With the birth of our first son last summer, I quickly learned that being a parent is hard. I had spent months preparing by reading baby books, getting advice from YouTube (a horrible idea), and receiving suggestions from family and friends. Finally, I thought I was ready for the job, but once the baby arrived, I realized that the advice I had heard made no sense.
There had to be a better way. So I started thinking about the tools and frameworks I was familiar with as a product manager (PM) and put them in my new parenting context. I discovered that my life had simplified, and my son seemed happier. I would like to share my learnings and convince you that being a parent can be easier when you approach it through product management.
I am also writing this article because I haven’t seen much discussion about parenting amongst men in the tech community. I hope this story can break down some of the tech-bro stereotypes and acknowledge that it is OK to be passionate about technology and be a good parent at the same time.
But first, I would like to start with a disclaimer: I am not a child-caring expert (but then again, who is?). The ideas I am about to share worked for me, but they may or may not work for your child. Every child is unique, so you must use these concepts at your discretion. The ideas were developed for children 12 months and younger, but some frameworks may also apply to older children.
The Product Manager — Parenting Gap
Parenting can be chaotic, especially if you are a new parent lacking pro-level mom or dad skills. Some of the most difficult challenges as a new parent can be:
- Difficulty understanding a baby's needs due to the communication barrier. Understanding a newborn can be difficult. Wouldn’t it be great if we could ask them what they wanted?
- Rapid Changes. Just as you feel like you know what you are doing, the baby changes habits and quickly humbles you to your core.
- Lack of Structure. As a new parent, you are thrown into a chaotic world. Forming routines is hard, especially in the first few months.
No wonder why many new parents struggle when facing these challenges! At first, it might not seem obvious how PMs have the ideal skill set to tackle these challenges. So, let’s see if we can close the product manager-parenting gap by understanding what a PM really does.
If I were to summarize (and oversimplify) the role of product managers, I would say that we do three key things:
3 Key Product Management Tasks
- Finding product-market fit. We strive to understand customers, their needs, and existing market solutions. We then use this information to create value propositions and design products with unique value-adding feature sets that (hopefully) customers will love.
- Identifying features of value. We identify the features that matter through data-driven hypotheses, create experiments to test the premises, and validate our ideas.
- Going from A to B. We make roadmaps that show how to go from our current state to the desired product vision and guide our teams through the trenches of software creation despair.
Product managers have all the skills we need to take care of a baby. First, we can understand our (baby) customers and frame and prioritize their needs. Second, we can navigate the complicated baby market landscape by determining what products will benefit our children. Third, we can navigate a structureless environment and help our child go from A to B. In the same way, PMs help stakeholders and teams navigate uncertainty. (Don’t tell your VPs I just compared them to a baby.)
Poor Baby Product Design
Nothing frustrates a PM more than a poorly designed product. As a new dad, I was shocked when walking around Buy Buy Baby at how many poor baby products there are. Two product categories emerged in the store:
- Cheap baby products. These are low-margin, high-volume goods. These products tend to cut corners on safety, practicality, and child development.
- Marketing-driven baby products. These high-margin products target the emotional buyer and make unsubstantiated claims about how they will benefit your children, often branding themselves as Montessori or organic products.
What drives me nuts are products that do not consider how the customer (baby) actually uses the product or how it affects their physical development. Let me give you an example.
This is my diaper changing station. At first glance, it seems like the baby will have fun playing with the sun toy and cloud mirror while you are changing their diapers. Try seeing the changing station from the baby's perspective by placing your head on the rubber mat and looking up.
This is a big UX mistake as the child can not see the toy as intended! Proper user-testing from the baby’s perspective could have identified this design flaw. Unfortunately, this seems to be a case where they only did testing from the parent's perspective.
Other poorly designed baby products include baby walkers, Bumbo seats, and suction bowls. Baby walkers force the baby to walk on their toes, which causes a shortening of the Achilles tendon. As a result, children learn to walk later and may walk on their toes for many years. Bumbo seats help the child sit upright at an early age but restrict the development of the trunk, core, and rotational muscles. This results in your child learning to sit and support themselves at a later age, where the lack of development of core muscles can impact their ability to play and crawl. Finally, suction bowls and plates seem like a great idea in practice, but anybody who has ever tried them knows that they do not work, and your baby's food will end up on the floor.
Your skills as a PM will help you identify these flawed baby products and pick the ones that actually work (and also allow you to create your own line of user-centric baby products).
Understanding Your Customer
As PMs, we know everything starts with understanding our customers and their user needs. The challenge is that we have difficulty relating to our little customers because we view the world through an adult lens. Therefore, I have identified five keys to understanding your baby customer.
- "Bempathy” (Baby empathy). Although babies are small and cute, it is easy to believe that they are emotionally underdeveloped compared to adults. In fact, the opposite is true! Babies feel all the same emotions that we do as adults. Perhaps the only difference is that they cycle through them faster than most adults. Try to read your baby and understand their feelings, which will get you one step closer to identifying the current need.
- Time travel. Think back to your earliest memories as a child. Remember how you used to climb up on the living room couch or how you reached up to the door handle? How your parent seemed like giants? How did you feel when your mom gave you ice cream?
Your baby lives in this world of giants and constant discovery, and you need to time travel back to your childhood to get into the right mindset.
- See the world through their eyes. I mean this literally. Get down on the ground and observe the room from their perspective. What does the furniture look like? What’s under the couch? What objects became more interesting, and which ones are dull? Also, consider what your baby can and can’t see relative to their age. Babies are near-sighted and can only see specific colors when they are young.
- What does the baby want? Baby needs and desires are pretty simple, so do not overthink things. Your baby is not playing mind games with you (although it may sometimes feel like it). More on customer needs in part two of this series.
- Forget all your life experience. This may sound odd, but I think this is a crucial step toward truly understanding your customer. Without trying to get to meta here...society is a construct of rules people have created for order, power structures, and wealth. Nothing has to be the way it is. Everything is organized that way for various historical reasons. Imagine if all these made-up rules disappeared overnight and the world was a clean slate...that is the world your baby sees, and it’s the mindset you must have.
As you can see, the skills of a PM are invaluable for a new parent. We’ve only skimmed the surface, however. In part two, we’ll discuss your customer's needs, a framework for mapping solutions to those needs, and how to prioritize them. So, check back soon for part two.