We are back with the monthly interview series. All our past interviews were with veterans of the industry. This time we have an young and emerging thought leader of Product Management – Rohini Venkatraman of So You Want to Manage a Product fame. Here we go:
Rohini: In my first role as a Product Manager, one of my tasks was to submit an application to the Mac App Store. As part of this process, I was asked to design our sales page. I took my assignment literally and jumped right in to get my hands dirty with Photoshop. After creating a page I thought was beyond awesome, I emailed the page to my manager. His response was not dripping with praise as I expected. Instead it read, “Great. Did this come from our designer? I’d like to push her on color scheme.” Designer?! I asked my computer. What is he talking about? This is how I learned that, especially at a larger corporation, a product manager does not create visual designs. She also does not write code. Your designer is your design expert. Your engineer is your programming expert. And, you, the product manager, are the expert on whether the design and functionality meet the specific user need at hand.
Product Mantra: What should a Product Manager be cautious about?
Rohini: As the product manager for a small business lending product, my goal was to improve the small business financing process. I spent a lot of time talking to small business owners about their attempts to receive financing. When asked what could be different about the process, many said that they needed the process to be faster — the long process was disruptive to their business. Based on this feedback, my team tested an idea where small businesses could apply and get pre-approved for financing online in minutes. The shocker? Even when they were quickly approved for a loan, businesses didn’t jump at the money. As we started to observe their behaviors and probe further, it became clear that while people said that the process needed to be faster, what they really needed was education around their options and guidance in choosing the best one. Had we built out a product solely based on what people said they needed, we would have ignored the opportunity to build a product that people actually needed. Among other things like looking both ways before crossing the street, a product manager should be cautious about distinguishing between needs and wants of key stakeholders. Not just needs and wants of customers, but also those of engineers, designers, and management. This can be difficult because needs and wants are often conflated. People tend to express wants as needs. It’s up to the product manager to tease the two apart, then prioritize the needs. Needs are the minimum requirements that solve a big problem for customers, that achieve team goals, and that validate the business opportunity. Wants can wait. Without clearly making this distinction, you risk wasting a lot of company time and resources and building something that nobody wants or needs.
Product Mantra: Intuition is very important for a good Product Manager. How do you develop intuition?
Rohini: To me, this question is really asking, “How do (good) product managers always seem to have the right answer?” I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s not intuition. Good product managers are continually doing their research — competitor analyses to understand the market in which their product lives, user research to profoundly understand the customer problem at hand, facilitiating team conversations to understand technical paths and design decisions, organizing cross-functional discussions to understand implications on the business — so that they know everything there is to know about their product and roadmap at any given point. This means that when they need to make a quick decision, they are fully equipped with all the information they need to make the best decision possible given time and resources. When you’ve consumed a lot of data, you can feel pretty confident trusting your gut.