When anyone talks about the job of product management (or program management), they tend to emphasize the importance of getting out of the office and talking with customers. You have to understand the customer and feel their pain. And, the quintessential quote one hears is “The answers aren’t found in the office.”
I’m neither foolish nor inexperienced enough to argue with that one. But, what is equally important, and what I don’t hear people talking about is the importance of spending time studying your own product in excruciating detail and becoming expert enough to be absolutely convinced you know exactly what features need to go in the next version.
Getting out of the office is only half the story…
There is no magic formula for determining the next feature you should put into your product. You need to have a product backlog, sure. And, within one of your backlog categories, it’s not hard to come up with a pretty decent prioritization and costing of those items. But—what to do next isn’t a question that calculus will answer. You need to look at a bunch of different issues:
When I say—Be the MRD—it reflects my belief that the abundance of customer and market information you’ve collected will not itself point you in any particular direction (and—it rhymes). As always, data itself is just data. And, typically, two different people will look at the same data sets and come to the polar opposite conclusions. So—YOU (as PM)—need to be the tool that integrates all the disparate piece of market, customer and other information and comes up with the right direction.
From my experience, it’s not enough for you to visit customers, do research and go to trade shows. As I said earlier—you need to work with your product enough so that you Grok it and are absolutely convinced you know exactly what features need to go in the next version.
Then, you have to be flexible enough to put aside your opinions in an instant based on customer input or market evidence.
You can’t come up with the right answer unless you have a well-developed point of view (it’s one of those knowing the path, walking the path kinds of things). You can’t make an informed assessment without understanding (some of) your customer’s pain. You can’t feel it, second-hand. You’ve got to become a customer.
So, dive in and do a bunch of projects with your product, and understand firsthand what some of the problems, issues and inefficiencies are. Only then will you be capable of putting yourself in other customers’ shoes and understanding their pain. It’s the process of developing empathy.
As an example, when I was working on Photoshop 2 (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), there were hundreds of feature suggestions we had collected from customers and our own observations. Photoshop was an unusual product in that it was so general-purpose that it was used by an incredible range of different customers, from graphic designers to prepress to software developers to illustrators and so on. So, it would have been easy to peanut-butter features across a wide set of user scenarios.
We decided to focus on 2 scenarios/objectives:
The customer data alone couldn’t tell us this was the right strategy. There were at least a dozen different customer segments, lots of compelling and sensible customer requests, and—frankly—a paucity of high-quality research info. But, I strongly feel that my own use of Photoshop (I helped illustrate the first Photoshop poster; wrote several articles on it; edited the tutorial guide; created interface mockups, etc), played a major role in informing the decision-making process and acted as a sieve for the customer information.
Was every feature choice perfect? Probably not. But, the strategy—which informed the feature decisions—was spot-on. And the act of integrating all of the elements of the MRD (market opportunity, customer problems, go-to-market strategy) into my brain (and those of the product team—Mark, Tom, John & Russell), made it a dynamite release.