Do you ever feel like you come in early, work frantically until late in the evening, day after day, week after week, yet at the end of the month you didn’t get anything important done? Is your day packed with back-to-back meetings, with bursts of e-mail in between? If so, you’re not alone. Especially in larger companies, the life of a product manager or designer can be meeting hell.
The last note discussed the different types of user interface design – interaction design and visual design – and tried to make the point that both are required for a good user experience. But the response surprised me. So many people wrote to me to complain that their company essentially doesn’t do either type of design, and they know their product suffers for it. Most said that the UI engineers just did whatever they could and that was the design. Sometimes the product managers waded into the design waters and did what they could. Some companies try to outsource some visual design at the end of the process, just before the product goes into QA. Some people that wrote to me said they had no idea what any of these roles were.
I think most would agree that the general state of web site design is still in its infancy, at least as practiced by most companies. While there are some notable exceptions, many sites, even from major players, are often either very difficult to use, downright ugly, or both. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I have formed some theories as to why so many sites are bad, and what it will take to make this a better world as we all spend an increasing amount of our life interacting with the web.
In many product organizations there are problems between product and marketing. The problems might range from mild friction to downright dysfunction.
Normally I focus on the product definition aspects of creating successful products. My reasoning is simple: it doesn’t matter how great a job you do in building your product if it isn’t the right product. That’s really the role of the product manager; to define the right product at the right time. However, there is one little detail that too many product teams seem to miss, even when they define an otherwise excellent product. That is, the product has to actually work.
You can read about technology breakthroughs in the green tech space nearly every day now, but my favorite has been watching the guys at Xerox PARC turn their expertise in electronics, materials science, printed circuit board technology and systems software towards the green technology market. We all owe a much greater debt to these guys than most people realize (especially if you’re reading this on a Mac or even using a mouse), but they’ve come up with some very innovative approaches to solar energy that could redefine how we generate power (check out concentrator photovoltaics). Another example is in solid-state lighting; did you realize that 22 percent of electricity produced in the US is used for lighting purposes, and that solid state lighting technology can cut this in half or more?
The single most frequent question I get from product leaders in companies both large and small, is where should product management live? The choices are most often engineering or marketing. While if you have the right personalities, it can work in either place, I’m actually not a fan of it residing in either.
As product people, we’re first and foremost in the idea business. We have to come up with great ideas and then make them a reality. While this takes skill and practice, the main ingredient is something that I don’t know how to teach. We depend on smart people for the smart ideas. Sometimes these ideas come from ourselves, but if we depend only on ourselves for the smart ideas, we’re severely limiting our potential.
If your company is like many, there's some natural tension between marketing and product. One often controversial topic is the appropriate role in product creation of market research tools and techniques such as focus groups, customer surveys, site analytics, site visits, usability testing/field testing and competitive analysis. Unfortunately I think this is an area of significant confusion, fueled in part by the various camps – those from a marketing background that may see the benefits of these tools, and those from product that see the limitations. The results is that some product teams miss out because they don’t take advantage of the information these tools and techniques can offer, and other teams go astray because they depend on these techniques to answer questions the tools are incapable of.
Judging from all the feedback from the last posting, it sounds like quite a few of you are struggling with your company’s process for product decisions (or lack thereof!). Lots of complaints about endless meetings without structure or decisions, second guessing earlier decisions, vetoes, politics and what I call “drive-bys” (when a manager just drops in every so often, shoots down your progress, and then is gone again without providing the feedback or guidance that could help you address his concerns).