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World of Product: Trends and Insights Part 2

A two-part interview series from Userlane with top experts in product management covering how to approach the more challenging aspects of the profession and what it takes to put the customer first.

As promised, here’s the second part of our product management trends and insights round-up series. 

We love hearing first-hand about what’s happening in the world of product. It’s always useful and important to see what other product managers are up to in different companies. We’re sure you’ll get some valuable nuggets of wisdom and some inspiration from the professionals we’ve interviewed.

For this round, we’ve changed the questions from the last post (to ensure that you get different views on various important topics and tasks in product management), but the structure remains the same: A brief introduction to each product manager and then the Q&A section. 

Happy reading! 

Meet the Experts

Julio Behambari, Principal Product Manager at Best Companies

Best Companies offers various tools, services, methodologies, workshop programs, and expertise to enable organizations to understand their employees, helping them recognize, measure, and improve workplace engagement. 

banner of julio behambari, principal product manager at best companies

Pierre Aulagne, CEO of IZIKA

IZIKA is a software company that transforms your online schedules/ appointments (Google, icalendar, Outlook) into mileage reimbursements with 100% automatic management of data releated to road travel, distances, duration, etc.

banner of pierre aulaugne, ceo izika

Julia Schirmer, Head of Product at Userlane

Userlane is the software adoption platform for enterprise companies that provides users with a fully interactive experience. With Userlane, users are guided step-by-step in real-time in any browser-based software application, allowing them to become power users of the application right from the very beginning. 

banner of julia schirmer, head of product at userlane

Vazgen Babayan, Senior Product Manager at Workfront

Workfront is a modern work management platform that connects enterprise work, collaboration, and digital content into an Operational System of Record. The platform helps companies transform their businesses into more modern enterprises, thereby helping them to increase their revenue and improve their customer experience.  

banner of vazgen babayan, senior product manager at workfront

Sujan Patel, Co-Founder of Mailshake and Managing Director at Ramp Ventures

Mailshake is a cold email outreach tool for sales and marketing. The platform empowers people to have more conversations, qualify more leads, and close more deals by giving them the tools, templates, and automation needed to see more ROI from their efforts. 

banner of sujan patel, founder of mailshake

Q&A: Prioritization, Communication, and a Bit of Fun!

As a product manager, you have to be able to say “no” when it comes to feature requests/ prioritization, etc. How do you handle this? How do you deal with backlog/ prioritization?

JB:

Saying “no” is far easier when there is a strategy in place, whether that be company, product, or both. Having a strategy enables you to link everything you do, such as features and changes, back to it, which means if there is anything that falls outside of that strategy, then you ultimately have an easier job of pushing back.

It isn’t always as binary as this of course, and there are times when you have to say no, even when they are good ideas or do fit with the strategy. If you can always justify value when comparing and putting everything in perspective, i.e. saying no to X because Y will deliver more value, then your life as a product manager will be much easier! 

Using a prioritization scorecard is something I feel is very useful as you can score each element of a feature, such as complexity, effort to develop, contribution to strategy, and the likelihood of increasing acquisition or retention percentage. Each feature can be scored side-by-side based on the above criteria, which allows you to prioritize based on numbers rather than feeling or opinion alone.

PA:

We have a set of rules that makes it very easy for us to choose between the different options and to order things in the backlog. 

Requesting a feature or prioritization of features relies on their return on investment. For us, return on investment is not forcibly associated with money. It’s very often associated with customer satisfaction. For example, we have spent quite a lot of money on product design because we believe that most of the marketing has shifted from the internet into our applications.

It’s not very obvious to calculate the return on investment, but we can have a broad idea in most cases.

JS: 

As a product manager, I always need to ensure that stakeholders understand that a “no” to one request is most often in favor of another request. So the question is very rarely an infinite “no” but rather a prioritization topic.

The clearer the product strategy and product principles of a company are defined, the easier it will be to apply the prioritization criteria.

We are using a mixture of import/effort matrix extended with some individual Userlane criteria.

VB:

You will always get push from the business to deliver this one feature that is critical to one customer, and what you’ll need to be able to provide is the tradeoffs. And the key here is to have data to back up what you say. What will happen if we prioritize this backlog item over the other? Will we lose some money in the short term but gain more money in the long term? Vice versa? Those are the questions you will need to have data-backed answers to.

Describe the ideal communication between a product manager and a developer when working on a new feature.

JB:

The ideal communication is communication that is open right from the beginning, preferably from the conception of the idea. Discussing a feature with a developer when the idea has been brewing for a while already means the developer is on the back foot and playing catch up.

Ideally, when the idea is fresh, that’s when a developer should be involved. This way you get the benefit of another perspective, a chance to further innovate, and to see if the feature is possible whilst picking out any potential technical issues or pitfalls. It is much easier to pivot direction or approach before development has started rather than during development itself.

Once development has started, daily communication in the form of stand-ups is my preference, although this should be standard if your organization follows the Scrum framework for development. 

Outside of this, you should be open to being able to chat with your developer face-to-face, via phone calls, or by even using Microsoft Teams or Slack. This, of course, is all dependent on local or remote working teams. 

I always find using applications such as Slack when working with remote developers a fantastic way to communicate. Issues are discussed there and then and tweaks are made to the feature easily through the sharing of ideas and updates of requirements.

PA:

There is not one ideal world regarding communication between product managers and developers.

For the product developer, the best-case scenario is when the developer is willing to work in an agile environment, that is to say, iterations of the product, restarting many times from scratch … .

What we tend to do is put marketing ahead of product development because, at the end of the day, only the customer will know if it was a good idea.

JS:

A product manager needs to gain a technical understanding in order to understand what developers are doing, how they do it, and why they do it.

Similarly, developers need to gain a business understanding in order to understand what the problems of the customers are, what solution the product manager has defined to solve this, and why specifically this one and not another.

VB:

First, you ideate together on the potential solutions for the job to be done. The customer has a problem that you try to solve and you collaborate with developers on how you can solve that problem. 

That will uncover different potential solutions with different scope, UX, and ROI. You will then decide on the best solution together and proceed with fleshing out the details of the solution. The developers can provide a lot of technical constraints for you to take into account and cases that you need to decide how to handle.

During the development process, there may be questions that were not covered before starting the story – developers raise those to you and you decide on the best resolution of those together.

The general idea is that the product manager doesn’t give directions on implementation before hearing out the potential solutions from developers.

SP:

Alongside the detailed spec of the new feature, a product manager should share customer stories and include direct feedback, conversations, and any information that the customer shared with the developer. 

From there, the communication can be broken up into two parts: First discussing the problem and feature that they are going to create, and second the scope, specifics of how/what to build, timeline, etc. 

The first part of the conversation is more a brainstorming exercise, which allows the developer to chime in and contribute to the actual feature.

What aspect of being a product manager do you find the most and least interesting?

JB:

The most interesting aspect of being a product manager is learning about your users and how they use your product. There is something so satisfying about rolling out a new product or feature and monitoring usage and behavior via various analytics and user behavioral tools.

You end up having a mix of quantitative and qualitative data, which on their own can be difficult to comprehend. However, using them together to conclude or tell a story about your user is extremely interesting and very powerful. 

This data is invaluable for making decisions about your product, so it makes sense that this area is interesting! Any product manager worth one’s salt should find user behavior and data interesting and exciting!

The least interesting aspect of the role is a tough one because I genuinely love my job and everything it involves day to day. However, sometimes you can get bogged down in the ‘admin’ of the role, and this can be in the form of updating features, moving items in the backlog, or changing statuses, etc. 

It’s not that this sort of activity is not interesting, it’s just that the role of the product manager is so varied and involved that any sort of work which requires you to sit down and tidy up your backlog seems a lot less energizing than normal!

PA:

Being a product manager is a very interesting evolution from marketing. It makes it possible for me to put into action what I’ve learned about customers, acquisition, retention, and the wow effect. It is very exciting since it makes it possible to mobilize all the capabilities that I have learned over the last 20 years.

The least interesting thing is to have to prioritize. Putting a good thing in the backlog can be very frustrating!

JS:

Most interesting:

Strategically planning bigger projects, keeping in mind what dependencies they have between each other, and always thinking about what customers will need in a year from now on top of what they need now.

Least interesting:

As a product manager, I also cover the role of a project manager within a project in order to organize and keep track of all the different work tasks of other stakeholders involved in the whole feature development cycle.

VB:

Most interesting for me would be analyzing the data patterns and uncovering potential gaps in the flow that you can address and increase the value of the product.

And the least interesting is the project management part of the job where you have to handle dependencies and follow delivery process. Also, trying to delegate that work as much as possible.

What is your feedback loop with customers who share ideas?

JB:

Currently, due to the cyclical nature of our organization, most of our users use certain products at certain times of the year so this has enabled us to target them for mass feedback at the end of the calendar year when the spike in usage is tailing off and ready for the new cycle. 

We do this as a feedback campaign with surveys. This is an opportunity for our customers to provide us with feedback on our process, products, and service as a whole.

A lot of great feedback comes from this campaign, and we spend a long time analyzing it, creating trends, grouping ideas and features, and updating our product roadmap. We then get in touch with all our customers, who had the opportunity to provide us with feedback, and let them know about all the features and changes we have introduced based on some of their feedback.

Due to the size of our client base, a product marketing campaign is the chosen approach for a loop with a mix of graphics, bullet points on enhancements, and not to mention a big thank you to them for taking the time to provide us with valuable information. 

We supplement this with a press release also as we want to expand the scope of our audience. We want to contact not just the customers who provided feedback but all other potential customers as we want to promote that we actively listen and enhance our products and services based on our interactions with our customers.

It is so important that there is a feedback loop with customers. As a customer of many products and services myself, I will very rarely give feedback unless there is something in it for me. I want to be in the knowledge that the feedback I give is listened to and at least reviewed. 

This is especially true in the B2B world, when you are asking busy professionals to take 10 minutes out of their already manic day to provide you with information. They are already using many products and services that are more than likely trying to grab their attention too so why would they give you their time if there’s no benefit to them?

PA: 

Our feedback loop is contacting customers individually by email thanking them for their ideas, discussing their ideas with them, challenging their ideas, saying that we need more information to implement them, trying to squeeze all the juice we can get from these customers’ ideas. 

In fact, we are so close to our customers that they are our product managers … I have called some of them and spent one hour on the phone, which was the best return on investment I could get.

JS:

The coolest role we have here at Userlane is our UX Researcher. That role is continuously in contact with prospects, customers, internal stakeholders, and partners to identify any issues at any stage.

When releasing new features we love, our BETA feature process, which allows a handful of customers to test the feature at an early stage, provides direct feedback to the product managers and that can influence the product development on UX as well as on a functional level too.

VB:

We have a community portal where customers can submit ideas and upvote those. We have a defined SLA for providing a response to the ideas that pass a certain threshold, but we are also free to engage customers directly on the same portal.

In addition to that, we contact customers we identify based on the data usage and collaborate closely with them in the scope of targeted Alpha and Beta programs. Collaboration can take the form of customer calls, on-site visits, in-app surveys, etc. 

SP:

It’s very simple: If a customer suggests a feature our customer success team follows up when the feature is live to let them know. This is the same if it were one specific customer or if it were 20 customers. If it’s more than 20 or so customers, then we usually update all customers via our newsletter and include a thank you message for pointing out the feature.

Fun question: How would you explain product management to a child?

JB:

Product management is a process that helps an idea grow into a ‘product’ that people want, need, or will eventually want. A product can be a toy to play with, a medical device to make you better, an item of clothing or even an app to allow you to watch your cartoons on your tablet!

PA: 

It is the person who decides how powerful and where the buttons will be on your Nintendo. All this is based on your age, the games you want to play, and who you are going to play them with.

JS:

I would describe myself as a translator. I get information from the customer that I need to interpret and then translate into another language so that my building team can understand it.

VB: 

I discover problems and work with other people to solve those!

Wrapping it up: Is Product Management Your Dream Job?!

Well, that’s a wrap on our product management round-up series part 2. We might have another one in the pipeline, so keep an eye out for that!

Product management is definitely becoming a more popular career choice – it’s dynamic, fast-paced, exciting, and challenging. And as you can see from the answers above, communication, teamwork, and project management skills are an absolute must. And not only do you get to work with internal teams, but you also get to work closely with customers and play an active role in ensuring that they get the most benefit and value from your product, which is an incredibly rewarding process. 

Perhaps these product managers have given you the motivation to kick-start your own career in product management? Maybe you’ll be the next innovator of a product we don’t even know we need yet?

If you haven’t downloaded our User Onboarding Experience Guide yet, you should do so! Why? Because having a really innovative product means nothing if your users don’t know how to use it and leverage all its functionalities fully. Knowing how to onboard your users and deliver a smooth UX is the first step to your product’s success. 

User experience onboarding ebook cover

Written by Tracey Ruff

Tracey is a Marketing and Content Specialist at Userlane. She is passionate about writing and social media (Instagram in particular) and is keen to start her own vlog. She has a Master of Arts degree in English Literature and has plans to pursue her PhD in the near future. Currently writing about Learning and Development and User Onboarding, Tracey is excited about how the tech industry - especially relating to SaaS products - is evolving. She also loves living and working in Germany (and may or may not be slightly obsessed with Taylor Swift and cats).

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