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3 things we learned about product management from INDUSTRY: The Product Conference

| October 12, 2018
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More than 500 product managers from across the country assembled for the INDUSTRY: The Product Conference in Cleveland, Ohio earlier this month. Representing a huge variety of vertical markets and company sizes, they gave us a great sampling of what’s happening in product management across the economy. Product managers are signing up for UserTesting in increasing numbers, so we went to the conference to listen and learn. Here are three big themes we heard:

  •       Problem discovery is critical
  •       There’s power in collaboration and continuous discovery
  •       Every PM is unique

Problem discovery is critical to agile development

Agile development teaches us that to build a successful product, we should start with a minimum viable product—very simple and very limited—and rapidly iterate, based on customer reactions. That principle has produced a lot of innovation, but it also produces failures, pointed out speaker and product visionary Ash Maurya.

Ash has observed that if an agile team starts with a bad MVP, there’s no way for them to iterate to success because they can’t get that initial traction with customers. As he put it, “Throwing stuff on the wall is no way to pivot.”

So problem discovery, the process by which you get ideas for an MVP, becomes a critical success point for product development. If a team gets bad ideas or falls in love with its own thinking, it’s on the road to failure no matter how quickly it iterates. The answer, Ash said, is to get heavy interaction with customers at the start, and to focus on the outcomes they need, not on the tools you’re building.

The power of collaboration and continuous discovery

Continuing Ash’s the theme of the importance of discovery, product coach Teresa Torres listed the three mindsets of successful product teams:

The collaborative mindset

Close collaboration between the product manager, tech lead, and design lead is essential. They each have unique expertise, and they all need to be in the room for key decisions. She encouraged teams to also include other players as appropriate, such as QA and data analysis, but she emphasized the need for clear lines of authority so you can avoid consensus decision-making and opinion battles, both of which slow a team down.

The continuous mindset

Teresa encourages teams to practice continuous discovery throughout the development process, which means interacting with customers every single week to ensure that their needs are always top of mind. But she cautioned teams not to ask “whether or not” questions like “should we add this feature?” There’s rarely an idea that’s perfectly good or perfectly bad, so instead of focusing on one, you should compare several ideas to see which one is better.

The experimental mindset

She strongly encouraged product teams to learn ways to discover product ideas without building code. That can involve prototyping or other exploratory methodologies, but what it definitely doesn’t involve is AB testing. AB tests are outstanding for improving existing products, she said, but they’re incredibly resource-intense as a way to discover needs because you have to build the product before you start testing it. Using AB tests for discovery, Teresa said, is like using bloodletting for health care: Applicable in a few very special cases, but otherwise a threat to the patient.

Every PM is unique

We had a private dinner with about 20 product managers, and also a lot of conversations with others throughout the conference. What impressed us most (other than their high energy and eagerness to learn) is that every PM’s situation is unique. Although product management is a long-established institution in Silicon Valley, in most of the country it’s still a relatively new discipline. Every company implements it a little differently, based on company culture, the needs of their particular industry, individual skill sets, and many other factors.

And, to be honest, even in Silicon Valley, the role of the PM varies dramatically from company to company.

That means a conference like INDUSTRY can’t focus on delivering a single standard set of rules for product management. The best you can do is have everyone share “here’s what works for me” and then you try to adapt that to your own conditions. It means you’ll sometimes hear advice that’s not relevant to your needs, or that you already knew long ago. But it’s important to pay attention because you never know when a new insight will come your way.

But one theme we did hear from PMs consistently throughout the conference is that they have the hunger to get more and better customer insights. As one PM asked us during the dinner, “Help us be better anthropologists.”

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