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!
Peg Bogema is Stout’s Vice President of Operations. With Stout since 1997, her duties include the supervision of development projects and personnel, recruiting and accounts.
by Nick Staroba
What is resolution independence? Ever noticed that not all Web sites fit properly on the small display of a smartphone or tablet? That is the opposite of resolution independence. Content should fit well and look great on displays big and small—that’s resolution independence.
Recent trends in Web design have highlighted two solutions to this problem: Adaptive Web Design and Responsive Web Design (RWD). There has been a bit of an argument over semantics (surprise) of these two terms but they both create resolution independence.
The distinction between the two is that RWD leans toward fluid layouts which change as the viewing area changes while Adaptive changes after the viewing area has changed. This is a simplified explanation, but one that most of us can think with.
Choosing which method to use is best determined case by case and can be based on many factors. It’s a subject all its own.
So what does resolution independence have to do with anything other than maybe a technical gripe? More than you might think, because even though users often take no notice of the width and layout of a site, they will if there’s something wrong.
From my less-than-technical friends, if I hear a comment about the layout or design of a site it’s something like, “How come I can only see half of this page?” when browsing on their smartphone.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your site looked great across all devices and resolutions from the same URL? And if instead of commenting about some flawed design aspect of your site, your users comment about how great your product is?
One key design principle that I have learned in recent years is that not only do the words and images of a design communicate the message, so does the design itself: the fonts, the shapes, the colors all have their own message, too.
So, when a user pulls up your site and the right half of the page extends beyond the edge of visibility, what message does that send? The average user is probably annoyed; the technical user might scoff; and the smart Web designer should solicit you for work. In all three cases, one thing’s sure: they’re not getting your site’s message clearly and without distraction.
To see resolution indepence in action go to css-tricks.com or getskeleton.com. Go ahead, give the edge of the window a drag. Make it small. Nice, right? And if I hadn’t pointed out this aspect of these particular sites, would you have noticed it? Probably not. I stumbled on it accidentally myself by inadvertently resizing a browser window.
There have been various solutions for the problem of screen resolution in Web design but they’ve often been clunky in my experience. The latest solutions implemented in Adaptive and RWD are sensible approaches that combine good design principles and smart Web development. They have also become easier to implement due to the benevolence of the Internet community.
One of the example sites I listed above, Skeleton, is a tool for getting started with RWD. It isn’t a content management system, so you’ll still need a skilled hand and mind behind the scenes to put the pieces together. The benefits of Skeleton are that it saves one the trouble of starting from scratch to achieve responsiveness and makes it easy for the designer to just design without too much technical work to do. An additional feature beyond the already baked-in responsiveness, it that is also based on the 960 grid which combines a typographic grid with a widely used width of 960 pixels. (getskeleton.com)
Above is a sample of Skeleton as you might see it on a desktop. Any arrangement of columns resizes down to stack upon itself as seen in a smartphone’s width.
As I work on finding a solution to match our needs for our own Web site, I have primarily become familiar with Skeleton, but I have found a few other free templates/frameworks/kits online that are all similar in that look like a good place to start from.
Frameless is a grid based on fixed columns without any fluidity that adapts down to mobile widths. This is Frameless at 1920 pixels. (framelessgrid.com)
Golden Grid System uses 18 columns with each column based on screen width and gutters (the space between columns) based on font size. This an interesting concept for the gutters as it adds an element of control to white space that can sometimes get out of hand in fluid designs. This system also encourages not setting a maximum width to allow its column to take full advantage of any display’s proportions. Pinterest.com may or may not use this specific system, but its columns behave in the same manner. (goldengridsystem.com)
The 1140 CSS Grid embraces designing for a wider resolution to start but still stacks beautifully at the bottom for good mobile usability. Here shown at 1280 pixels, my preferred browser width. (cssgrid.net)
320 and up takes the “tiny screen first” approach. Instead of downloading all the content that might be displayed on a larger display first and then formatting it to fit the smaller screen, 320 does the opposite. Mobile users without unlimited data plans rejoice. (bit.ly/320nup)
In looking at these different resources one additional point came to mind and that is at what resolution should a Web site start? Should it be designed with a perspective from small to large or vice versa? The best answer to that is going to be found in your user base. Take a look at your site’s analytics and see where the majority falls: small or large display.
Regardless of which end you start from, it’s becoming more and more important to be able to reach both ends so as not to miss out on potential customers.
Want to see how your site looks on various devices? StudioPress has a useful tool for this. Go to studiopress.com/responsive and enter your URL to get a preview.
Nick Staroba is Stout Systems’ Promotion and Marketing Manager. He is responsible for design, production and delivery of all Stout promotional communications from print to the Web.