In this new blog series, directors from L4 Digital answer questions about their roles in concepting and creating world-class digital products and their opinions on the future of the industry. To start things off, Director of Product consulting, Andrew Smith discusses his role at the digital product agency, and how product management has changed throughout the years. Andrew has extensive experience managing complex software products for both startups and large enterprises including Microsoft, Corbis, Nintendo, and Cheezburger, Inc.
To start off could you give us a brief overview of your role as Director of Product Consulting at L4?
My team is focused on helping clients in three areas: product strategy and design, product leadership during the development process, and planning and implementing go-to-market strategies. We focus on implementing a structure and methodology that lead to great product decisions while also being experts in the latest and greatest trends in digital products.
You’ve worked on product in the tech industry for 15 years — what are the newest trends in the world of product management?
There is a ton of interesting work being done around how to improve the creation of digital products, in particular how to make good decisions quickly. RITE studies and Design Sprints come to mind, which are two different methods for driving intense focus through the creation and testing of prototypes. Both require teams to commit to product decisions, rapidly develop a prototype that represents those decisions, and immediately validate them through user testing.
It’s a truism that the most important job for a product manager is to make sure you are building the right product, but that turns out to be quite hard. There used to be a joke that customer feedback would never impact a product until version three. Version one would be purely based on internal vision, and while feedback would start pouring in right after launch, it would already be too late to influence version two because the specs were locked down before the v1 launch. Three to five years later, the user voice would finally see the light of day, but the world would have already changed. Now we can get real user feedback in the span of a few weeks before a single line of code has been written.
In the past 10 years, what has been the greatest change in product management?
The whole idea of product management has really changed in the last 10-15 years. For commodity companies like Proctor and Gamble, product management has traditionally been dominated by product marketing managers straight out of business school. Hardware companies like Apple produce product leaders with backgrounds in industrial design and manufacturing. In the past software companies tended to be driven by a combination of program managers and a loose coalition of business stakeholders. Now, for us at least, product management encompasses the definition of vision and strategy while also playing the very functional role of product owner, driving day-to-day prioritization, and product decisions.
With smart architects, project managers, marketing leaders, and UX designers, why do companies need product managers?
The truth is they aren’t needed, but the core role they play is required. We see companies that are successful where product decisions are driven by the CEO, or owned by technical or sales leaders. In some organizations UX leaders are charged with defining product strategy. Some very disciplined organizations are able to manage product decisions through consensus/committee. We find that it works best to place responsibility for defining (and advocating) a product’s vision and strategy in a discrete role. Regardless of what strategy you choose, it’s extremely important to be very explicit and transparent about who is responsible for the different pieces of the puzzle.
How should companies or entrepreneurs who have an idea take the next step to planning out the full scope of the product?
That’s a great question! The barriers to building a digital product are lower than ever before — between cloud computing, mobile platforms/app stores, and sophisticated web app technologies, it’s easier than ever to craft and release a new product. Building the right one, however, is another matter. My advice is to dedicate two weeks to fully defining your idea — whether using the Design Sprint approach or a more ad hoc strategy, the most important factor is focus. Make sure those who are decision makers are primary stakeholders in the product also dedicate the majority of their time. Lastly, talk to people — talk to customers, stakeholders, competitors, subject matter experts, anyone you can connect with. Products created in a vacuum tend not to have a long lifespan.
Do you have a guide or cheat sheet for individuals new to the product consulting process?
Sure. We put together this guide as a Product Consulting 101 at L4 for a better visual representation of how we work throughout the lifespan of a product.
Image courtesy of Dustin Lee for Unsplash.