2016 Product Themes
After years of dominance, the limits of Lean Startup as a product development methodology were exposed in 2016. Ted Ladd's research cast doubt on the effectiveness of test/learn/iterate as a route to product/market fit in Harvard Business Review.
At the same time, an emerging cohort of AI companies like x.ai (the creators of Amy, the personal assistant bot) proudly proclaimed themselves to be Anti-Lean.
These companies didn't just practise Anti-Lean product development, they were Anti-Lean in how they determined their pricing as well.
Paid was the new free in 2016. As startups realised that ad-supported products (like social networks) were zero sum games, they began to focus on monetisation sooner rather than later.
Madhavan Ramanujam carved an impressive niche as 'the price whisperer', advising founders and Product Managers to go price first, then product.
Others agreed, arguing that monetisation decisions influence product decisions to such a degree they need to be made upfront.
The good folks at NewNeuroMarketing claimed that primacy of price versus product depended on the nature of your product itself whilst Nick Kollenda went all in on the significance of factors like the size, colour and font of your price on a customer's purchase decision.
Julia Porneala had some tips for Product Managers on how to double their product's revenue. Some simply shared what they wished they'd known about product monetisation, so we could learn from their mistakes.
Long term was the new short term in 2016.
The good folks at Product Plan, always on point with great advice and insight for Product Managers, highlighted the constraints of short-term thinking when it comes to product and why PMs should start with a vision and a strategy.
Others dispelled common myths about what strategy is (and is not) and the importance of being unique. Like Michael Porter, they felt that strategy means defining the specific needs of a specific customer segment, then solving for them uniquely.
The irrepressible Marty Cagan was on great form in 2016. Ever the guru, he wrote a great piece on the difference between Product Strategy and Product Vision. The more product teams you have, he emphasised, the more important it is to have a unifying vision and strategy.
Melissa Perri enlightened us about the key determinants of a good Product Strategy, using Uber as an example.
John Cutler was ever-present in 2016, churning out content on Medium at an incredible rate. His analysis of Spotify’s Product Strategy was a great case study on why strategy means placing bets on the future.
Lastly, Julia Mitelman wrote about the separate histories of Product and Strategy and why the future will see them coming together.
Products are, in essence, value-delivery vehicles. No one illustrated this more clearly than Greylock’s Jerry Chen with his awesome deck on the Unit of Value. Jerry outlined the extent to which all founders and Product Managers need to understand their own product’s Unit of Value if they want to market and scale it effectively.
Ellen Gottsdiener deep dived into what value means in product development and, not surprisingly, found that it mean different things to different people.
Eric Blomquist’s team identified 30 ‘elements of value’ that products provide to consumers and advised all companies to ensure someone is responsible for managing and monitoring value.
Others saw products as a collection of pillars. Each pillar either communicates, demonstrates, delivers or extends the product's Unit of Value. All Product Managers should start by defining that value.
Storytelling in Product
As competition for user mindshare increases, the factors that separate truly great products from the merely good came under scrutiny.
Interest in the user's whole 'story', rather than just the product journey, intensified in 2016 with some claiming that storytelling in product was a critical differentiator.
Companies like AirBnB have been outspoken about their commitment to service excellence, going so far as to storyboard the customer experience, in the same way animation studios, like Disney, have done for decades.
Donna Lichaw can claim much of the credit for pioneering thinking around storytelling in product, thanks to the publication of her book on ‘Storymapping Products People Love’. According to Donna, products have a ‘story arc’, the same way films do.
WorldFirst’s Mark Wright wrote a thorough summary of the variety of storytelling techniques Product Managers can draw upon in November.
In many ways, storytelling in product is just a continuation of the tradition of 'user-centred design'. Like UCD, the user is always the hero at the centre of the story, never the technology itself.
Onboarding moved from art to science in 2016, thanks to torchbearers like Samuel Hulick applying forensic levels of analysis to almost every aspect.
Identifying design patterns was the order of the day. Shanelle Mullin identified 6 types of user onboarding and provided examples for each. Different types of product require different design patterns. Yinmeng Zhang gave us the Ultimate Guide to mobile Onboarding.
Luciano Vizzi argued that onboarding is all about user empowerment, about turning your user into a superhuman.
Some felt the origins of onboarding could be found in classic console games of the 80s. Appcues’ Jackson Noel found some pioneering techniques in games like Super Mario Bros and Tetris, many of which are still being used by products like Slack.
Appcues Ty Magin interviewed 8 product thought leaders and asked them to outline their top tips for onboarding.
Intercom pointed out that onboarding, rather than being a discrete phase, is actually a process that never ends.
2016 was a (very) good year for...
Clay Christensen's theory is the oldest 'new' theory in product. Over 20 years old, it received a much-needed shot in the arm this year with his latest book, Competing against Luck.
Goran Peuc listed some of the products that succeed because they understand their users' JTBD. Karen Dillon felt that AirBnB was the gold standard and Nikkel Blaase outlined how, by placing JTBD at the heart of the design process, Product Managers can avoid building products no one wants.
Jay Haynes brought us Thrv - the first JTBD software for Product Managers - and gave a great talk at Product Tank about how JTBD-thinking underpins high growth products.
Quartz made a big splash with their iOS app in February, which reimagined news as a conversation. For many, this was the first time they had seen 'bot as product'. Samuel Hulick was quick to publish his teardown which highlighted how well bots enable user onboarding.
MixPanel brought us an excellent summary of the ‘bot-ortunity’ afforded by messaging apps. We’re in a 'Bot Gold Rush', they proclaimed, and emphasised that bots represented a new platform of consumer products.
Greylock’s Sarah Guo preferred the term ‘conversational economy’ and provided her usual thorough analysis of the factors behind the rise of the Bots.
Amazon’s Echo, powered by Alexa, was the next product to really make an impact on people’s lives. Alexa was omnipresent in 2016 and many felt it could become the next smartphone in terms of its potential for global adoption.
NextView’s David Beisel brought us the term Voicescape and provided a handy map of all the players.
David Bland, ever the sceptic, was one of the few dissenting voices. His venn diagram brilliantly communicated the question of whether Bots are actually solutions looking for problems, rather than the other way around.
Machine Learning and Intelligent Products
Machine Learning was not a term most of us were familiar with a year ago. But, in 2016, it changed everything.
Sundar Pichai announced that Google was a ‘machine learning first’ company and a clash of the titans ensued between them, Amazon, Facebook and Apple as each embraced the technology.
Ken Norton seized the moment and brought us his Product Manager’s guide to Machine Learning, for those wondering where to start.
2016 was also the year everyone worried about machines stealing their job. But humanity’s greatest asset is an ability to adapt to changing circumstance. As such, it was encouraging to read Pari Natrajan’s presentation on how PM's should respond in the role of Product Management in the age of Intelligent Products.
Psychology in Product
Nir Eyal, was everywhere in 2016. Justifiably well regarded for his 'Hooked model' of product stickiness, Nir helped catalyse a wave of interest in the addictive properties of products like Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp.
Nir also produced a story about the ‘science of habit-forming products’ with Nathan Bashaw in the excellent new app, Hardbound.
Interest in the topic even reached mainstream publications like the Economist’s 1873, who highlighted concerns raised by some about the ethics of creating products that are more addictive than crack.
Sachin Rekhi went even further, breaking our behaviour down to its chemical components. Instead of creating addiction and compulsion, Sachin encouraged Product Managers to distil the 'science of happiness' and inject it into our products. Bravo.
The Design Sprint
GV's (aka Google Ventures) Design Sprint is a 5-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. A combination of the Lean Startup method and IDEO’s Human-Centred design process, it got turbo-charged this year by Design Partner Jake Knapp’s book, Sprint.
Ken Norton, also a partner at GV, interviewed Jake about the book and published their conversation on his blog.
For those in a hurry, Jake Knapp also produced a great summary video of what the Design Sprint is all about, lasting just 90 seconds.
New Haircut’s CEO, Jay Malone, broke down why management teams and executives should care about the Design Sprint, and exactly what problem it solves.
Starting a career in Product Management
This year we learnt that everyone wants to be a Product Manager. So, it was no surprise that thousands of people chose to set out on the path towards a Product Management career, and Ken Norton told us how to start.
Hunter Walk also had some great insights from his stellar career as Head of Product at YouTube.
2016 was not such a good year for...
Adding features to your product took a hammering in 2016.
Chargebee’s Sadhana Balaji compared successful Product Managers to world-class chefs like Jiro Ono whose greatness lies in their ability to reject unnecessary features and an ability to say ‘no’.
Sara Abaloufia warned us against ‘feature bloat’ and blessed us with a 4-tier approach to avoiding it.
Mongo DB’s Sam Weaver described the natural urge to add ‘more stuff’ to your product as the ‘feature fallacy’ and advised us to focus instead on soothing ‘user pain’ with each new development.
The Hamburger Menu
Hamburger menus have been ever-present in mobile products for years thanks to their simplicity and universal recognition. But product designers have always hated it, believing it constrains product discoverability and is an inefficient means of navigation.
Facebook lead the revolt, abandoning the hamburger in 2013. In 2016, Spotify did the same and spurred renewed attacks from the UX and design community about the need to abandon it altogether.
Stream’s Zoltan Kollin brought us a great list of hamburger alternatives for those wondering what the other options are.
2016 was the year we learnt...
What it means to be a Product Leader
Leadership is a topic of perennial interest in any industry and, as Product Management grows as a profession, the definition of what constitutes a leader in the field has grown accordingly.
Sachin Rekhi covered almost every subject of note this year and leadership was no exception. His how-to guide on Product Leadership was outstanding.
Credibility on this subject requires pedigree and few are more qualified than Rich Mironov, who was teaching before most of us were doing. His overview of how to move up to Product Director was suitably well-informed.
That other product veteran, Steve Sinofsky, also had a great year content-wise. MixPanel interviewed him in depth for their eBook on product leadership. His anecdotes from years spent building some of the most popular software products ever (at Microsoft) were as compelling as they were insightful.
To pay down our Debt
Most of us are familiar with technical debt and, for those who aren’t, Kellan wrote a great summary of the issues that affect it whilst Phorest’s John Doran discussed why PMs need to convert that debt from time to time.
2016 brought us an increasing awareness of the other types of debt.
These include Product Debt, which is the challenge of keeping your value proposition consistent across multiple channels.
There is also Design Debt, which is usually incurred as a result of multiple experiments being run in parallel.
How to recruit Product Managers (like a boss)
2016 brought an upsurge in advice and guidance about how to recruit Product Managers and build teams.
Rich Mironov had much wisdom to impart about what recruiters look for in Product Manager resumes, whilst DropBox’ Todd Jackson outlined his entire playbook for recruiting elite candidates in an excellent interview with FirstRound.
David Cancel, with masterful provocation, insisted he never hired anyone with experience as a Product Manager. This predictably unleashed an outpouring of dissent, criticism and counter, most notably from Rich Mironov (again) who explained why he always put experience first.
Square’s Gokul Rajaram was equally candid about his hiring criteria. He never hires externally, preferring instead to convert existing employees to the role.
There was much debate about the different qualities required for a VP of Product vs a Product Manager and OpenView sat down with PM leaders from Facebook and Joinme to discuss the challenges they faced attracting great candidates.
Product Marketing is as important as the Product itself
It’s easy to be fooled by the notion that a great product sells itself. Unfortunately for Product Managers, this is rarely, if ever, true.
Mitchell Harper pointed out that no one is going to care about your product unless you can convince them they need it, irrespective of quality.
Dave Bailey outlined why startups often fail to market until it’s far too late. In his view, marketing starts at the same time as product development, not at some point after launch.
Meanwhile, ClassPass’ CMO, Joanna Lord, explained why product marketing is more about knowing what to build in the first place than positioning a product after the fact.
In her view, all product teams should hold ‘slay days’ as well as hack days, where everyone works on support tickets until the CX team reaches inbox zero.
Product Quote of the Year
This year’s shortlist was long and illustrious.
Paul Graham neatly summed up the relationship between product and growth when he tweeted,
“What's the trick to fundraising? Rapid growth. What's the trick for getting growth? A great product.”
Uber founder Garrett Camp puts things into perspective when he observed,
”I don't think about disruption. I just think about building a product that people want to use.”
And Basecamp’s CEO, Jason Fried, addressed the problem of chronic short-termism that affects all Product Managers when he wrote,
"Launching is not hard. Coming up with an idea is not hard. Making something is not hard. It’s everything that comes after that.”
However, Quote of the Year has to go Mark Thomas who did a fine job of distilling the essence of Product Management into 100 words. No easy feat.
”Prioritize. Have strong opinions, weakly held. Plug the gaps. Launch and iterate. Know the user. People > products. Create team culture. Always overcommunicate. Work with people whose strengths and weaknesses complement your own. Take good notes. Your calendar is sacred. There is no such thing as an easy launch; launching good enough > never launching.Have fun, detatch, do not burn out. Always have a 20% project. Follow passions and connect the dots later. Always have a cofounder. Begging forgiveness > asking permission. Embrace the struggle. Take big risks; your failures won’t matter in two years and your successes could change the world.”