While there isn’t a formula to building great products, there are well-worn best practices. Below, I’ll explore the steps to building a valuable product and how you can carry these practices into other parts of your professional life. If you aren’t focused on product development in your current role, think of these best practices as ways to recession-proof your career as a utility player.
7 Product Management Lessons for Career Advancement
- Build on a stable foundation.
- Ask the right questions.
- Always test your solutions.
- Design your solutions with others.
- Use your cutting room floor liberally.
- Build relationships with key contributors.
- Always solve for end users.
1. Build on a Stable Foundation
First, we can start with a question: When you build a house, do you want a rock-solid foundation or one you’ve half-assed because you were so excited to put the framing on? If you start with a bad foundation it can eventually cause everything on top of it to collapse. It’s the same thing with building products, and especially with building your career. Take the time to lay the foundation the right way.
2. Ask the Right Questions
To build a stable foundation for a product — and for your career — you need to push yourself to ask and answer the right questions. Here are a few key early questions to consider:
7 Questions Every Product Manager Should Ask
- What underlying problem am I solving?
- Who are the key personas (target users or customer segments)?
- Have I set the right goals and KPIs to measure success?
- Why would a customer use this? Why would a customer choose my product? Is it an efficiency play? Is the product impacting someone’s life in a meaningful way?
- Do I know enough about the area I am building in? Is there data to support my idea(s) at a macro level (industry and beyond) and a micro level (competitors)?
- Can I project longevity with the product or do I need a multi-dimensional product roadmap?
- Have I developed a one-pager and shopped it around to key stakeholders and people I trust to gain candid feedback?
It’s always important to start by answering the questions “Why am I doing this?” and “Is it worth the investment of resources and time?” Looking at your projects and products through the lens of the opportunity cost is crucial because it puts a dollar amount on the human hours going into the build and forces you to make sure your project is a valuable one on which team members should focus.
As you work through these key foundational questions, you’ll gain clarity and increase your confidence in making decisions to move forward. Once you decide you’ve found the right problem to solve, have the right solution (or at least a damn good hypothesis), then you know it’s worth the time you are about to invest in it. Next, it’s time to pressure test the idea.
3. Always Test Your Solutions
The scientific method never fails. Developing a hypothesis is critical to building a product. At Value Creation Labs, we like to begin hypothesis development with psychographic analysis, which allows us to narrow down the list of prospective targeted customers early on so we’re not developing something that’s too scatter shot. Defining the personas are extremely important so you aren’t trying to be everything to everyone, which never really works. In other words, if you are trying to make everyone happy, you’ll fail and nobody will be happy.
Next, prove your hypothesis by putting the solution in some shape or form in front of prospective users. Put another way, put your ideas in front of an audience or focus group before you release it to the world (or even just your entire team). This is UXR (user experience research and testing). This is an area in which most businesses spend way too little time and resources, but can significantly help cut costs. If you validate your ideas and solution(s) before you put it into production, you’ll be more likely to ship a product people will actually use or buy. User research and testing will also help you understand certain aspects or your product that you can improve before you start shipping to users. You should set tests up in ways that help answer key questions or main elements of your hypothesis.
At this point, you’re continuing to pour the concrete and ensuring the foundation on which you set the framing will be stable and sound. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and want to skip user testing, but here’s some advice from people who have in the past:
4. Design Your Solution With Others
After testing and iterating on the product experience to ensure you’ve validated the ideas and feel good about the projected outcomes, it’s time to start hashing things out within the entire product team. This may all happen at different cadences, and product folks may choose to use different approaches, but we feel pretty confident that, if you answer at least a few key questions up front and get feedback, you will be far more likely to succeed in your product journey.
Developing design concepts based on user testing, data and proving (or disproving) a hypothesis is always a fun part of the creative process. This is when you determine how the UI and customer-facing experience will work. If you’ve followed the right steps, at this point, you have all the right materials to build the house, and now it’s just about executing. At this point, it’s time to bring in key contributors and stakeholders to ensure you have buy-in. As with any project, you want to bring along these important collaborators to create a unified front towards solving the problem.
5. Use Your Cutting Room Floor Liberally
During the concepting and design process, the team will almost certainly come up with tons of great ideas. It’s important the product leader ground the team and help them remain focused by resisting the urge to add every bell and whistle; this can delay shipping the product and its potential impact. Remember: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
A backlog will naturally come from these conversations, white boarding sessions and prototyping. This is another crucial point where the product leader should capture ideas and appropriately pop them in the backlog to ensure there is order in the process. Prioritization is necessary to determine features based on customer impact and cost to build. Mapping a minimum viable product (MVP) is a great way to stay focused and avoid getting caught up in layering on more than what is truly necessary to get your product in the hands of users.
In summary, you may need to leave some great ideas on the cutting room floor, but just make sure you capture them in your backlog for the future. Building products is an iterative process, much like building businesses.
6. Build Relationships With Key Contributors
From here, many additional steps follow that fall on the product owner to flex their skills as an interpersonal communication leader. In tandem with building and executing a short-, mid- and long-term product roadmap (something that’s both an art and a science), you will want to build close relationships with your engineering, analytics, design, security and marketing teams so you can plug them into the process. It’s not easy, but it’s fun if you love the challenge of being a general manager of your own domain. Forging personal relationships with all of the key contributors, from the most junior to the most senior will pay dividends when (not “if”) the waters get turbulent and you need to rally the troops.
7. Always Solve for End Users
Stability in the early stages of product planning (i.e., focus and discipline in what you want to do and why) will strengthen your foundation as you get into the build. So often we build products based on personal preferences or unvalidated ideas, but you have to stay objective in your approach. You aren’t solving for you but for your prospective customers or users and the actual challenges they face. Take the time early in the process to pressure test every aspect you can think of and validate to the best of your ability. It’s okay for the idea to not prove out. In fact, it would be a lot worse if you spend four to six months building something that no one ends up using, and then your ass is on the line to make it work.This applies to everything we do, whether or not it’s a shippable product. Whatever it is you do, make sure you’re working toward solving a problem that actually needs solving and creating solutions that people can actually use.
So, build on a stable foundation and have fun doing it. Now, go have an impact on the digital world!