Eye on the Horizon

horizonContributed by Jim Bodor

There is a great discussion thread on Quora.com right now about how product managers write specs.

It’s full of useful tips for the everyday practice of product management, highlighting the tactics we all use to create great new products. Reading it, though, I was struck by one thought: sometimes even the best product managers can get too caught up in the smallest of details surrounding their projects, and lose sight of the larger goals.

Think of just about any job posting for a product manager you’ve ever read. “Strong attention to detail” appears in nearly every one. But in our zeal to track the details, we can forget our larger priorities.

Keeping it simple

Write a plain language summary of what you’re trying to accomplish, and for whom.

This sounds easy and obvious. And yet, a lot of product managers struggle with this. When you first set out on a project, you should be able to write a two or three paragraph document that states what you are building, why, and for which audience. In plain language. No technical jargon. No words that your fifth grade English teacher wouldn’t understand. Not even in user stories.

Focusing on a simple one-sentence goal for your project can be particularly helpful on projects that extend over months or years. Our primary goal early on in the redesign of Antiques Roadshow was to create a more vibrant site that makes the large and rich archive of past appraisals easier to navigate and more enjoyable to search. As the project unfolded over months, though, and we got deeper into the details of our task, at times we lost sight of that vision. Only later in the project did we reevaluate in order to get closer to that and other early high-level goals.

Alternatively, for a recent site we built at Foreverstan.com, we held to a simple statement of our goal: To tell the story and history of recent events in Afghanistan using on-the-ground journalism in a visually arresting way.

Identify your key success metric in advance

In the spirit of keeping it simple, pick one measurable metric as the most important. We swim in a sea of data about our work, as every site and app we build generates reams of metrics to ponder, analyze, compare and contrast. It’s easy to declare victory after a launch by singling out a metric or two that indicates success.

Mobile usage jumps 33 percent. Referrals from Twitter or Facebook are up. Page views in a particular section rose 44 percent. Hurrah, we succeeded!

Not quite. Choose one metric that is most important before a project starts, and commit to that as the metric that will determine success. When we launched BostonGlobe.com, we emphasized a single metric as most important: subscription conversions. Each week for months a large team gathered to review how many new subscribers had signed up on the site, and how long they remained subscribers.

While we still analyzed all the other data from the site, the group agreed that this metric was most important to the business and the growth of the site at the time. Knowing that up front, at the beginning of the process, guided our decision-making throughout the implementation process and after the launch. That sort of rigor quickly aligns a large group’s thinking, and helps keep everyone focused on the most important goal.

Bring in an objective perspective

Get an outsider to look at what you’re doing. We all conduct formal user testing and focus groups, and that’s helpful for understanding whether particular features are working. The formality of such testing gives us room to explain what we’re trying to accomplish, why we took a certain approach, and what limitations we faced in our work. In many ways, we’re bringing them into our world and, in doing so, introducing our biases into their thinking.

Instead, find a trusted friend with little to no knowledge of your particular project, and have them use it, with no explanation or background. With few or no preconceptions, they’ll be able to offer reliable feedback.  This can be invaluable information on how your product will succeed in the market.

When we developed a play along game for Antiques Roadshow, we took a similar approach with employees who have nothing to do with the Digital team. We asked them to visit us at an informal living room area near our department, sit on some couches and play the game.

The best insights came from users who were familiar with the show, but had hardly played such a game or even used an app. It was essential to build a product that was accessible to more than just our most digitally savvy viewers. Getting such a sanity check from an average user can be eye-opening and humbling – and can help you build better products.

Solve the big problems

The quality I’ve most valued in all of the product managers I’ve overseen in the past decade is problem solving. The best product and project managers have a relentless focus on finding smart solutions to the problems presented by our stakeholders and clients.

In our zeal to solve all of their problems, however, we can lose sight of the problems that matter most. In one recent instance, a product manager and a developer considered rebuilding an entire CMS to accommodate one relatively small feature request.

At the start of a project, I like to write down the three or four most significant problems facing the stakeholder we’re working with – and keep those in mind throughout the project. When you start to veer off course toward smaller feature requests, keep that list of big problems in mind. Revisit it and be sure that you’re fixing larger problems for the biggest piece of your audience, not a minor feature for a niche audience or a back-end user.

No one remembers small solutions for small problems months or years later. Everyone remembers big solutions for big problems.

Image from Flickr


Jim Bodor is Director of Digital Product Management at WGBH Digital. WGBH is the largest producer of public media for PBS, home to such beloved shows as Antiques Roadshow, Masterpiece, Frontline and NOVA. Before joining WGBH Digital, Jim was Director of Product Development at The Boston Globe, and part of the team that launched BostonGlobe.com, one of the first major news sites developed in responsive design.



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