Product management lessons from the history of Evernote

Hiten Shah’s deep-dive into the history of Evernote is a very interesting read from a product management perspective. Of particular interest is the immense damage they inflicted on themselves due to a lack of focus on their core mission:

It’s hard to understate the damage that the branded products sold through the Evernote Market inflicted on the Evernote brand. It made absolutely no sense. Users didn’t want Evernote-branded tablet styluses or Evernote Moleskine notebooks or Evernote backpacks. They wanted an organizational and productivity product that worked.

The fact that the 2013 version of Evernote was widely considered the buggiest, most unstable version the company had released at that point added insult to injury. Rather than fixing the software problems that users actually cared about, Evernote started selling branded backpacks instead.

This is such a good example of the importance of knowing the core value of your product, and deepening that reach instead of trying to broaden into unrelated areas where you don’t have a core competency.

A step-by-step guide to product discovery from Tim Herbig

I’m a big fan of product discovery, and this extensive guide from Tim Herbig is a great resource:

The goal of this guide is to show you the extensive range a Product Discovery can have and how to set up and execute your own Product Discovery process. Which exact phases, tools, frameworks, and participants are needed depends on many individual aspects like the maturity of your product, which stakeholder environment you’re operating in, which resources you have at hand, etc.

I also like his definition a lot:

Product discovery is about ensuring that the right product gets built for the right audience. It’s the foundation for a successful implementation and launch phase later on and should give you the confidence to represent your product vision towards your team and stakeholders.

This is a guide I will return to again and again for inspiration.

Embracing our ethical responsibilities in the products we make

The transcription of Cennydd Bowles’s talk on ethics in technology at SustainableUX 2019 is absolute gold and a must-read:

It’s a mistake to separate technical capabilities from human capabilities. These things act together. They become interwoven, hybridized actors. Things change what people can do and how they do it. It is true to an extent that old sage that guns don’t kill people; people do. But a gunman, the hybrid actor of a human and a technology coming together, sure as hell can.

So we have to abandon this belief that the things we build are just neutral tools. We have to recognize therefore that we can’t wash our hands of the social, ethical and political consequences of our work. This can be a tough sell to some. Technology and algorithms and then the bedrock of it all, data, are often seen as clean, objective, neutral things.

He gives lots of practical advice on how to make ethical thinking part of our work — including viewing ethics as just another design constraint, like any other. And for a more… uh… “incendiary” approach to this topic, also see Mike Monteiro’s We Built A Broken Internet. Now We Need To Burn It To The Ground.

Process pitfalls and how to avoid them

Yana Welinder looks at different areas where PMs need to make sure we don’t let process get in the way of good product sense in her post Product Over Process. On the importance of making sure specs aren’t “set in stone”:

Focusing on product over process during the execution stage means constantly evaluating whether the product does what it’s intended to do. This requires PMs to see the product through the users’ eyes and, more importantly, to figure out ways to do user testing even when it’s hard. It also means that the build process needs to be iterative. If you discover that the product doesn’t have the impact you’d expected, you should change it before it reaches the users — even if that means delaying launch.

Evaluate technologies and frameworks based on appropriateness, not newness

Jeremy Keith writes about the developer community’s need to always talk about new things in Dev perception. I think the same can be said for every other profession, including product management:

It’s relatively easy to write and speak about new technologies. You’re excited about them, and there’s probably an eager audience who can learn from what you have to say.

It’s trickier to write something insightful about a tried and trusted (perhaps even boring) technology that’s been around for a while. You could maybe write little tips and tricks, but I bet your inner critic would tell you that nobody’s interested in hearing about that old tech. It’s boring.

The point he makes in his post is a very good one — that we should always evaluate any technology (or, in our case, methodology or framework) based on appropriateness, not newness. It reminds me of Kellan Elliott-McCrea’s excellent list of questions a team should answer before they decide to adopt a new technology in their software development process.

How Spotify uses personas to make product decisions

I always love a good persona case study, and The Story of Spotify Personas is no exception. But more than the story behind it, I am most interested in how teams use their personas (if at all). So I was happy to see the team devote some time to that towards the end of the article:

For instance, teams that want to create features from scratch can now choose their personas, map out the existing opportunities, pick a direction and start ideating from there. Although personas don’t replace user research, they can help us create educated hypotheses and save us time – meaning we don’t need to run foundational research every time we want to explore a new topic within the music listening experience. Our teams can now focus their resources on diving deeper into problems from the level set by the personas.

Equally, when teams are more focused on maintaining features, they can now map out their work and see how different personas would use it. They can create mental model diagrams for different personas and discover how they experience their journeys. And in doing so, they can refine the features to better fit certain ways of listening to music, whilst making sure they don’t alienate others.

I know I’m kind of in the minority here, but I am still a fan of personas—if they are based on actual research, and used to make better product decisions.

The point of product management is products, not frameworks and methodologies

Sometimes we can get overly reliant on our frameworks and methodologies to help us make sense of our products and our worlds. Melissa Perri shares some excellent advice about the dangers of this in The Science of Product Management:

These motions, these frameworks, they were made to teach you to think. They were a means to an end, not the end goal itself. They are training wheels. How can they help you understand your work better, so you can DO your work better?

The point of Product Management is not to put things in JIRA in a specific format, use a specific framework for writing out goals, or make sure your developers have full backlogs. The point of Product Management is to create valuable products that customers love.

That’s where the real science of Product Management comes in. The science is about understanding the patterns to building products that people love from a strategy perspective.

I shared some similar thoughts on Twitter in the context of this new-ish push for “product thinking”:

I’m in a spot where I feel we’re trying too hard to make “product thinking” a thing with fancy words and lofty concepts. Like we have some kind of inferiority complex with other disciplines we’re trying to make up for. Talk to customers, understand the market and the business, and experiment until you get it right. That’s pretty much it, right? How you do that looks different in every org, but that’s where the art comes in. You can’t codify product management.

Five guiding principles for product managers

An oldie but a goodie from Michael Copeland: Shipping is a Feature—Some Guiding Principles for People That Build Things:

For these five bits of advice, I chose to focus on what I think is the most challenging aspect of being a PM, which is achieving clarity and maintaining a point of view for a product when all forces work against this very thing. What customers value most in a product is that “it just work” or “does what it is supposed to do,” and yet at every step in a product, the dynamics of design work to make this the most difficult to achieve.

The whole list is good, but the one that resonates the most with me is “Can’t agree to disagree.” What to do when you simply have to make a decision that not everyone agrees on:

So if you’re on the “winning” side of such a dialog then you have to bring people along every day for a while. You can’t remind people who was right, or that it is your decision and so on. If you’re on the “losing” side you need to support the team. You can’t remind people when little things go wrong (which they will) that you were right. Once a choice is made, the next step is all about the greater good. Nothing is harder for technologists than this because as technologists we believe there is a “right” answer and folks that don’t agree are simply “wrong”. Context is everything and remember you have to ship–as a team.

Product, design, development… we’re in this together

I’m staying out of the “hot takes on that John Maeda interview” genre, but I do want to link to Heather Phillips’s Stop dwelling on being design-led: Focus on the user. She brings up some great points that product managers need to keep in mind as well:

We shouldn’t think about being design-first, or development-first. Instead, we should be thinking about how we can bring our paths closer together. Every business function — including design — should be thinking about the user, first and foremost. And building solutions with the best user experience in mind. This work should not be silo’d in product, marketing, or design.

We’re in this together.

Amen to that.

The value of product-specific internal wikis

I am intrigued by the idea of product-specific wikis, as outlined in North Star Product Management. The idea is to have a living document that explains how each product component works, why it exists, why certain decisions were made, and what the future looks like:

The purpose of North Star Docs is not (at least, not necessarily) to minimize changes — changing the North Star Docs is just fine, and is of course actually encouraged, if we can find a better way to do something.

The purpose is, instead, to help map complexity for systems-level, rather than localized, problem solving. They are comprehensive and detailed specs like a Waterfall, yes, but they serve a very different purpose.

This can then be paired with project-specific specs as and when needed. But separating those from the main “this is the overall vision of the product/component” document provides a clear decision-making framework and builds organizational memory.

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