Book review: “AI Superpowers”

Dr. Kai-Fu Lee is the chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a China based tech focused investment firm. Previous to becoming a full-time investor, Lee held positions at Google, Microsoft and Apple. A large part of that career, Lee spent working on data and Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’), both in the US and in China. In “AI Superpowers – China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order” Lee bundles his experiences and insights to describe the progress that China and the US have made and are making in the field of AI.

AI Superpowers contains a heap of valuable insights as well as predictions about the impact of technology power that both the US and China have been racking up. These are the main things that I took away from reading AI Superpowers:

  • US and China, contrasting cultures – Lee starts the book by writing about the contrasts in business culture between the US and China: “China’s startup culture is the yin to Silicon Valley’s yang: instead of being mission-driven, Chinese companies are first and foremost market-driven.” Lee goes on to explain that the ultimate goal of Chinese companies is “to make money, and they’re willing to create any product, adopt any model, or go into any business that will accomplish that objective.” This mentality help to explain the ‘copycat’ attitude that Chinese companies have had historically. Meituan, for example, is a group-discount website which sells vouchers from merchants for deals which started as the perfect counterpart of US-based Groupon.
  • “Online-to-Offline” (‘O2O”) – O2O describes the conversion of online actions into offline services. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are great examples of the new O2O model. In China, Didi copied this model and tailored it to local conditions. Didi was followed by other O2O plays such as Dianping, a food delivery service which subsequently merged with the aforementioned Meituan company, and Tujia, a Chinese version of Airbnb. Lee also mentions WeChat and Alipay, describing how both companies completely overturned China’s all-cash economy. More recently, bike-sharing startups Mobike (see Fig. 1 below) and ofo which supplied tens of millions of internet-connected bicycles, distributing them across them about major Chinese cities and now across the globe.
  • China catching up quickly in the AI department – Having read the story of image recognition algorithm ResNet, and how its inventors moved from Microsoft to join AI startups in China, I can see how China as a country is quickly catching up with the technology stalwart that is Silicon Valley.  One of these image recognition startups, Face +++, has quickly become a market leader in face / image recognition technology, leapfrogging the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook along the way.
  • The four waves of AI – In AI Superpowers, Lee argues that what he calls the “AI revolution” will not happen overnight. Instead, AI will wash over us in four waves: internet AI, business AI, perception AI, and autonomous AI (see Fig. 2 below). This part of the book really struck a chord with me, as it brings to life how AI is likely to evolve over the coming years, both in terms of practical applications and use cases.

Main learning point: I’d highly recommend “AI Superpowers” to anyone interested in learning more about how China and the US are furthering the development of AI and the impact of this development on our daily lives.

 

Fig. 1 – Screenshot of the Mobike bike-sharing app – Taken from: https://technode.com/2016/07/07/mobike-uber/

 

Fig. 2 – The four waves of AI – Taken from: Kai-Fu Lee, AI Superpowers, pp. 104 – 139:

  • First wave: Internet AI – Internet AI is largely about using AI algorithms as recommendation engines: systems that learn our personal preferences and then serve up content hand-picked for us. Toutiao, sometimes called “the Buzzfeed of China”, is a great example of this first wave of AI; its “editors” are algorithms.
  • Second wave: Business AI – First wave AI leverages the fact that internet users are automatically labelling data as they browse. Business AI, the second wave of AI, takes advantage of the fact that traditional companies have also been automatically labelling huge quantities of data for decades. For instance, insurance companies have been covering accidents and catching fraud, banks have been issuing loans and documenting repayment rates, and hospitals have been keeping records of diagnoses and survival rates. Business AI mines these data points and databases for hidden correlations that often escape the naked eye and the human brain. RXThinking, an AI based diagnosis app, is a good example in this respect.
  • Third wave: Perception AI – Third wave AI is all about extending and expanding this power throughout our lived environment, digitising the world around us through the proliferation of sensors and smart devices. These devices are turning our physical world into digital data that can then be analysed and optimised by deep-learning algorithms. For example, Alibaba’s City Brain is digitising urban traffic flows through cameras and object-recognition.
  • Fourth wave: Autonomous AI – Autonomous AI represents the integration and culmination of the three preceding waves, fusing machines’ ability to optimise from extremely complex datasets with their newfound sensory powers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/07/chinas-meituan-dianping-confirms-4point4-billion-hong-kong-ipo.html
  2. https://techcrunch.com/2017/10/10/tujia-raises-300-million/
  3. http://www.forbesindia.com/article/ckgsb/how-tujia-chinas-airbnb-is-different-from-airbnb/48853/1
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobike
  5. https://towardsdatascience.com/an-overview-of-resnet-and-its-variants-5281e2f56035
  6. https://www.faceplusplus.com/
  7. http://www.iflytek.com/en/
  8. https://www.mi.com/global/
  9. https://www.happyfresh.com/
  10. https://www.grab.com/sg/

My product management toolkit (32): managing your frustrations

Every job or organisation comes with its own pressures and challenges. Millions of people will have a bad day at work, some people probably more frequently than others 🙂 That said, I believe that being a product manager can be one of the more frustrating roles out there. The same things that make product management such a great craft are the ones that can make the life of a product manager one filled with frustrations:

  • Constant navigation between all sections of the business
  • Interacting with a wide range of stakeholders
  • Being accountable without authority
  • Working in fast paced and high pressure environments
  • Regular dealings with complexity and uncertainty

Some product managers will suffer from frustration more than others and each person will have his or her own way of dealing with it but there are tools can help and so below I’m going to outline a number of tools that I use to try and manage some of the frustrations that I find can come with the day job.

A personal confession first

I definitely get frustrated. I like to think that I’ve come a long way in managing this, but I realise that it’s something I’ll always need to be mindful of and work on. When I reflect on some of the causes that have triggered my frustrations in the past, they tend to come down to the following triggers:

  • Things not going to ‘plan’ – I must admit, as much I know rationally that in product management things hardly ever go to plan or pan out the way you expect, I used to get quite frustrated when this was the case.
  • Taking things personally – Almost by default, as a product manager you’re accountable when a product isn’t performing or doesn’t live up to expectation. I really struggled with this, especially at the beginning of my product career as I’d take things highly personally. As a result, I’d get very deflated and defensive.
  • Missing a shared sense of urgency – Whenever I sense – rightly or wrongly – that other people are not pulling their weight, it can really get my back up. I love working in teams where there’s a shared sense of ownership and responsibility, and I sometimes find it tough when I feel that shared sense is missing somewhat.

Sounds familiar? I’ve come across plenty of product managers over the years who’ve been very open with me about their frustrations, so I know that I’m not unique in this respect and that it’s worth looking at some ways to cope with frustrations …

1. Learn about your triggers

The first ‘tool’, I’d highly recommend is to identify the situations or people that trigger a frustrated feeling within you. What triggers an emotional reaction in you, why? For example:

  • Meetings with ‘difficult’ stakeholders
  • Feeling that you’re stuck, struggling to see a way forward
  • A product or feature not performing as hoped
  • Colleagues feeling frustrated or pressured
  • A comment or criticism by a colleague
  • Other people not meeting your standards or values

If you know what tends to strike a nerve or when you might be at risk, you’re in a much better position to pre-empt the trigger from having an impact, i.e. causing a negative feeling. For example, when I know that a conversation with a stakeholder is likely to be a tricky one, I’ll catch a few minutes of fresh air beforehand or have think about how to best approach the meeting.

In an ideal world, we’d totally avoid situations which might trigger us. But this isn’t possible in reality, and knowing your coping mechanisms for when triggers do strike, can be incredibly helpful.

2. Big I / little i

Since I was first introduced to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (‘CBT’) about 20 years ago, I’ve been using CBT tools and techniques on a daily basis to manage my emotions and behaviours. For instance, where I used to take negative feedback very badly, I’m now much better at taking things on the chin and learning from feedback, using the “Big I / little i” method that’s commonly used within CBT (see Fig. 1 below).

Fig. 1 – “Big I / little i”, Taken from: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/

The “Big I / little i” technique is essentially about decoupling mistakes or perceived criticism from who you are as a person. For example, if I make a mistake in communicating with others, this doesn’t make me a bad person (“Big I”), it’s one of my many acts and behaviours, and one that I can look at and improve (“little i”).

3. Write. It. Down.

Have you ever been frustrated at work and your frustration turned into something much bigger: you feeling very deflated about your product, your colleagues, your job, etc. Before you know it, something that started as a molehill quickly evolved into Mount Everest. Whenever I want to stop my spiralling frustrations, I take a minute to grab my notebook and write it down.

I’ve learned how the mere act of jotting your thoughts down on paper quickly, can be incredibly helpful in gaining perspective and blowing off steam. If you’d like to add some more structure to your thoughts, then I’d highly recommend the “Cognitive Journal” which is part of the CBT toolkit (see Fig. 2). Journalling the “Activating Event”, “Beliefs”, “Consequence” and “Disputing” (‘A-B-C-D’) helps to not only capture what happened but also to look inward to figure out which personal beliefs were trigged and its consequences. For example:

A – Your boss tells you that she isn’t happy with the product feature that was just released to market.

B – You believe that your boss now sees you as incompetent and you feel that you’ve failed.

C – “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.”

D – “No way is my boss going to fire me!” Prior to this feature, I’ve helped create many products our customers love.

It’s easy and totally human to spiral into fatalistic thinking. Thoughts like “Perhaps my boss will now fire me; I’ll be unemployed and I’ll never land another job as a product manager.” Writing these thoughts down can help to make you reflect, and successfully challenge your negative thinking (“Disputing”). See it as a valuable “pause” moment, whereby you temporarily put a specific goal on hold and stop asking “What do I next?”

Fig. 2 – “Cognitive Journal”, Taken from: https://www.1alliancecps.com/wordpress/2013/09/02/cognitive-behavioral-therapy-cognitive-journaling-using-the-abc-model/

4. (Radical) Acceptance

In the book “Emotional Intelligence”, internationally renown psychologist Daniel Goleman writes about the process of ’emotional hijacking’, and describes how we as humans can be taken over by our emotions. In my view ’emotional hijacking’ implies that it’s ok for a person to accept their emotions and whatever caused the emotion to take over. Is there no limit to acceptance of your emotions!?

Upsetting others – deliberately or accidentally – is something I’ll always try to avoid. Naturally, I can’t control how other people perceive my sharing of emotions, but it’s something I’ve become more mindful of over the years. For example, when I just started out as a product manager I used to really voice my anger or frustration to such an extent that the other person would be fearful of me … Realising this, made feel upset in turn since my goal wasn’t to scare or upset people, in my mind I was just being honest and open.

I’ve learned a lot from reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach, particularly about the best ways to accept the emotions I’m feeling or thoughts I’m thinking on my own, as this helps me to effectively take the sting out of the moment and have less of a negative impact on the emotions of others. Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that I’ve become a wallflower and that I only speak in dulcet tones 🙂 but I will take a minute or say to try and think before I talk or share my emotions (I’ve written about this previously).

 

 

Acceptance also means accepting your flaws and mistakes, and helps to accept things not going to plan or serious mistakes that you’ve made. Again, acceptance doesn’t mean that you simply resign to failure or a bad situation. In contrast, acceptance of a problem or a bad decision can make you see it for what it is, and be more constructive about it. For example: What can you do to solve a problem? What can you do to improve a situation? What will you do differently next time?

Amanda, a product person who I really look up to, told me once when I was upset that we as product managers act as problem solvers, irrespective of whether we’ve created the problem or not. And her saying this really helped me to understand that there’s no point just fighting or denying a problem. Instead, we should focus on what we can do to undo or improve things.

5. A word of warning

I wish I could say that I always lead by example when it comes to managing my emotions and practice what I preach 24//7.

 

 

It was only last week where I showed my frustration in front of my team and in hindsight I wasn’t happy with the way in which I’d expressed my frustration with what I felt was a lack of urgency and commitment. The point I’m making here is that eradicating frustrations or emotions completely is nigh-on impossible and possibly not even desirable.

“Honesty” and “Authenticity” are two of my core values which means that I’ll always try to say how it is and stay true to myself. I’ve therefore accepted that I might say or do things that might not sit well with other people and their personal values. However, I’m constantly learning to be mindful of other people, their beliefs and ways of doing things. Managing my own frustrations first helps me to better manage my own emotions, and get the most out of the people that I work with – in the right way. My hope is that you’ll find some of the aforementioned tools helpful in managing your own emotions.

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/living-forward/201504/3-simple-steps-control-anger-and-frustration-others
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/happiness-in-world/201202/how-manage-frustration
  3. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/
  4. https://beckinstitute.org/get-informed/what-is-cognitive-therapy/
  5. https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/category/cbt-cbc/
  6. http://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree
  7. http://www.danielgoleman.info/topics/emotional-intelligence/
  8. https://www.tarabrach.com/store/
  9. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S000579671000238X
  10. https://beingwellcenter.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/9-traits-you-should-know-about-your-temperament/

The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend

Back in May I spoke at the annual Shift Conference in Split, Croatia and in my talk I looked at the collaboration between product managers and engineers. In “The Product Manager Is Your Best Friend” I tried to demystify some common perceptions about product managers and engineers alike.

For instance, the myth that all product managers are rockstars who can solve any business or customer problem single handedly:

 

 

Or the myth that all developers are fragile beings who just want to be left alone and write code:

 

 

In my talk, I examine what makes a successful collaboration between product people and engineers, and why. I introduce the product feedback loop and its individual stages, looking at roles and responsibilities at each stage:

 

You can watch the full talk below. Let me know your thoughts!

 

 

My product management toolkit (31): hiring product managers

More than 5 years ago now, I wrote about my first experiences with hiring product managers. In the piece I wrote about the key traits I look for in product managers and specific things to capture during the recruitment process. Since then, I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of product management candidates, compared notes with peers and read books about recruitment. All these inputs have made me realise the following:

Hiring good product managers is HARD!!!

There’s no set definition of what makes a good product manager – or what makes a product manager to start off with. Product managers tend to come in all shapes and sizes, and more often than not, they will have done a variety of different roles prior to turning to product management. Also, the demands of a product manager are likely to vary per organisation, based on size, maturity, type of product, culture, etc.

Over the years, however, I’ve developed a number of questions, though processes and tools which I use when recruiting product managers for my teams. Realising that recruitment is a very broad topic, I’m going to focus predominantly on the specific things to consider before you even kick off the hiring process.

What does good like?

Good (product management) recruitment starts with asking a few key questions first:

  • Why do we need this role? – Especially when your organisation hasn’t hired a product manager before, this is a critical question to ask before you set the recruitment process in motion. For example, is your startup big enough for a product person to drive ongoing product development, and is the founder ready to let go of some of this responsibility? Or: is an organisation which has built successful products without a product management function ready for product managers to join?
  • What are the specific gaps that the product manager needs to fill? – The specific problems – short and long term – that a product manager is expected to solve are far and few between. The nature of these problems is unique to factors such as the maturity of the organisation and the position of your product within its lifecycle (see Fig. 1 below). Be clear about the specific value you expect the product manager to add (see also “What do you need to hire a product person for?” below).
  • Which are “must have” attributes that you need in a product manager? – Naturally, the specific hard and soft skills you treat as “must have” when hiring are totally subjective. I’ve nevertheless found it very helpful to distinguish between “must haves” – i.e. non-negotiable skills – and “nice to haves”. To illustrate, I’ve outlined some key aspects that I don’t want to compromise on when hiring product managers (see Fig. 2 below).
  • What type of product manager are you looking for and why? – I recently read the High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil and his great book contains a section about “The four types of product managers” (see Fig. 3 below). Often companies will need a mix of the four types or require a person to be one type only.

When do I need to hire a product manager?

Figuring out when to hire your first product manager is the million dollar question. Some people will start looking for product people when:

  • The input of the founder(s) alone is no longer enough to create a great product.
  • Your business is starting to frustrate or lose customers.
  • You’ve reached the point where the product starts to scale.
  • You’ve reached the point where the business starts to scale.
  • Too many good ideas, but struggling to decide about which one to focus on next?

Once your product hits market-fit – i.e. you’re in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market – I recommend having a dedicated product person to drive further product iteration and market growth. Also, when you find that you’re losing touch with your (target) customers and their needs, it’s time to hire your first product person!

 

 

Let’s look at the flip side, and zoom in on those circumstances when you don’t need to hire a product manager just yet:

  • The founder is in a position to drive to product.
  • The product hasn’t achieved any form of market-fit yet.
  • You don’t have customers yet (and you just want to see whether the product has got legs instead).
  • or: is worried about letting go of the product.
  • You need someone to simply execute on your product requirements.
  • There’s a need to implement ‘Agile’ in the business.

I’m all for executing ideas, making them a reality, but I’d argue that you don’t necessarily need a product manager to make things happen. For example, if you’ve got a clear specification of what needs to be built, then a good project manager can help you execute agains this spec.

 

What do you need to hire a product person for?

I often come across companies which are on the lookout for a product manager without fully knowing what they expect from that person. Sometimes it will be down to the company’s investors telling them to recruit product managers or a strong desire to become more product centric. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with either motivation, it’s important to recognise that product managers come in all shapes and sizes, naturally excelling at certain aspects of product management and weaker in other areas.

As with any role, a number of characteristics make up a great product manager and unless you manage to find the perfect unicorn, you’ll have to decide upfront which characteristics are absolutely non-negotiable and which ones you consider to be a bonus.

 

 

Instead, I find the traditional product lifecycle model a useful guide when thinking about the specific problems that I’d like an incoming product manager to solve:

Market Development (Stage 1) – You’ll need a person who’s happy to start from scratch, unafraid of ambiguity and who is comfortable experimenting until the product achieves market-fit. Problems to solve here:

  • Creating a Minimum Viable Product in the truest sense of the word, demonstrating customer value and testing key business hypotheses.
  • Learning about customer needs and behaviours fast and translating these learnings in product iterations.
  • Developing a go-to market approach for the product, feed into initial product positioning and pricing.

Growth (Stage 2) – At this stage of the product lifecycle, I recommend looking for someone with experience of or appetite for scaling a product.

  • Continuously optimising the product based on data insights, both quantitative and qualitative.
  • Making tough tradeoff decisions and being able to say “no” to certain product requests.
  • Measuring performance of the product to ensure key goals are being met.
  • Localising or modifying the product, in case of new market entries or new customer segments respectively.

Maturity (Stage 3) – With a mature product, you’re unlikely to suddenly see a massive spike in your product’s customer base or usage. Problems to solve here:

  • Safeguard the product experience and value for existing customers.
  • Optimise the product and resolve any bugs or defects.

Decline (Stage 4) – Your product is at a crossroads as it’s declining. The customer base or usage are in decline. Problems to solve here:

  • Deciding whether to terminate a product or feature.
  • If you do decide to terminate, managing existing users of that product.
  • Transitioning customers to a new product.

By concentrating on different problems to solve at these product lifecycle stages, you can see how there’s no one size fits all solution with respects to the product manager skills required.

Fig. 1 – The Product Lifecycle by Theodor Levitt – Taken from: https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle

 

Main learning point: Granted, recruiting great product management is by no means an easy task. However, by doing some careful thinking about the what and the why of a product manager role for your business, you can make a well-informed decision about whether you need a product person and if so, what that person should look like.

 

Fig. 2 – Non-negotiable requirements when I hire product people:

  • Having the customer at front of mind – Do you truly care about the customer and solving customer problems?
  • Curiosity being a crucial driver – How curious are you to learn new things, to simply try things and learn?
  • Focused on solving problems – Can you demonstrate an inner drive to discover and solve problems?
  • Comfortable communicating up and down – Especially when things have gone wrong, and you have to explain things to people across the business, customers, suppliers, etc.
  • Not afraid to make decisions, big or small – How do you prioritise? Demonstrate tough tradeoffs you’ve made? Which decisions did you get wrong and how did you come back from those?

Fig. 3 – The four types of product managers – Taken from: Elad Gil, High Growth Handbook, pp. 252 – 253:

  1. Business product manager – These product managers are strongest at synthesising external requests into an internal product roadmap. Business product managers tend ton thrive at enterprise software  companies, or working on the partner-facing portions of consumer applications.
  2. Technical product manager – Technical PMs are often (but not always) deeply technical people who can work with engineering on areas like infrastructure, search quality, machine learning, or other inward-facing work.
  3. Design product manager – Most commonly found working on consumer applications, design-centric product managers are more user experience-centric. Some companies will convert a designer to be the product manager for a consumer product, just like they will convert an engineer into a technical product manager.
  4. Growth product manager – Growth product managers tend to be quantitative, analytical, numbers-driven, and in the best cases wildly creative and aggressive. The focus of the growth product manager is to (1) determine the critical levers needed to drive product adoption and use, and then (2) to manipulate those levers.

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://pmarchive.com/guide_to_startups_part4.html
  2. https://hbr.org/1965/11/exploit-the-product-life-cycle
  3. https://a16z.com/2012/06/15/good-product-managerbad-product-manager/
  4. http://growth.eladgil.com/book/chapter-7-product-management/characteristics-of-great-product-managers/
  5. https://stripe.com/atlas/guides/building-a-great-pm-org

What product managers can learn about Design Systems

What makes a good product? What makes a well designed product? A few years ago, I learned about design principles and how principles such as “not getting in the way (of the user)” and “content first” can drive product design. Imagine my initial confusion and intrigue, as a non-designer, when I first heard about a “design system”. Chris Messina – former designer at Uber – has come up with a useful definition of what a design system is:

 

“Design systems provide a convenient, centralized, and evolving map of a brand’s known product territories with directional pointers to help you explore new regions.”

 

Later, Messina went on to add that “Design never was just how it looks, but now it’s also how it sounds, how it speaks, and where it can go.” Apart from capturing how brand and product communicate, look and feel, a design system is also a critical component when it comes to scale. Just take this statement by Vikram Babu – product designer at Gigster – for example:

 

“The problem facing design today isn’t a shortage of skills or talent but that design doesn’t scale when you move from a few screens of designed components to a platform of developed patterns where adding people only complicates the problem… hence design systems.” 

 

The key thing I learned about the value of design systems is that they intend to go beyond just a collection of design elements. Typically, companies will have a style guide. However, more often than not these style guides contain a bunch of design elements or patterns, but not create a fully comprehensive design language or tone of voice, as Nathan Curtis – owner of the EightShapes design firm – explains:

 

“A style guide is an artefact of the design process. A design system is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving an ecosystem.” 

 

This raises the question how one goes about creating a design system. Some things that I’ve learned in this respect:

Before you get started

  1. What’s your company vision look like? And is mission?
  2. Which problem is your company looking to solve and why? For whom?
  3. What are the company values which underpin your company culture, product and service?
  4. What problem(s) are we trying to solve through the design system? Why?
  5. What’s the desired impact we expect the design system to have on the way we work?

Getting started

  1. What does the current design and design look like? What works and what doesn’t? Identify the gaps.
  2. Define some underlying design principles, which underpin a fluid and developing ‘design ecosystem’ (see Airbnb as a good example; Fig. 1 below).
  3. Create a visual design language, which comprises a number of distinct but ever evolving components (I loved Adobe’s Nate Baldwin breakdown of some of these components; see Fig. 2 below). Common components of a visual design language are: colour, typography, iconography, imagery, illustrations, sizing and spacing.
  4. Create a User Interface and pattern library.
  5. Document what each component is and how to use it.

 

Fig. 1 – Airbnb design principles – Taken from: https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/

  • Unified: Each piece is part of a greater whole and should contribute positively to the system at scale. There should be no isolated features or outliers.
  • Universal: Airbnb is used around the world by a wide global community. Our products and visual language should be welcoming and accessible.
  • Iconic: We’re focused when it comes to both design and functionality. Our work should speak boldly and clearly to this focus.
  • Conversational: Our use of motion breathes life into our products, and allows us to communicate with users in easily understood ways.

 

Fig. 2 – The foundation of creating a Visual Design Language by Nate Baldwin – Taken from: https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793

  • Clearly defined semantics (and no, “error”, “warning”, “success”, and “info” aren’t nearly enough)
  • Thorough and mature mapping of core elements of design with clear purposes and meanings
  • A solid family of UI components and patterns that effectively support the semantics, and use design elements (based on theirmeanings) to support the meaning of the components
  • Thorough, comprehensive documentation about the visual communication system

 

To make this a bit more concrete, I’ll look at three good examples of design systems, by Google, Bulb and Salesforce.

 

Google Material Design

 

 

Bulb

 

 

Salesforce Lightning Design System

 

 

 

Main learning point: It’s important for product managers to understand what a Design System is and the purposes it serves. Even if you’re not directly involved in creating or applying a Design System, it’s key to understand your company’s design language and how it applies to your product.

 

 

Related links for further learning:

  1. https://bulb.co.uk/blog/introducing-bulbs-design-system
  2. http://design.bulb.co.uk/#/patterns/styles/colors/README.md
  3. https://www.fastcompany.com/90160960/the-design-theory-behind-amazons-5-6-billion-success
  4. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/guide-to-design-systems/
  5. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/scale-design-systems/
  6. https://medium.muz.li/how-to-create-a-style-guide-from-scratch-tips-and-tricks-e00f25b423bf
  7. https://www.invisionapp.com/blog/secrets-design-leadership/
  8. https://www.lightningdesignsystem.com/
  9. https://www.uxpin.com/create-design-system-guide
  10. https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-build-a-design-system-with-a-small-team-53a3276d44ac
  11. https://www.uxpin.com/studio/ebooks/create-design-system-guide-checklist/
  12. https://blog.prototypr.io/design-system-ac88c6740f53
  13. https://medium.com/thinking-design/what-is-a-design-language-really-cd1ef87be793
  14. https://airbnb.design/building-a-visual-language/
  15. https://material.io/design/

Is it Time for a Licence to Practise Product Management?

This article was first published on https://www.mindtheproduct.com/ on August 14, 2018

I recently came across a piece by Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director of Mule Design, titled Design’s Lost Generation, in which he makes the case that designers should require a licence to do their job.

Mike got me thinking; should product managers also require a licence do their job? After all, we’re a sizeable professional community and having a product management certification or licence in place would ensure that all product managers comply with the same standards.

But is it even possible to standardise product management, and in any case would this be desirable?

The Case For Licensing and Certification

I started my working life as a corporate lawyer in The Netherlands, so I had to obtain a professional licence to do this job. Looking back on both my legal and my product management careers, and studying common product management challenges, I can see there are a number of reasons in favour of licensing and certification:

  • Seal of Approval — Your company’s product is likely to be in good hands if it’s being managed by a licensed product manager.
  • Recruiting Product Managers — You only recruit product managers with a licence and the appropriate certification.
  • Quality Control — Increased consistency of quality and professionalism among product managers, since they’ve all studied the same content and standards.
  • Increased Accountability — If product managers act unethically, their licences can be revoked.
  • Broader Understanding and Recognition of What Product Managers do — Similar to government and industry bodies, if there were a single product management licence or code of conduct, it would help gain a wider understanding of the product manager role.
  • Ruling out Unethical Products and Behaviours — By codifying an agreed list of behaviours and standards that all product managers are expected to comply with. This can be outlined further in the right level of product management certification.
  • Keeping on top of Latest Trends, Approaches and Standards — A product manager could only have their licence renewed after obtaining relevant professional certificates or demonstrating compliance with set standards.

So I can see where people like Mike Monteiro are coming from; licensing would keep the (ethical) quality of products high and eradicate unethical products or behaviours. Professional certificates could be used as a way to continuously educate product managers about professional and ethical standards.

Why I’m not Convinced

However, from my experience as both a lawyer and a product manager, I believe that licensing isn’t the Holy Grail for either product managers or the companies they work for. This is why:

  • Product management isn’t yet a standardised discipline — The legal profession is well established, and deeply rooted in legal systems that are centuries old. There are serious consequences for people who don’t abide by the law. In contrast, the craft of product management is still developing. There isn’t a set way to practise product management, and it’s much more about a mindset.
  • Killing off creativity and diversity — By certifying and licensing we would create a significant barrier to entry into product management. One of the things I love is the diversity of background of most product managers. These different prior experiences add distinct flavours to someone’s approach to building and managing products.
  • No bulletproof safeguard — Even if we were to go down the route of licensing and certification, we shouldn’t be under the illusion that unethical products would automatically be a thing of the past. There are plenty of questionable lawyers with shady practices out there!

In short, I don’t believe that a licence and certificate based on set standards or requirements for all product managers is desirable, or even viable, at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we look at two alternative steps that will help us move towards solving the problems that licensing looks to address: a manifesto and certification.

What can be Done Instead — Manifesto and Certification

Similar to the original Agile Manifesto, I’d love for a group of product management thought leaders to get together and devise a “Product Management Manifesto” which stipulates the basic standards that we should adhere to.

While not being as “strict” as a universal product management licence, the manifesto and the principles it contains would heavily influence a product manager’s day-to-day approach and decision making.

One way to treat such a manifesto as a living and actionable document is by creating certificates which enable Product Managers to continuously learn about the core principles stipulated in the manifesto. There could, for instance, be certificates that cover “appropriate usage of customer data” or “continuous iteration”.

I guess the challenge with these kinds of certificates is to not make them too restrictive, as that would create the risk of removing the creative and innovative elements from product management. Equally, the certification content would have to move “with the times”, constantly adapting to evolving societal needs and circumstances.

Too Early?

I think it’s too early to look at a single, industry-wide licence that all product managers should comply with. Product management is still in its infancy, and a licence or code of conduct would create more confusion than good at this stage.

Instead, I suggest we start thinking about a Product Management Manifesto, outlining core principles to strive for in everything we do as product managers. This will in turn drive associated certification.

Given that product managers are rapidly growing in numbers and that our discipline is gaining broader appeal, I think it’s time to start a serious discussion about moving this idea forward.

The Agile Manifesto was conceived in a ski lodge, but before I start to look for somewhere similarly cold and inaccessible for a meeting, please leave a comment below to share your thoughts about the Product Management Manifesto and what should be in it. Let’s get started!

App review: Forest

My quick summary of Forest before using the app – I think I first heard Nir Eyal, who specialised in consumer psychology, talk about Forest. Given that Nir mentioned the app, I can imagine Forest impacts people behaviour, helping them achieve specific outcomes.

How does Forest explain itself in the first minute? – “Stay focused, be presented” is Forest’s strap line which I see first. This strap line is followed swiftly followed by a screen that says “Plant a Tree” and explains that “Whenever you want to focus on your work, plant trees.” This suggest to me that Forest is an app which aims to help people focus on their work and eradicate all kinds of distractions.

How does Forest work? – The app first explains its purpose in a number of nicely designed explanatory screens.

After clicking “Go”, I land on a screen where I can adjust time; presumably the time during which I want to focus and avoid any interruptions.

I set the time at 10 minutes and click “Plant”. I love how, as the time progresses, the messages at the top of the screen keep alternating, from “Don’t look at me!” to “Don’t look at me!” to “Hang in there!” Nice messages to help keep me focus and not fall prey to checking my phone. At any stage, I can opt to “Give up” which presumably means that the tree that I’ve been planting – through staying focused – will be killed.

I’m motivated to see this through and plant my first tree. When I complete my 10 minutes of uninterrupted time, I expect to see a nice tree right at the end of it. Try and imagine my disappointment when I don’t see a tree but instead am encouraged to create a Forest acount

Did Forest deliver on my expectations? – I can see how Forest helps people to focus and avoid checking their phone constantly. Just want to explore the gamification element of the app a bit more.