As the vice-president of product at Amplitude, a product analytics company that helps teams rapidly build products that work better for their users and grow their businesses, I work with hundreds of different product teams every year — ranging from startups with only a handful of engineers to large enterprises with thousands of product managers. Each of them wants to build a better product for their customers.
But this naturally raises a simple question: Why do companies need so much help building better products?
There are many reasons for this, but at its core it comes down to the fact that building digital products is innately difficult, and most companies are not great at it—especially companies that have only recently become digital enterprises. And the traditional ways of building and delivering product just don’t cut it in today’s product-led era, where sales and marketing take a backset to innately beautiful and user-friendly products that essentially sell themselves.
So in the mode of Ben Horowitz’s classic essay “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager”, I’ve captured my thoughts on what I believe makes a good product team vs. a bad one.
On solving customer’s problems
Good product teams are customer obsessed. They interact with their customers directly to get first-hand feedback. They bring the voice of the user right into the heart of decision making at every stage of the process. They ensure that everyone in product development — product management, design and engineering — are experts on the customer.
Bad product teams outsource customer understanding. They rely on second-hand feedback and see “the business” as a proxy for customers, gathering requirements through antiquated methods like MRDs. They rely on analysts to answer every question regarding user behavior, which delays decisions by days or even weeks of time. PMs will then ask for more dashboards, but whenever they need to explain why a metric changed, they say they’ll “get back to that next meeting” (and they never do).
Good product teams have a clear intention behind the customer problems they are solving
Good product teams learn how to fish versus having analysts fish for them. Bad product teams make decisions based on a best guess from recent and anecdotal evidence, reserving analytics resources only for ‘mission critical’ questions. They rely on the noisiest qualitative sources, like sales, customer support or app reviews, and can’t see the forest for the trees.
Good product teams don’t build for their customer today, they build for who their customer will become. They use data to inform product decisions, not validate decisions they’ve already made. They use product analytics to know how users are actually using their product, and don’t just rely on their best guess assumptions. They go beyond vanity metrics and have product analytics solutions that allow them to dive deep into their data to understand their customer’s journey.
On testing and refining…
Bad product teams lack a product strategy. If they have one, that strategy is not clearly delivered throughout their organization. They have a culture of being very reactive to the whims of upper management, which destroys entrepreneurial spirit and drive. They require six levels of reviews on every decision before they move forward because of dependencies and ‘turf wars’.
Good product teams understand the value of focus. They understand that having a product strategy means saying no many more times than saying yes. They have intention in their actions based on their core understanding of the problems they need to solve for. They set an aggressive 10x vision, but give the teams closest to the customer autonomy to figure out how to achieve that vision.
Bad product teams use agile as an excuse to not have a vision.
Good product teams iterate obsessively to test and refine their vision
Good product teams execute against their vision in 10% increments. They know that while you cannot substitute vision with data, you can better understand customer needs and test hypotheses about what customers want by utilizing data. They identify the riskiest assumptions and create experiments to test those assumptions. They build minimal valuable products that are narrative-complete, not feature complete. They constantly ask themselves if what they are focused on will have the biggest impact for their business.
Bad product teams claim that because they’re agile, they move quickly, but they still take three months to release a feature. They work in sprints, but nothing reaches the customer at the end of the sprint. They say they are lean, but instead of building a skateboard, they build a car without a steering wheel.
Good product teams are optimized for learning: They understand that the first attempt is always wrong, and can iterate quickly because they have access to product analytics data to discover what is and isn’t working for the customer. They recognize that to innovate means taking on the risk of breaking what you have today. Bad product teams live in fear of losing what they have today.
Bad product teams make excuses to not ship quickly and try to get it right on the first try. They say they celebrate failure, but they don’t give people the room to explore. Good product teams experiment patiently, accept failures and double down when they see customer delight.
On measuring success and failure
Good product teams measure themselves by outcomes, engagement, stickiness and retention, and can ultimately tie those things to revenue generation. Bad product teams measure themselves by outputs; story-point velocity, lines of code shipped or features delivered. Cost, schedule and scope rule the day.
Bad product teams follow a strict release schedule and are always behind. Their PMs see impact as having a thoroughly documented user story. When they finally complete their project, they move onto the next thing and never look back because “they’re done”.
Good product teams measure success and failure based on customer outcomes
Good product teams know that product is always evolving — learning is never done, and they put processes in place to make sure they come back to what’s important, even if that means deprecating a feature or product. Bad product teams instead operate in feature factories, constantly chasing the next shiny object in hopes of finding a silver bullet to save their product.
Good product teams understand that products are built with lead bullets — that you can’t 80/20 your way to everything and that there are certain things that you have to be better at than everyone else.
Bad product teams are organized in functional silos and point fingers at each other when they’re “behind.” They lack clarity around role definition — PMs and designers believe they need to “keep engineers busy.” Good product teams are organized around a shared view of the customer and common definitions of success. They clearly define who is accountable for what between PMs, Design and Engineering.
Good product teams articulate their goals ahead of time and share the impact that their work has against those goals (good and bad) to the entire company. Bad product teams celebrate shipping only, but don’t take the time to articulate impact. They believe that looking at product analytics is the responsibility of the PM team only, not the broader team.
Good product teams take the time to define a core set of critical metrics that matter for their customer. Everyone understands how their work impacts the broader goal for the company and what is most important to achieve. Bad product teams define every metric as a KPI, effectively making nothing important.
Do you have examples from product teams you’ve been a part of? I’d love to hear them.