Managing products of the future – Business as usual?

“Managing products of the future” came up when I was thinking of a suitable title for a piece about products that look and feel very different to most products that we see today. Products such as driverless cars and voice assistants popped into my head as examples of products that are likely to dominate our daily lives before we know it.

However, these products are here already and I’m keen to look at if and how this does affect the role and focus of product management.

Will we manage products differently when the user interface of these products changes? Do we need to think differently about our products when data becomes the main output? Will customer needs and expectations evolve? If so, how? These and other questions I will start thinking about; considering the nature of machine learning, different product scenarios and their impact on the role of the product manager.

Taken from: https://robertmerrill.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/the-future-is-already-here/

It’s easy to get swept up by the hype surrounding AI and products based on machine learning, and to start feeling pretty dystopian about the future. But how much will actually change from a product management point of view? People will continue to have specific needs and problems. As product managers, we’ll continue to look at best ways of solving these problems. Granted, the nature of people’s needs and problemx will evolve, as it has always done, but this won’t alter the problem solving and people centric nature of product management.

To illustrate this, let’s look at some AI-base products and the customer needs and problems that they’re aiming to solve: Google Photos, Sonos One and Eigen Technologies.

Google Photos

Google Photos’ strap-line is “One home for all your photos – organised and easy to find”. Over the coming months, Google Photos will roll out the following features:

  • Using facial recognition, Google Photos will know who’s in a picture and will offer a one-tap option to share it with the person in question – provided that this person is in your phone’s contact list, Google Photos will have learned this person’s face. If that person appears in multiple images, Google Photos will even suggest to share all of them in one go.
  • Automated image editing suggestions, Google Photos will suggest different corrections based on the look and quality of the image. For example, if there issues with the brightness of the image, Google Photos will automatically display a “Fix brightness” suggestion.

Taken from: https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/

With these new features, Google Photos aim to address customer needs with regard to sharing pictures and improving image quality respectively. These needs aren’t new per se, but the ‘intelligent’ aspect of Google Photos’ approach is.

Sonos One

The Sons One is entirely controlled by voice. The speaker works fully with Amazon Alexa, which means that if you’ve got an Amazon Alexa compatible device, you can control your Sonos sound system through Amazon Alexa. Because Alex is a native app within the Sonos platform, you don’t even need to have an external Amazon device – i.e. Echo or the Dot – installed to control your Sonos One speaker. The installation of the Alexa mobile app will be enough.

Taken from: https://uniquehunters.com/sonos-one-marries-amazons-alexa-high-end-audio-hardware-exquisite-musical-enjoyment/

The integration with the Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is a logical next step within Sonos’ mission to “empower everyone to listen better” and makes it easier for people to control the music they listen to. Granted, the user interface of Sonos One is different to other product; it doesn’t have buttons, for example. However, it still is a product like any other in a sense that it delivers tangible value to customers by solving their music listening needs.

Eigen Technologies

“Turn your documents into data” is London and New York based Eigen Technologies’ mission statement. The company enables the mining of documents for specific data. For example, if you work for a mortgage lender and are looking to make a decision about the credit worthiness of a home, Eigen’s data extraction technology helps to quickly pull out key ‘decision inputs’ from a number of – often very lengthy – property documents.

Taken from: https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/

The way in which Eigen Technologies use machine learning algorithms, is ultimately to improve the speed and quality of decision making. Even though the underlying technology is based on machine learning, the outcome is very much like that of any other product: a clear user interface which shows the relevant document data that a user is interested in and needs to make decisions.

Main learning point: AI and machine learning based products will no doubt change the ways in which we interact with products and what we expect of them. However, existing examples such as Google Photos and Sonos One already show that the core of the product manager’s role will remain unchanged: building the right product for the right people and building it right!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://productsthatcount.com/blog/66-google-vp-product-ai/
  2. https://www.wired.com/2015/05/bradley-horowitz-says-that-google-photos-is-gmail-for-your-images/
  3. https://blog.sonos.com/en-gb/making-sonos-one/
  4. https://www.engadget.com/2018/05/08/google-photos-will-add-ai-powered-suggestions-to-fix-your-images/
  5. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/04/sonos-announces-alexa-controlled-wireless-speakers/
  6. https://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/google-photos-suggested-edits/
  7. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/sonos-one-alexa-review-uk-price
  8. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/sonos-one-is-the-speaker-to-beat-for-those-that-want-great-sound-and-smarts/
  9. http://uk.businessinsider.com/connected-speakers-explainer-sonos-libratone-echo-google-home-2018-4
  10. https://assistant.google.co.uk/
  11. https://www.sonos.com/en-gb/social-impact
  12. https://www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/11/03/legal-ais-dark-horse-eigen-technologies-comes-into-the-light/
  13. https://www.eigentech.com/
  14. https://blog.bolt.io/what-cracking-open-a-sonos-one-tells-us-about-the-sonos-ipo-dcab49155643

My product management toolkit (29): analysing competitors

Don’t believe anyone who claims that they don’t look at what their competition is doing. Agreed, there’s a fine line between doing a healthy amount of competitor analysis and being completely obsessed by what the competition is doing but I believe it’s important to understand how your product differentiates from similar products.

Competition is good. Product isn’t a zero sum game and it’s important to understand the competitive landscape that you operate in and to figure out your product ‘niche’. I try to do a competitor analysis of some form or other on an ongoing basis, as your competitive landscape is bound to evolve.

Before delving into ways of analysing competitors, let’s first look at the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of competitor analysis:

  • Understand where your product fits – Reviewing competitors helps to understand where your product sits within the market, analysing and comparing on aspects such as features, price, perceived benefits, etc.
  • No need to look at ALL competitors – Realistically speaking, it’s impossible to keep up with all of your – direct and indirect – competitors, all the time. When you narrow things down, you’re likely to find that a small percentage of companies in the market either scoop up most revenue or are direct competition in your specific market segment.
  • Treat competitor analysis for what it is; valuable guidance – Instead of getting obsessed with your competitor(s), get obsessed with your customer! I can only refer to a quote from the wise Sun Tzu in “The Art of War”: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” I find it very helpful to understand the competitive landscape and the position of my product or service in it, without becoming completely distracted by the features a competitive product does or doesn’t offer. You don’t want your competitors to dictate which features (not) to include, and cause ‘featuritis’ as a result!
  • Find the perfect niche for your product – The likelihood is that your product will be targeting the same customers that other companies and their products are already serving. Your product needs to be exceptional and differentiated enough for customers to consider switching. Look at the market and ask yourself: “are we solving the same problem, but differently?” or “are we tackling a different customer problem altogether?”

Now, let’s look at some common tools you can use to analyse your competition:

 

SWOT analysis

Fig. 1 – SWOT analysis – Taken from: https://research-methodology.net/theory/strategy/swot-analysis/

The SWOT analysis is probably one of the more traditional ways of studying and comparing competitors. It might be an older method, but SWOT still holds true and is a tried and tested way of understanding your competitors:

  • Strengths – Specific characteristics and attributes which give a company competitive advantage. For example, one could argue that design, brand, a loyal customer base and innovation are key strengths of Apple.
  • Weaknesses – Specific characteristics and attributes which reduce the competitive strength of a business. For example, major debts and inadequate online presence hinder lots of today’s retailers to compete effectively with Amazon.
  • Opportunities – Advantageous situations or circumstances that can create new competitive power for businesses. Think, for example, of entering new geographic markets, new customer segments or new product opportunities.
  • Threat – Disadvantageous situations or circumstances which can hamper companies in their ability to compete. For instance, I expect ‘Brexit’ to hinder UK companies in attracting talented new recruits or operate globally.

 

Kano analysis

Fig. 2 – Kano analysis – Taken from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kano_model

I’ve written previously about conducting a Kano analysis as I find this method very helpful when looking at the competition from a customer point of view. Understanding what the “basic needs” and “delighters” are in your market, will help  understand:

  • The position of your product – Understanding where a product sits vis a vis customer expectations.
  • Which battles (not) to pick – Where do you want to play and what will you playing for? Are you happy to just focus on so-called ‘hygiene’ factors or do you want to focus on more unchartered territory?
  • Potential product opportunities – Where are the opportunities for improved or totally new products, and why?

 

Lean Canvas

Fig. 3 – Ash Maurya’s “Lean Canvas” – Taken from: https://blog.leanstack.com/business-models-vs-business-plans-4a802e15c51d

Plenty of companies use Ash Maurya’s “Lean Canvas” to better understand your product and market, which is great. In addition, you can also use the Lean Canvas framework to compare and contrast competitors. For example, what’s the dominant channel of companies X and Y, and how does their path to customers compare to yours?

 

Direct customer feedback

My favourite way of analysing competitors is to hear directly from customers. For example, when I worked at a digital music service, I ran sessions simply observing people using the likes of Spotify, Rdio (which died a few years ago) and Soundcloud. This way, my colleagues and I could learn first hand about how people felt about our product in comparison to the competition.

With digital products and services, it’s harder to do a traditional “bind product test” but you can still observe and listen to people testing different products which are all trying to solve a similar problem. People will tell you why they think product A is better than product B, especially when you make it clear that you don’t have an allegiance with any of the tested products!

Fig. 4 – Blind product testing – Taken from: http://www.bloncampus.com/columns/fundamental/why-blind-testing-is-important-in-product-research/article7976927.ece

 

5 Forces of Competition

Fig. 5 – Michael Porter’s “Five Forces of Competition” – Taken from: https://www.pocketbook.co.uk/blog/2017/02/14/michael-porter-competitive-strategy/

I can imagine that you might have come across Porter’s “5 Forces” before. Like the SWOT analysis, the 5 Forces approach is a longstanding one which helps companies understand their sources of competitive rivalry and which factors they need to concentrate on in order to gain the upper hand.

Main learning point: Don’t shut your eyes and avert looking at the competition! Equally, don’t get freaked out by competitive products or services. Instead, analyse the competition to get a better feel for whether and how your product differentiates. You can then use these insights to focus more on delivering customer value and creating strong points of differentiation.

 

Related links:

  1. http://edwardlowe.org/how-to-conduct-and-prepare-a-competitive-analysis/
  2. https://www.quora.com/How-do-Product-managers-perform-competitive-analysis-for-enterprise-products
  3. https://medium.com/pminsider/real-competitive-analysis-is-about-learning-to-love-your-competitor-15e45b9ef10a
  4. https://marcabraham.com/2015/09/13/what-is-psychographic-segmentation/
  5. https://marcabraham.com/2016/06/17/my-product-management-toolkit-11-assessing-the-market/
  6. https://news.greylock.com/the-only-metric-that-matters-now-with-fancy-slides-232474cf414c
  7. https://blog.leanstack.com/business-models-vs-business-plans-4a802e15c51d
  8. https://www.pocketbook.co.uk/blog/2017/02/14/michael-porter-competitive-strategy/

My product management toolkit (28): testing price sensitivity

Normally when I talk to other product managers about product pricing, I get slightly frightened looks in return. “Does that mean I need to set the price!?” or “am I now responsible for the commercial side of things too!?” are just some of the questions I’ve had thrown at me in the past.

“No” is the answer. I strongly believe that as product managers we run the risk of being all things to all people — see my previous post about “Product Janitors” — and I therefore believe that product people shouldn’t set prices. However, I do believe it’s critical for product people to think about pricing right from the beginning:

  • Do people want the product?
  • Why do they want it?
  • How much are they willing pay for it?

Answers to these questions will not only affect what product is built and how it’s built, but also how it will be launched and positioned within the market. I’ve made the mistake before of not getting involved in pricing at all or too late. As a result, I felt that I was playing catchup to fully understand the product’s value proposition and customers’ appetite for it.

Fortunately, there are two tools I’ve come across which I’ve found very helpful in terms of my comprehending the value a product is looking to achieve — both from a business and customer perspective: the Van Westendorp Pricing Sensitivity Meter and the Conjoint Analysis respectively.

The Van Westendorp Pricing Sensitivity Meter has helped me to learn about the kinds of pricing-relating customers to ask (target) customers:

  • At what price would you consider the product to be so expensive that you would not consider buying it? (Too expensive)
  • At what price would you consider the product to be priced so low that you would feel the quality couldn’t be very good? (Too cheap)
  • At what price would you consider the product starting to get expensive, so that it is not out of the question, but you would have to give some thought to buying it? (Expensive/High Side)
  • At what price would you consider the product to be a bargain — a great buy for the money? (Cheap/Good Value)

The aforementioned Van Westendorp questions are a good example of a so-called “direct pricing technique”, where the pricing research is underpinned by the assumption that people have a basic understanding of what a product is worth. In essence, this line of questioning comes down to asking “how much would you pay for this (product or service)?” Whilst this isn’t necessarily the best question to ask in a customer interview, it’s a nice and direct way to learn about how customers feel about pricing.

Example customer responses to the Van Westdorp questions — Taken from: http://www.5circles.com/van-westendorp-pricing-the-price-sensitivity-meter/

The insights from applying these direct questions will help in better understanding price points. The Van Westendorp method identifies four different price definitions:

Point of marginal cheapness (‘PMC’) — At the point of marginal cheapness, more sales volume would be lost than gained due to customers perceiving the product as a bargain and doubting its quality.

Point of marginal expensiveness (‘PME’) — This is a price point above which the product is deemed too expensive for the perceived value customers get from it.

Optimum price point (‘OPP’) — The price point at which the number of potential customers who view the product as either too expensive or too cheap is at a minimum. At this point, the number of persons who would possibly consider purchasing the product is at a maximum.

Indifference price point (‘IPP’) —Point at which the same percentage of customers feel that the product is getting too expensive as those who feel it is at a bargain price. This is the point at which most customers are indifferent to the price of a product.

Range of acceptable pricing (‘RAI’) — This range sits between the aforementioned points of marginal cheapness and marginal expensiveness. In other words, consumers are considered likely to pay a price within this range.

Van Westendorp price sensitivity meter (example) — Taken from: https://www.qualtrics.com/uk/market-research/pricing-research/

 

In addition to the Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter, I’ve also used Conjoint Analysis to understand more about pricing. Unlike the Van Westendorp approach, the conjoint analysis is an indirect pricing technique which means that price is combined with other attributes such as size or brand. Consumers’ price sensitivity is then derived from the results of the analysis.

Sample conjoint analysis question — Taken from: https://www.questionpro.com/survey-templates/conjoint-analysis-retirement-housing/
Sample conjoint analysis question — Taken from: https://www.questionpro.com/survey-templates/conjoint-analysis-retirement-housing/

 

When designing a conjoint analysis study, the first step is take a product and break it down into its individual parts. For example, we could take a car and create combinations of its different parts to learn about combinations that customers prefer. For example:

Which of these cars would you prefer?

Option: 1

Brand: Volvo

Seats: 5

Price: £65,000

Option: 2

Brand: SsangYyong

Seats: 5

Price: £20,000

Option: 3

Brand: Toyota

Seats: 7

Price: £45,000

This is an overly simplified and totally fictitious example, but hopefully gives you a better idea of how a conjoint analysis takes into account multiple factors and will give you insight into how much consumers are willing to pay for a certain combination of features.

Main learning point: I personally don’t expect product managers to set prices for their products or design price research. However, I do think we as product managers benefits from a better understanding of the pricing model for our products and a better understanding of what constitutes ‘value for money’ for our customers. The Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter and the Conjoint Analysis are just two ways of testing price sensitivity, but are in my view to good places to get started if you wish to get a better handle on pricing.

Related links for further learning:

  1. Van Westendorp pricing (the Price Sensitivity Meter) – 5 Circles Research
  2. Conjoint analysis – Wikipedia
  3. Why You Should (Almost) Never Use the van Westendorp Pricing Model
  4. Van Westendorp’s Price Sensitivity Meter – Wikipedia
  5. Pricing research: A new take on the Van Westendorp model | Articles | Quirks.com
  6. Easy Guide: How To Run a Van Westendorp Pricing Analysis – Dimitry Apollonsky
  7. Van Westendorp Price Sensitivity Meter
  8. Conjoint Analysis – introduction and principles

 

App review: StatusToday

Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) has rapidly become yet another buzzword in the tech space and I’m therefore always on the lookout for AI based applications which add actual customer value. StatusToday could that kind of app:

My quick summary of StatusToday before using it – I think Status Today provides software to help manage teams of employees, I suspect this product is geared towards HR people.

How does StatusToday explain itself in the first minute – “Understand your employees” is the strapline that catches my eye. Whilst not being entirely clear on the tangible benefits Status Today delivers on, I do get that it offers employee data. I presume that customers will have access to a data portal and can generate reports.

What does StatusToday do (1)? – StatusToday analyses human behaviour and generates a digital fingerprint for individual employees. The company originally started out with a sole focus on using AI for cyber security, applying designated algorithms to analyse internal online comms, detecting behavioural patterns in comms activity and quickly spotting any abnormal activity or negligence. For example, ‘abnormal file exploration’ and ‘access from unusual locations’ are two behaviours that StatusToday will be tracking for its clients.

What does StatusToday do (2)? -StatusToday has since started offering more generic employee insights services. By plugging into a various online tools companies may use, Google and Microsoft for example, StatusToday will start collecting employee activity data. This will help companies in getting better visibility of employee behaviour as well as making the processes around data access and usage more efficient.

It makes me wonder to what extent there’s a “big brother is watching you element” to StatusToday’s products and services. For example, will the data accessible through StatusToday’s “Live Dashboard” (eventually) make it easier for companies to punish employees if they’re spending too much time on Facebook!?

Main learning point: I can see how StatusToday takes the (manual) pain out of monitoring suspicious online activity and helps companies to preempt data breaches and other ‘anomalies’.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://techcrunch.com/2018/02/20/statustoday/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhIkx8ZvA-Q
  3. https://techcrunch.com/2015/09/09/ef4/
  4. https://blog.statustoday.com/1nature-is-not-your-friend-but-ai-is-d94aaa13fd2e
  5. https://blog.statustoday.com/1your-small-business-could-be-in-big-trouble-7a34574ab42c

App review: Warby Parker

I recently listened to a podcast which was all about Warby Parker and its makings. After listening to the podcast, I was keen to have a closer look at Warby Parker’s website:

My quick summary of Warby Parker before using it – Warby Parker is disrupting the way in which consumers discover and buy glasses. I expect a product which removes the need for physical opticians.

How does Warby Parker explain itself in the first minute? – Accessing https://www.warbyparker.com/ on desktop, I see a nice horizontal layout, dominated by two hero images. There are two main calls to action. Firstly, “Try frames at home – for free”, which then offers me to either “get started” or “browse frames”. Secondly, “Shop online” which lets me shop for eyeglasses and sunglasses.

Getting started, what’s the process like? – After clicking on “Get started”, I can choose between styles for men and women.

Having selected “Men’s styles”, I’m pleased that there’s an option for me to skip the “What’s your fit?” screen as I’m unsure about the width of my face 🙂

Selecting a shape of frames feels somewhat easier, but it’s good that I can select all three shapes if I wish. Instead, I go for “rectangular”.

The same applies for the next screen, where I can pick colours and I select “Neutral” and “Black” simply because I find it easier to visualise what the frames will look like in these colours.

I decide the skip the step involving different materials to choose from. The icons on this screen do help but I personally would have benefited from seeing some real samples of materials such as acetate and titanium, just to get a better idea.

It’s good that I’m then being asked about my last eye exam. Wondering if and when I’ll be asked for the results from my last eye test in order to determine the strength of the glasses I need.

The next holding screen is useful since up to this point I hadn’t been sure about how Warby Parker’s service works. The explanations are clear and simple, encouraging me to click on the “Cool! Show me my results.” call to action at the bottom of the screen. I now understand that I can upload my prescription at checkout, but I wonder if I need to go to an eye doctor or an optician first in order to get a recent (and more reliable) prescription …

I’m then presented with 15 frames to choose from. From these 15 frames, Warby Parker lets me pick 5 frames to try on at home. I like how I can view the frames in the different colours that I selected as part of step 4 (see above). If I don’t like the frames suggested to me, I can always click “Browse all Home Try-on frames” or “Retake the quiz”.

I like the look of the “Chamberlain” so I select this pair of frames and click on “Try at home for free”.

As soon as I’ve clicked on the “Try at home for free” button a small tile appears which confirms that I’ve added 1 out of 5 frames which I can try at home. I can either decide to find another frame or view my cart.

When I click on “Find another frame” I expected to be taken back to my previous quiz results. Instead, I can now see a larger number of frames, but there’s the option to go back to my original quiz results and matches with my results have been highlighted.

I really like how the signup / login stage has been positioned right at the very end of my journey – i.e. at the checkout stage -and that I can just continue as a new customer.

My Warby Parker experience sadly ends when I realise that Warby Parker doesn’t ship frames to the United Kingdom. No matter how I hard I try, I can only enter a US address and zip code 😦

 

Did Warby Parker deliver on my expectations? – Yes and no. I felt Warby Parker’s site was great with respect to discovery and customisation, but I do think there’s opportunity to include some explanatory bits about Warby Parker’s  process.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/national-public-radio/how-i-built-this/e/48640659
  2. https://www.recode.net/2018/3/14/17115230/warby-parker-75-million-funding-t-rowe-price-ipo
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/3041334/warby-parker-sees-the-future-of-retail

My product management toolkit (27): checklists

If you’d know me personally, you’d know that I love a good list. Making lists helps me to outline my thoughts, see connections and help prioritise. Three years ago, I wrote about “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atuwal Gawande, which is a great book about the importance of checklists and the ingredients of good checklist (see Fig. 1 below).

 

Fig. 1 – Key learnings from “The Checklist Manifesto” – Taken from: https://marcabraham.com/2015/07/01/book-review-the-checklist-manifesto/, 1 July 2015:

  1. Why checklists? – As individuals, the volume and complexity of the know-how that we carry around in our heads or (personal) systems is increasingly becoming unmanageable. Gawande points out that it’s becoming very hard for individuals to deliver the benefits of their know-how correctly. We therefore need a strategy for overcoming (human) failure. One the one hand this strategy needs to build on people’s experience and take advantage of their knowledge. On the other hand, however, this strategy needs to take into account human inadequacies. Checklists act as a very useful as part of this strategy.
  2. What makes a good checklist? – Gawande stresses that the checklist can’t be lengthy. A rule of thumb that some people use is to have between 5 to 9 items on a checklist in order to keep things manageable. The book contain some good real-life examples of how people go about starting their checklists. For example, looking at lessons learned from previous projects or the errors known to occur at any point.
  3. How to use a checklist – I believe that the key thing to bear in mind when using checklists is that they aren’t supposed to tell you what to do. As the book explains, a checklist isn’t a magic formula. Instead, having a checklist helps you at every step of the way, making sure you’ve got all the crucial info or data required at each step. Also, a checklist is a critical communication tool, as it outlines who you need to talk to (and why, what about) at each step of the way. Gawande also highlights the value of the ‘discipline’ that comes with having a checklist, the routine that’s involved in having a checklist. I’d add to this that a checklist can be a great way of identifying and mitigating risk upfront.

 

I’ve since read Leander Kahney’s biography of Jonny Ive, Apple’s design honcho. The book contains a quote about Apple’s New Product Process (‘ANPP’):

“In the world according to Steve Jobs, the ANPP would rapidly evolve into a well-defined process for bringing new products to market by laying out in extreme detail every stage of product development.

Embodied in a program that runs on the company’s internal network, the ANPP resembled a giant checklist. It detailed exactly what everyone was to do at every stage for every product, with instructions for every department ranging from hardware to software, and on to operations, finance, marketing, even the support teams that troubleshoot and repair the product after it goes to market.”

I perked up when I read how the ANPP resembles “a giant checklist”, detailing what needs to happen at each stage of the product development process. Apple’s process entails all stages, from concept to market launch. The ANPP is understandably very secretive, but I believe that we don’t need to know the ins and outs of Apple’s product development process to look at the use of checklists when developing and managing products:

Checklists aren’t the same as Gantt Charts! – It’s easy to confuse a short checklist with a Gantt Chart. Over the years, I’ve observed how people can derive a lot of certainty from creating and viewing detailed Gantt Charts or roadmaps (see my previous thoughts on this topic here). In my view, a super detailed checklist defeats the object. Instead, I encourage you to have short checklists that highlight both basic and critical steps to go through when developing / launching / managing products.

Checklists are evolving – Checklists are evolving in a sense that they’re likely to be different per product / team / project / etc. I find, for example, that each time I work with a new team of people or on new product, the checklist reflects the specific steps that need be checked, tailored to the team’s way of working or the specific product at hand.

Checklists are a collective effort – I’m currently onboarding a new UX designer into my team, and he’s keen for us to look at the ‘design checklist’ together, as he’s got some suggestions on how to make it work better. This might mean that the existing design checklist (see Fig. 2 below), underpinned by my preferred dual track approach, might be binned or adapted accordingly. Both are fine, as I expects checklists to be formed by those people who are responsible for checking the different list items. I’ve seen people treat their individually developed checklists as a decree … which others had to following blindly. My simple reaction to that kind of approach: no, no, no, no.

 

Fig. 2 – Sample ”design checklist”:

Democratise the sign-off process (1) – Often, quality assurance people come up and drive the best checklists. However, the risk I’ve observed, is that these QAs or the product managers become the single sign-off point for the checklist in question. I go into companies and look at their SCRUM and Kanban boards which have cards stating “Pet sign-off” or “Jackie sign-off”. I recently spoke to product managers at a company where the CEO wanted to sign off each feature.

Democratise the sign-off process (2) -Whilst nothing seems wrong with this approach at the face of it, there are two reasons why I feel uncomfortable with this ‘single sign-off’ approach. Firstly, to me, a hallmark of a truly self-organising and empowered team is that everyone feels empowered to ‘sign off’ on the end result (and its individual components). Secondly, I’m also worried about what happens if the designated sign-off person isn’t available. What happens if Pete and Christina are off ill or in never ending meetings? What if the CEO isn’t available for sign-off? Does the feature or product not get released to market? In short, I’m worried about creating another bottleneck or ‘single point of failure’ or forfeiting speed to market.

Don’t forget the basic steps – How often have you’ve been in a situation where you’ve just launched a new product or feature and realised that you forgot to test the styling of the images, content and calls to action? Sense checking things like these sounds like a basic step, but it’s one that’s easily forgotten in the excitement (and haste) to launch. Having basic steps like ‘check content’ included in your ‘pre-launch checklist’ will make sure that things don’t get overlooked (see Fig. 3 below).

 

Fig. 3 – Sample ”hygiene checklist”:

 

Include critical steps, lessons learned – I’ve found checklist to be a good way to incorporate key lessons learned on a continuous basis. The risks with post-mortem sessions or retrospectives is that lessons learned don’t get action and tend to be forgotten. Including a learning into a checklist is a simple but effective of way of ensuring that a learning sticks. For example, “training the customer support team” (on a new product, user flow or feature) was a critical step that I used to forget consistently. By including this item in a ‘go-to-market checklist’ helped me and my team in making sure this step wouldn’t be forgotten about anymore.

Put your checklist on a wall – Finally, I’d recommend making your checklist as visible and shareable as possible. You can stick your checklist on an office wall or, if the team aren’t all working in the same space, in collaboration software products like Confluence and Trello (see Fig. 4 – 5 below).

 

Fig. 4 – Put your checklist on a wall – Taken from: https://www.superestudio.co.uk/wall-checklist

 

 

Fig. 5 – Add your checklist in Trello – Taken from: https://www.addictivetips.com/internet-tips/trello-an-online-pinboard-for-task-organization-collaboration/

 

 

Main learning point: As long as you don’t confuse them with highly detailed project plans or roadmaps, checklists can be a valuable tool in making sure you and your team don’t overlook key steps when developing products!

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/apple-s-product-development-process-inside-the-world-s-greatest-design-organization
  2. https://qz.com/183861/any-company-can-copy-the-keystone-of-apples-design-process/
  3. http://www.theequitykicker.com/2014/03/06/apples-new-product-process-long-checklist/
  4. https://www.quora.com/What-is-Apple-s-product-development-process
  5. https://blog.toggl.com/gantt-chart/
  6. http://datainsightsideas.com/post/18502350035
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_point_of_failure

My product management toolkit (25): understanding the “unit economics” of your product

As a product manager it’s important to understand the unit economics of your product, irrespective of whether you’re managing a physical or a digital product. Unit economics are the direct revenues and costs related to a specific business model expressed on a per unit basis. These revenues and costs are the levers that impact the overall financial success of a product. In my view there are a number of reasons why I feel it’s important for product managers to have a good grasp of the unit economics of your product:

  • Helps quantify the value of what we do – Ultimately, product success can be measured in hard metrics such as revenue and profit. Even in cases where our products don’t directly attribute to revenue, they will at least have an impact on operational cost.
  • Customer Value = Business Value – In an ideal world, there’s a perfect equilibrium between customer value and business value. If the customer is happy with your product, buys and uses it, this should result in tangible business value.
  • P&L accountability for product people (1) – Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that product management still is a relatively young discipline, but I’m nevertheless surprised by the limited number of pr0duct people I know who’ve got full P&L responsibility. I believe that having ownership over the profit & loss account helps product decision making and and accountability, not just for product managers but for the product teams that we’re part of.
  • P&L accountability for product people (2) – Understandably, this can be a scary prospect and might impact the ways in which we manage products. However, owning the P&L will (1) make product managers fully accountable for product performance (2) provide clarity and accountability for product decisions, (3) help investments in the product and product marketing and (4) steep product management in data, moving to a more data informed approach to product management.
  • Assessing opportunities based on economics – Let’s move away from assessing new business or product opportunities purely based on “gut feel”. I appreciate that at some point we have to take a leap, especially with new products or problems that haven’t been solved before. At the same time, I do believe it’s critical to use data to help inform your opportunity assessments. Tools like Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas help to think through and communicate the economics of certain opportunities (see Fig. 1 below). In the “cost structure” part of the lean canvas, for example, you can outline the expected acquisition or distribution cost of a new product.
  • Speaking the same language – It definitely helps the collaboration with stakeholders, the board and investors if you can speak about the unit economics of your product. I know from experience that being able to talk sensibly about unit economics and gross profit, really helps the conversation.

Now that we’ve established the importance of understanding unit economics, let’s look at some of the key components of unit economics  in more detail:

Profit margin per unit = (sales price) – (cost of goods sold + manufacture cost + packaging cost + postage cost + sales cost)

Naturally the exact cost per unit will be dependent on things such as (1) product type (2) point of sale (3) delivery fees and (4) any other ‘cost inputs’.

In a digital context, the user is often the unit. For example, the Lifetime Value (‘LTV’) and Customer Acquisition Cost (‘CAC’) are core metrics for most direct to consumer (B2C) digital products and services. I learned from David Skok and Dave Kellogg about the importance of the ‘CAC to LTV’ ratio.

Granted, Skok and Kellogg apply this ratio to SaaS, but I believe customer acquisition cost (‘CAC’) and customer lifetime value (‘LTV’) are core metrics when you treat the user as a unit; you’ve got a sustainable business model if LTV (significantly) exceeds CAC. In an ideal world, for every £1 it costs to acquire a customer you want to get £3 back in terms of customer lifetime value. Consequently, the LTV:CAC ratio = 3:1.

I’ve seen companies start with high CAC in order to build scale and then lower the CAC as the business matures and relies more on word of mouth as well as higher LTV. Also, companies like Salesforce are well known for carefully designing additions (“editions”) to increase customer lifetime value (see Fig. 2 below). 

Netflix are another good example in this respect, with their long term LTV view of their customers. Netflix take into account the Netflix subscription model and a viable replacement for another subscription model in cable. The average LTV of Netflix customers is 25 months. As a result, Netflix are happy to initially ‘lose’ money on acquiring customers, through a 1-month free trial, as these costs costs will be recouped very soon after acquiring the customer.

Main learning point: You don’t need to be a financial expert to understand the unit economics of your products. Just knowing what the ‘levers’ are that impact your product, will put you in good stead when it comes to making product decisions and collaborating with stakeholders.

 

 Fig. 1 – Lean Canvas template by Ash Maurya – Taken from: https://blog.leanstack.com/

 

Fig. 2 – Pricing and functionality overview for Salesforce’s New Sales Cloud Lightning Editions:

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://soundcloud.com/saastr/saastr-142-why-cac-ltv-is-the
  2. https://inpdcenter.com/blog/understanding-product-economics-improve-product-development-success/
  3. https://people.kth.se/~msmith/ii2300_pdf/product_realization_7_2016.pdf
  4. https://www.quora.com/What-are-unit-economics
  5. https://youtu.be/RG_eyn0fRXs
  6. https://medium.com/@markroberge
  7. https://www.slideshare.net/RaviLakkundi/product-management-pricing-31102059
  8. https://www.inc.com/guides/price-your-products.html
  9. http://accountingexplained.com/managerial/cvp-analysis/cost-plus-pricing
  10. https://www.quora.com/What-are-unit-economics
  11. http://www.forentrepreneurs.com/saas-metrics-2-definitions-2/
  12. http://www.problemio.com/business/business_economics.php
  13. https://www.slideshare.net/austinneudecker/startup-unit-economics-and-financial-model
  14. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/understanding-saas-business-model-unit-economics-ben-cotton/
  15. https://thepathforward.io/how-to-estimate-your-unit-economics-before-you-have-any-customers/
  16. https://thepathforward.io/unit-economics-by-sam-altman/
  17. http://launchingtechventures.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/e-commerce-metrics.html
  18. https://medium.com/@parthgohil/understanding-unit-economics-of-e-commerce-9c77042a2874
  19. https://yourstory.com/2017/02/unit-economics-flipkart/
  20. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/283878
  21. https://hbr.org/2016/08/a-quick-guide-to-value-based-pricing
  22. https://unicornomy.com/netflix-business-strategy-netflix-unit-economics/
  23. https://hbr.org/2017/04/what-most-companies-miss-about-customer-lifetime-value