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Monday, February 23, 2015

When a feature goes horribly wrong...

I recently Tweeted (@gprickril) that we product managers as a community need to be more forthcoming in sharing our failures. Somewhat ironically, today I'd like to discuss what I consider someone else's failure. Although this post may seem on the surface to be a bit negative, the idea is to start a discussion and learn something. Let's face it: we learn way more from failure than from success.

I'm following a software train wreck that I thought would be interesting to address while it's in progress. Since the early days, I've been a user of Google's Chrome browser. Back then, it was lightning fast and had a clean UI that I like to this day. I have the feeling it's lost a bit of its speed and even grace over the years, but it is till my browser of choice for 95% of what I do.

Recently, the folks at Google decided to radically "improve" the bookmarking experience. Overnight, what had been a simple, albeit unsophisticated, experience became a quasi-graphical head-scratcher that left me wondering how it had ever escaped from the development lab. Imagine my surprise when out of the blue I clicked the Star in the address bar to bookmark a site and the following appeared:
What followed was a counter-intuitive "filing" experience that even after weeks I hadn't quite mastered. It would take several pages to describe the specifics of the experience (a bad sign already) so if you'd like to see it, simply install Chrome. I was so indignant that I went to the trouble of finding the appropriate support forum to voice my contempt. Turns out, I was not alone. Unofficial stats posted by a fellow user revealed "472 posts so far: fewer than 10 in favour of the new bookmarks, 50 don't like the new version very much, over 400 detest it". There's now a steady trickle of comments coming in, virtually all of them negative.

Unfortunately, not only is the basic bookmarking experience hopelessly flawed, the Bookmark Manager was also "improved" to the point of virtual uselessness. The default view shows you a graphical thumbnail for each link displayed in a flat list of all your bookmarks. For reasons that aren't quite clear to me, bookmarks not in folders seemed to have disappeared. I'm not sure I will ever understand this design decision.

Although these words sound harsh, I can assure I don't use them lightly. In my mind, this feature (or really feature area), as well-intentioned as it may have been, missed the mark by about a mile. I have to assume there was some greater vision guiding this design that was completely lost on us poor users trying to get stuff done today.

In Google's defense, you can disable the new experience and return to your comfort zone, although it's a multi-step process. Unfortunately, it sounds as if Chrome updates overwrite this setting.

So what can we learn from this ongoing saga? Here are my key takeaways so far:
  • Some features don't require much innovation, even if they're not particularly exciting on the surface
  • Given the competitiveness of the browser market, I have real trouble believing that the Bookmark Manager was Chrome's biggest issue: prioritizing is everything
  • The prevalence of mobile devices is inspiring folks to make everything graphical -- we shouldn't assume such a change always represents progress.
  • Giving folks a choice about adopting radical changes can save a lot of good will. This is a lesson that Google is learning and Microsoft has learned painfully on multiple occasions, e.g., Office Ribbon, Metro UI in Windows 8.
So what do you think of the new Bookmark Manager? What are your takeaways from the tsunami of negative responses to it?

Monday, February 9, 2015

Software Product Management Training and Certification

Product management is one of those complex roles that has to be learned by doing. Every situation is different and the skills required can vary between countries, companies and products. However, getting a comprehensive overview of product management and learning from others, whether an instructor or your peers, can help accelerate your learning and bring things to your attention you might have otherwise never considered.

In this spirit, I'm offering courses on product management based on the International Software Product Management Association's (ISPMA) Foundation-level Syllabus. This 3 day course gives you the "big picture" on software product management and covers many of the key processes that generate value for product development teams. It also gives insight into effective collaboration or "orchestration" with the other "functions" like development, marketing and support involved in building great products. Like most courses, there are challenging exercises that allow you to apply what you've learned and connect some of the "dots" that you are undoubtedly already familiar with.

While training cannot replace actual practice, bringing these two together in an intelligent way can strengthen both your knowledge and practice, making you a much more effective professional. Taking a course also exposes you to other professionals with similar interests and challenges. If I think about the professional training I've done in my life, I would say that networking was almost as important as what I learned from the instructor.

My courses also offer optional certification, again based on ISPMA's approach. Passing the certification exam demonstrates that you understand what you've learned and shows others, including potential employers, that you are dedicated to growing as a professional.

In the coming days, I'll announce more public courses, primarily in Europe (where I live). I also enjoy giving these courses "behind the firewall" for individual companies and organizations. You can discover more about what I do on my site,

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Promoting Product Management

In an earlier post, I described "product promotion" as one of product management's "Dimensions of Competency". I believe that although we're not marketing professionals, it is critical that we as product managers help get the word out about our products to external audiences such as customers, partners and analysts. In this post, I'd like to talk about an activity that is very often overlooked in product development organizations: promoting product management itself. Having helped strengthen and even implement product management multiple times, I've become keenly aware of the need in some (most?) instances to explicitly educate my coworkers about what product managers do and how we add value. As I've said before in this blog, what we deliver as product managers can itself be thought of as a product. What product manager worth her salt doesn't promote her product?

This idea may sound odd to those who work in healthy organizations with a well-established product management organization full of high achievers that have developed the referent power they need to drive their product's success. But imagine organizations that have a weak product management function or, even worse, lack one altogether. I've been a member of such organizations, fighting hard to establish our discipline only to discover that to many, it was still a poorly understood "stealth" role. I would add that I believe this topic is valid at some level for all product managers. The upshot is that tactfully making your contribution transparent to the organization is rarely a bad idea.

If your organization has recently rolled out or significantly strengthened product management, you should not rely on word of mouth or a "re-org" memo to educate others about what you do. Consider your key stakeholders, carve time out of your overloaded schedule and find a way to get in front of them personally to explain the basics: your role, your plans and how you'll measure success. I typically start with development, although, quite frankly, they typically have the greatest exposure to your work. Even so, you would be amazed at the misperceptions that can develop over time regarding what product management is or should be doing.  One approach is to ask for a slot in one of their standard meetings and clearly explain how you intend to contribute to the success of the product. Being aligned with development leadership is obviously an important prerequisite. Do the same with marketing, support and other important internal stakeholders.

Another approach is to schedule a brief meeting, perhaps 30 minutes, and invite virtually the entire product development organization. Create a 10 slide deck that that covers "the basics" (from above) and leave plenty of time for questions.

If your organization has a more mature product management role, don't assume everyone understands it. Regularly addressing people from other disciplines or even product groups face-to-face and sharing your challenges and successes can give these audiences a better appreciation for what you do. It also demonstrates a level of professionalism that will usually impress.

I also like the idea of having a wiki that provides transparency on the product management team and their activities. I've also resorted to hanging posters displaying goals, accomplishments and other interesting information in hallways to make sure product management's contribution was reasonably conspicuous.

I know many of you are thinking that nothing promotes product management like success in the market and I agree wholeheartedly. But I would still challenge you to provide others involved in product development with greater insight into your contribution via more channels and with greater frequency than quarterly revenue reports.

Promoting product management is an ongoing activity that you should actively pursue and manage -- just like promoting your product; the work never really ends. In rare cases, you may be making such a spooky contribution that your rock god status speaks for itself. The truth is, these situations are rare a primarily an illusion dreamed up by product managers who have gotten out of touch.

So what do you do to promote product management within your product development organizations? What experiences can you share?