Are You a Closet Product Manager?

by Peg Bogema

I’m going to hazard a guess that if you work for a company that has software as its primary product, you know if you are a Product Manager. Maybe the job title is different, but the job description is clear.

On the other hand, if your employer produces software as an adjunct to something else that is more important—like hardware or professional services or tangible goods—you might be a Product Manager without being called a Product Manager. In fact, you might have a completely different job that absorbs 98% of your time with the spare 2% (insert snicker here) dedicated to something that could loosely be described as deciding-what-direction-a-software-product-is going-and-making-sure-that-it-gets-there-before-the-competition-beats-you-to-it.

So, if you realistically are a Product Manager there are a few things that you should know about how to be a good one.

Interact with End Users

To be a good Product Manager, you have to find both the time and the means to interact with the end users of your software.

Product development should not be done in a bubble. But that’s exactly where your software development team usually is. They get let out for fifteen minutes a day to see the sunlight, and then they are sent back into their darkened cube farm to sling code. All joking aside, the demands on the team are usually so great that they cannot spare the time to interact with customers.

So the Product Manager has to make every effort to interact with the end users so that he can champion their causes and needs.

Opportunities to interact with end users are abundant. Here are a few examples:

  • If your company goes to trade shows, this is an excellent place to meet up with your current user base as well as prospective users. Do everything possible to bring a full blown set-up so that you can observe end users as they exercise your product.
  • Go out on sales calls to client sites that already use your product. This provides an opportunity to see it in action.
  • Attend training sessions for new users or for users who are stepping up to new versions or features. This provides two different data sets. On the one hand, you get to see what users find difficult to understand or master. On the other hand, you get to hear their complaints about what the product doesn’t do that they were expecting it to do.
  • Invite end users in for round table discussions. There isn’t a rule about what to do or how to go about doing it. The point is to bring users in and talk with them about what they like, dislike, need, don’t need, etc. You can take their collective pulse and find out how interested they are in enhancements and features that are under consideration.
  • Occasionally engage human factors/usability personnel to conduct usability sessions with end users. In this type of session, the end user is observed while he or she interacts with the product. The human factors/usability personnel record what the users are able to do easily and intuitively versus what the users cannot figure out how to do or take a long time to do or grouse about doing. While it’s true that a software product may work, human factors/usability personnel can refine the product so that it is easier and more intuitive to use.

Study the Competition

You might be thinking, okay, yeah, maybe, sure, shucks, I’m a Product Manager, but the product I manage is only consumed internally. So what do I care what the “competition” is doing? It’s not like any of my end users can go someplace else. They have to use the product we’ve created internally. And that may be the case.

Or it may be that you’re just too busy to get your hands on the competition’s products—or even to figure out how to get your hands on the competition’s products.

But if you accept either circumstance, you are overlooking one of the easiest and best ways to figure out how to strengthen your product content.

I’m not advocating imitating your competitor’s products. Although if your competition offers something that is so obviously lacking in your product, you had better get busy and stick it in there.

What I’m advocating is looking at your product with an eye toward its completeness.

Just to give a simple example, one of our clients was developing a product that was functionally very competitive with other products in the same space. What they were not doing is mining all of the data that they are already collecting and presenting it in a dynamic reporting module. Exporting data into Excel, yes. Providing a few standard reports, yes. But just plain providing a dynamic view of the data, no. This was a simple enhancement to their product that made it infinitely more powerful and valuable to the end users—who, by the way, were all internal to the company.

There are numerous ways to get your eyes and hands on competitive products. Tradeshows are one great way. Trial licenses are another. Anything short of wasting a sales person’s time demonstrating a product is fair game.

Think and Plan Strategically

With an understanding of what the user community really needs and an understanding of what the competition is doing, it makes it easier to think and plan strategically. Ultimately, this is the real job of the Product Manager.

It is ridiculously easy to make a decision that wastes days or even months with little or no return on investment.
For an internal product, a new feature that will be used by one person is only worth it if that one person can put it to zillions of dollars worth of use. In most cases features need to be in broad demand or they need to realize a demonstrable cost or labor savings to be worth implementing.

For external products, a new feature that is important to only one client is going to give you one sale, right? Is the value of that sale going to cover the cost and time involved to implement it?

Even more important is the vision for the product. There must be one person who has the vision for where the product will be in six months, one year, two years, and beyond. That vision is what determines how features and functionality get added—the order, how fancy or plain they are, and so forth. This vision is created by being a bridge between those who have to sell the product, those who have to use the product and those who have to create the product. With all of their input in mind, a roadmap can be created that guides decision making concerning the product.

If you are a closet Product Manager, I hope this helps you. Good luck!
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