Product Managers – The New Rockstars of Design?

Fjord Family

The unsung hero of the digital industry, product management, just got new teeth. I attended one of the industry’s most established product management conferences, MindTheProduct in London last week, which presented a new agenda, a new competency: design.

The term product management does not encapsulate everything that a product manager is responsible for. The role in fact covers the entire operation of creating and maintaining complex digital products and services. Product managers are at the heart of defining how people interact with services, which in turn is how people create and receive value from the world around them.

It was music to my ears to hear that design played a central role within product managers decision-making about what these services should look like.

The talks were suitably varied along the design continuum and were as much about design as strategy (why build it?), as they were about design as function and form (how should it work?).

The brain featured heavily in this year’s presentations, which is not surprising given that the battlefield for competing products and services has shifted to the science and art of behaviour change via the intimate wearables, sensors and trackers that the market is demanding.

Kathy Sierra began with challenging us all to make it easy for users to fall in love with what your service does for them.  One of the key takeout’s from Kathy’s session was helping users to focus. For example, instead of presenting options which demand costly cognitive resources, create an interaction model that presents sensible, easily customisable defaults; thereby reducing process steps into easy bites.

Kathy also explained that what matters to your users isn’t your product at all. They’re simply interested in how they can make their lives easier and better. This, not the product concept in itself, should be the driving force behind the product or service. A subtle but powerful shift in how you build your service whole-heartily around your users by way of helping them stay loyal.

Nir Eyal reinforced loyalty as a key theme as during the preview of his book, Hooked. He discussed his HOOK loop, which helps designers to take users on a four-step journey: Trigger, Action, Reward and Investment. Triggers are more often than not based on accessing pleasure, hope, acceptance or avoiding pain, fear, and rejection.

Of course this formula is simply guidance to what requires careful crafting for every context, which is where the design competency becomes really useful. Irene Au presented her definition of how to use design within product management. Au defined design this as: brand (not a mediation of brand), the details (as well as the strategy) and empathy made tangible (not business made tangible).

Dave Wascha challenged the validity of the tired old roadmap and instead implored us to find what he termed as anti-patterns – new ways of shaping a product or service to create maximum value for all. He explained that “our brains hold us back from watching the world through fresh eyes” and that only by being truly open to finding these new anti-patterns could we overcome the “tyranny of inertia”.

Alex Osterwalder challenged the audience to try out his new incarnation of the now ubiquitous business model canvas. The value proposition canvas attempts to structure the definition of what customers will value in a given context by assessing their pains and gains, and treating them one by one. This method provides the building blocks of how a service should be designed, and how the backlog should be populated in the first place.

Having the Barbican Centre brimming with product managers and focusing them upon the ancient discipline of design, represents to me a strong signal of how design is shifting. Design is becoming more foundational to how businesses operate and connect with the world. Why? Because design refocuses the operation on the most valuable asset of any business – the flawed, creative, irrational, beautiful, basic, complex human beings that make up their customers.

If there’s one thing I know about product management, it’s that it exists to make things happen. Making human centered design happen – as a foundational part of the product process, I believe will have transformative effects. This will not just effect the success of the products themselves, but on the discipline itself – turning what were unsung heroes, into recognisable product rockstars!


Fjord Family

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