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First month as Product Manager

I joined Microsoft four weeks back. It is my first full-time role as a Product Manager (PM), and I learned many things in the last month. I want to highlight two key learning in this blog post.

Customer advocate

The Product Manager should be a customer advocate. A very simple statement. It’s tricky to carry that mindset throughout the job. During PM interviews, we are given a product to critique or improve by adding new features. It ends at sketching out a highly opinionated plan. The PM job is slightly very different from the interview process.

A PM will be owning a product or feature area. It can be in the Platform (that is not visible to users) or in the User Experience (UX) module (which the user views on their screen).

A super simplified representation of a software product
A super-simplified representation of a software product

First thing to do is to understand the product. Login to the product and start using it as an end-user. Then, look at the engineering design behind it, not to the extent of reading the codebase but on a relatively high level. Checkpoint one passed.

The second thing to do is to read customer feedback. What the customers are saying about the product, what they like, what they don’t like, what they wish to see in the product. These are crucial inputs to the next step, research.

A PM should research potential product improvements. It can be done through customer interviews, competitor study, reading industry reports like Gartner. And that is how a PM lands on a plan very similar to the one sketched out during the interview phase. The key difference is, this plan is fact-based, metric-driven and relatively less opinionated.

There are three steps in deciding a product solution.

  1. Why do we need this solution?
  2. What is the solution?
  3. How are we going to build the solution?
Three steps thinking to a product solution
Three steps thinking to a product solution

PMs spend a lot of time in 1 & 2 and to a small extent in 3. The learning I had in my first month is understanding why 1 & 2 are important. We start with Why. Customer interviews and secondary research will help answer this. It’s very important to validate the assumptions with customers. It’s the principal character of the PM who strives to be the customer advocate.

Based on the inputs from the first question, we move on to the second part of the product solution—What is the solution. It involves deciding what customers would like to view when they use your product and in what order. PMs make a list of items they are planning to build and show it to the customers. Customers will say which items they like and want immediately and which items are not urgent needs. These prioritised items will be given as inputs to the development team in a product requirement document.

A product requirement document consists of User Personas (customers), their needs and the expected behaviour of the product/feature—User Jobs. PMs will be required to engage with the engineering team to help them clarify any doubts in the requirements and involve in the solution discussion (the How part).

User jobs with PM and customer priority
User jobs with PM and customer priority

A wise PM told me that most of the not-so-great PMs spend a lot of their time in the third question (How) and don’t get the fundamentals right (Why and What). He further added without a strong backing of Why and What, How is worthless. Often, PMs and developers build a solution that nobody wants. This miscommunication gap is bridged by iterative improvements in the Why and What questions with customer inputs.

A good PM adds a lot of value by being a customer advocate.

Measuring effort

I joined work after a two-year gap due to higher education. There were a lot of tasks and I was initially overwhelmed. I asked the wise PM during one on one, how do you manage your tasks? He showed me a two-by-two matrix like the one below.

An action priority matrix for tasks
An action priority matrix for tasks

I asked him how he measured the effort. He told the amount of time spent on that activity. I replied, “yeah it makes sense. Time is money, right”.

He replied, “That is a misconception. Time is actually greater than money”

Time can only be spent and spent linearly. Money can be earned or spent exponentially.

We always have finite time in a day. These things make time a more valuable entity than money. This perspective will influence how we prioritise the tasks at hand. PMs are always caught in situations to prioritise tasks. It was the second learning I had in my first month as full-time PM.

I will keep y’all posted on the upcoming learning in my PM role 🙂


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Thumbnail Photo by Johny vino on Unsplash

Accessibility and inclusion in UX for Product Managers

I stumbled on the topic of accessibility and inclusion while learning user experience (UX) design from MOOCs. At first, I thought it’s a reasonably familiar topic but I couldn’t have been more wrong. After reading through several resources, I now firmly believe, there is no better way to practice user empathy than understanding accessibility and inclusion. This blog post outlines the need for accessibility and inclusion in building products and how it’s a win for everyone involved.

Disability – redefined

When I heard disability, I used to think about people with physical disability such as those who have lost their limbs, vision, hearing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says over a billion people, 15% of the world population, have some form of disability. They mention disabilities due to ageing, chronic health conditions, mental illness among others. Many people live a normal life without knowing they have a disability like color blindness. WHO argues disability is not just a health problem, it’s a phenomenon reflecting the interaction between features of a person’s body and features of the society in which he or she lives.

According to WHO’s argument, disability happens at the point of interaction between a person and the society. Consider a deaf person walking into a job interview and facing an intercom door.

The user faces enormous friction in this situation. It is a loss for both the candidate and the recruiter in the world surrounded by non-inclusive, inaccessible products. The philosophy of inclusive design addresses this problem.

Inclusive design

Inclusive design is about considering the full range of human diversity such as age, class, color, gender, literacy, race and all forms of disability. Any exclusion results in hampering the interaction of the individual with their friends, family, their neighbourhood and society. Ramps and access cards in buildings, Braille inscriptions in elevators are examples of inclusive approaches to design and offer social participation for everyone.

There is a misconception that inclusive design means designing one thing for everyone. It means creating multiple things where everyone has an option. For example, an inclusively designed train station may offer stairs for youth, escalators for elderly and elevators for those who are wheelchair-bound. The use case of mobility inside a train station is solved via multiple designs with a primary motive—do not exclude anyone.

Challenge of exclusion

Exclusion is the biggest challenge in entertaining diversity. There are temporary and situational exclusions in everyday life. Few of my MBA batch-mates broke their legs and were wheelchair-bound for months. They faced temporary exclusions from several activities on the campus. Navigating to the check-in counter of a busy airport with luggage creates a situational exclusion. Mobile phones come handy in such circumstances. The touchscreen of a mobile phone that contains every necessary option within a reach of the thumb is designed with inclusive design philosophy.

Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion
Permanent, Temporary and Situational exclusion. Credits: Microsoft Design

Technology interactions depend on the way we touch, see, hear and speak and remember. I have personally faced difficulties in teaching my father how to use a mobile payment application. He was forced to learn the nuances of One Time Password and Two-Factor Authentication. Many essential modern applications are not friendly to elders. It begs a question whether technology is adapting to us, or we should adapt to technology.

Empathy

Empathy is a key ingredient in designing accessible and inclusive applications. Personal biases can influence the way we speak and behave. It can easily influence the products we build unless we choose to empathize with the users.

Product Managers (PM) usually think about user personas when they face a problem statement. Need-driven user personas help PMs practice user empathy while designing products. A noise-cancelling headset or a blindfold during prototyping will come a long way in making the product more accessible. Empathizing with users will help us see more barriers than we can imagine.

Solve for one, extend to many

User empathy and inclusive design philosophy will help us design solutions that can work for multiple situations of exclusion. Consider the high contrast screen that was invented for people who had vision impairments. Today it helps people who are using their laptops under sunlight—a situational exclusion gap.

Audible, the popular audiobooks company is powered by the concept of storytelling that was initially catered to people (primarily children) who cannot read with their eyes. Video captioning that was intended to help people who cannot hear is currently used in busy airports, video call transcription services. When solving a problem for blind or deaf people, we are not only solving for them. We need to start thinking about enabling participation for people with disabilities in everyday life in society. We can extend those products and make it accessible for many more people in the future.

Takeaway

While designing a product, recognize the exclusionary aspects. Empathize and learn from the diversity of users. Solve for one and extend it to many. These are the most important takeaways from my UX lesson yesterday.

Most of the references are taken from Microsoft’s design blog. It has quite a lot of films, guides on the topic of inclusive design. I highly recommend checking them out.


I hope you learned something new. I write on business and technology topics. Consider subscribing to receive upcoming posts directly to your mailbox. I promise to publish useful content 🙂

How to have a successful product management internship

I interned with Microsoft last summer in the Program Manager (PM) role. Like many MBA students, it was my first opportunity to switch tracks to product management. After a successful internship, I am joining Microsoft as a full-time PM this June. I want to share a few pointers to maximise your chances of having a successful PM internship.

0. Communicate

First, understand the expectations of the project. Keep track of the progress. You can do this by scheduling recurring one on one meetings with your mentor and manager. Secondly, keep no surprises. Always communicate. Let your mentor or manager know what you are working on. Your early weeks will involve a lot of communication, that is normal. Mismatch of expectations can happen if you do not communicate often. A good PM will be an excellent communicator.

1. Respect others time

Your mentor and manager will be busy. Do not overwhelm them with your queries. Please respect the time they spend with you. Do some research on your own before reaching out to them. Always channel your work through your mentor to the manager. Mentors will help you avoid making rookie mistakes. Keep a notepad. Always take notes during the meeting and collate your queries in the notebook. A good PM will make the interaction productive for everyone.

2. Seek feedback

Feedback is vital to growth. Feedback comes in various forms-appreciation, criticism, suggestion. Seek all types of feedback and put efforts into using them in work. A good PM should be coachable.

3. Talk with data

Always seek metrics that will support your research, assumptions/hypothesis. Analyse the telemetry dashboards of your product, read customer reviews, customer call transcripts, industry reports, go through the presentations of your product in the team repository. A good PM should be data (evidence) driven.

4. Talk to your engineers

Until the fifth week of my internship, I did not talk to the engineers in my team. I took every question to my manager or mentor. Manager asked, “why don’t you ask this to your engineers”. It struck me then, “why am I taking all my questions to him; instead, I can ask the engineers”. I set up a few meetings with the developers, and they helped a lot in getting the technical perspective. Try to utilise all the resources at hand, including the engineers in the team.

5. Make connections

Talk to fellow PMs in your organisation to understand the work-culture in the company. It’s essential to find a good fit for you and the company. The company is evaluating you via the internship. Set up lunch or snack time one on ones with senior PMs. Understand how their careers pan out, seek advice or suggestions for your PM career. You may even get a mentor beyond the internship.

6. Be Proactive

Finally, you want your internship to be successful. Show the intent on your action. If you don’t have an assigned mentor, ask. If you don’t have access to a tool or a channel, ask. A good PM will be proactive in getting things done.

All the very best on your PM internship.

Let me know if you have any queries.


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The Art of flattening the internet demand curve

Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube are modifying their streaming service to ease-off the pressure on telecom infrastructure. Why would they do that? And how does it work?

Why

Telecom service providers are very similar to grocery store owners. Grocery stores procure products and sell it to customers. Similarly, telecom service providers buy/lease electromagnetic spectrum bandwidth and make it available for their subscribers’ use. Your voice calling, internet connectivity happen over the spectrum band.

During a global pandemic like the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, the customer demand fluctuates a lot. You are working from home — you visit the grocery shop to buy vegetables, but they are all sold out. Similarly, if everyone uses the internet at their higher bandwidth capacity, the telecom infrastructure will break down. Nobody will be able to communicate. Without the internet, all of our lives will become meaningless.

Most of us resort to sparing use of vegetables at home during these times. But what about the internet? Video streaming accounts for more than 60% of internet traffic. As we spend more time at home, we tend to binge on our favourite sitcom, run the Prime Minister’s speech live and look for the dinner meal recipe on that YouTube channel. To better handle the demand, the video streaming sites have agreed to reduce the bit-rates of their default stream quality.

For example, YouTube’s default video quality is 720-pixel high definition. They have decided to change it to 480 standard pixel resolution. But the higher resolutions are not going away. The users will still be able to change it to 720 pixels or 1080 pixel quality if they want. You may ask, “Then how will we keep up with the demand?”

How

Do you know Google paid $12 billion in 2019 and $9 billion in 2018 to Apple, to remain as the default search engine in Safari browser? They are capitalizing on a fundamental internet consumer behaviour. Among billions of internet users, most are not tech-savvy. They tend to use what comes as the default option. Therefore, it makes sense to Google to be present at the forefront of the millions of Apple devices that run Safari as their default browser.

YouTube, Prime Video, Netflix and Facebook are all counting on this user behaviour to mitigate the surge in demand. Although some people will change the video quality, many are expected to stick to the default option. It will help telecom companies to flatten the curve of internet demand.

The internet infrastructure is a finite resource like any other commodity. During the time of pandemic, if we can make a little compromise on the quality of our video streaming — we all can survive our meaningful virtual life without break down.

Stay at home and do wash your hands often!


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