Why? a few more times than I think I should. I know that the answers will help us understand what we’re trying to accomplish, and building a better product for our customers.

What we lost when sound systems stopped being furniture

Kate Wagner explores How speakers went from statement furniture to unseen tech:

In today’s wireless age, most want their sound system to be out of sight and out of mind. “If interior designers had their way,” says Scott Orth, director of electroacoustics at Sound United, “there would be no speakers at all.” Orth adds that “the trend among average consumers has been to go smaller for the last thirty years.”

But there was a time when speakers were as essential a piece of furniture as the sofa: The peak of home hi-fi offered handcrafted teak consoles and towering pairs of floor speakers. Today, small, easily hidden speaker systems are the mainstays of home listening. But how did we get from full cabinetry to speakers not much bigger than a tin can?

When we moved into our house we made a conscious decision not to make the TV the centerpiece of our living room. Instead, everything is laid out around this (the TV is banished to the basement):

The family sound system

I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was just something we wanted to try out. But the results have been positive: we watch less TV, and listen to (and argue about!) music more. I think when TVs started pushing sound systems out of the way in living rooms, we lost more than just a beautiful piece of design. We also lost an important connection point within families.

The injustice of the gig economy

Jia Tolentino’s takedown of the gig economy for The New Yorker is so good. From The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death:

At the root of this is the American obsession with self-reliance, which makes it more acceptable to applaud an individual for working himself to death than to argue that an individual working himself to death is evidence of a flawed economic system. The contrast between the gig economy’s rhetoric (everyone is always connecting, having fun, and killing it!) and the conditions that allow it to exist (a lack of dependable employment that pays a living wage) makes this kink in our thinking especially clear.

The ethics of “conquering” other planets

I’ve been knee deep in hard sci-fi stories like Red Mars and Babylon’s Ashes over the past few months, so I have a special affinity for stories about space colonization at the moment. David H. Grinspoon’s The logistics and ethics of colonizing the red planet is a really interesting take on the ethics of colonizing a new planet:

Today on Earth we are grappling with the fact that you cannot “conquer” a planet, even if — especially if — it is your home and your life support system. If we go to Mars with the idea that we can charge ahead and subdue a new world, our efforts are doomed. We should rather study how we might learn to help cultivate a Martian Biosphere that is balanced and self-sustaining, as is the Earth’s.

When video games > work

The Economist has an in-depth and very interesting feature about people1 who forego regular employment to live with their parents and play video games instead. The kicker that Escape to another world closes with is quite something…

A life spent buried in video games, scraping by on meagre pay from irregular work or dependent on others, might seem empty and sad. Whether it is emptier and sadder than one spent buried in finance, accumulating points during long hours at the office while neglecting other aspects of life, is a matter of perspective. But what does seem clear is that the choices we make in life are shaped by the options available to us. A society that dislikes the idea of young men gaming their days away should perhaps invest in more dynamic difficulty adjustment in real life. And a society which regards such adjustments as fundamentally unfair should be more tolerant of those who choose to spend their time in an alternate reality, enjoying the distractions and the succour it provides to those who feel that the outside world is more rigged than the game.

  1. Well, young men… 

Rogue One as a story about engineering and design ethics

Spoilers abound so proceed with caution, but Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story is so very good:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

The exploration of how Galen didn’t just walk away but took an active role in the destruction of the Death Star is interesting and highly relevant to what I consider an “ethical awakening” in our use of technology. It’s one thing to #DeleteUber — and those campaigns can certainly be effective, in that case to the tune of 500,000 accounts. It’s quite another to “infiltrate” your company and basically sabotage its technology because you believe it’s ethically dubious. The really complicated question is who gets to decide whether or not a company’s “ultimate societal impact” is good or bad. And, of course, who watches the watchers…


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