Product Thinking along with Design Thinking have become buzzwords in the tech industry. People have advocated using Product Thinking for all kinds of scenarios, but Product Thinking isn’t ubiquitous amongst Product Managers. This article explains what Product Thinking is, clarifies why it isn’t used more, and explains the benefits of this approach.
Product Managers definition and job description
A Product Manager’s job is not always well defined. In many companies, the role can be strikingly different. At its core, the role is about ensuring the day-to-day success of a product in the market, however, a Product Manager is somebody who ensures decisions get made.
To be able to make decisions, Product Managers will have to ensure their product has a vision and a strategy. If a strong vision and strategy are created and agreed with stakeholders, it should make the life of a Product Manager a lot easier.
To maintain a strong product, a Product Manager will need to navigate a difficult path between the needs of stakeholders in marketing, sales, research and development, support, and any other department. Most importantly, they need to learn how to say “no.”
They are also a curator of ideas. A mistake that often gets made is that Product Managers are often thought of as the originator of ideas on how to develop their product. Yet, there are more good ideas already for how a product should develop. Their job is to ensure those ideas are found and their business value is understood so that they can choose the right ones.
Definition of Product Thinking
Product Thinking has a lot in common with Design Thinking. At its core, it’s about an extremely user-centric approach to problem-solving.
The main difference between the two is that whereas a designer will assume the problem needs to be solved and will concentrate on finding the best solution, Product Thinking also involves considering if the problem should be solved at all.
It’s often said that a Product Manager should be in love with the problem they’re solving, but they will also need to consider the business opportunity associated with solving that problem.
I spent a few years in start-up incubators, and a common experience of seeing the excitement of new entrants eventually turn to disillusionment as it dawned on them that the problem they were solving wasn’t something that anybody thought was worth paying for in the end.
Doesn’t every Product Manager engage in Product Thinking?
It’s very easy for a Product Manager, particularly when their product is mature, to become a waiter who serves their customer’s literal demands and convince themselves that they are serving the market.
You fall into a trap of not thinking tactically, not strategically. Your product starts to only serve existing customers, especially those who shout the loudest.
You’re ultimately doing even those customers a disservice because it means they are limited to what they can imagine for the product, they are no longer getting the benefit of outsourcing their problems to someone who researches widely and brings the best the market has to offer into their product.
From a strategic perspective, it becomes a major problem also, because the Product Manager has become so occupied with serving discrete demands, they’re no longer considering the wider business objectives of the product.
Why are Product Managers not already using Product Thinking?
Most Product Managers came to the role via another job altogether. My own background is software development, for example, but common routes are pre-sales architects, Project Managers, and product designers.
It’s therefore relatively rare for any PM to have completed any formal training, but they will bring their background to the role. For techies like me, it’s really easy to focus too much on the features you’re building and not the business value you’re trying to create, or even the end users you’re trying to delight.
If you’re over-focused on the areas you are familiar with, you won’t think of the product holistically, which leads to poor product vision and strategy.
As I pointed out earlier, with no strategy, decision-making becomes impossible, so you become reactive to every new request, leading to the waiter pattern.
If you’d like to know how strong your strategy is, consider that if every customer request looks like a good idea, it’s a sign that your strategy isn’t clear, and you avoided hard decisions when you crafted it.
Objectives needed to craft the strategy for a Product Manager to use Product Thinking?
A good objective is memorable, relatable, and can be measured unambiguously. An example of a good objective: I want to double the revenue in six months.
This objective may or may not make sense in the context of your company strategy, but it is a well-framed objective since you know what you have to do, and more importantly, you will know unambiguously if you didn’t achieve it.
A good objective is memorable, relatable, and can be measured unambiguously.
An example of a bad objective is to improve the usability of the product. This objective turns up all over the industry, but it is a poor objective, even though no Product Manager would not want to improve their product usability. So, what’s wrong with this?
First, it’s not clear who you are improving it for. If your product is aimed at technical people, they may value flexibility, meaning that the learning curve, to begin with, is slightly higher, however for non-technical people, they may be happy to sacrifice flexibility to be able to get the value they wanted easily and quickly.
You could claim that it’s not obvious why doubling revenue is strategically important to focus on for the next six months, but that wider context is even more important in the case of usability.
Usability is often seen as inherently desirable, but a Product Manager has to balance spending time on this versus other activities that a user may find more important.
A hotel with a simple and delightful shower controller in your en-suite sounds great until you find out that they should have been ensuring they could deliver hot water to every room first.
A better objective would focus on what the customer or user is trying to achieve. Is usability important because it takes too long to achieve the first goal after buying the product? Is it a problem because customers are churning? Can you tell if people spending longer per visit are more likely to become long-term customers?
An objective shaped around engagement is more likely to be unambiguous, and it means that you can trust the product team to worry about whether usability or some other initiative is required. The real challenge is that finding metrics that genuinely push your company metrics is difficult, and your first attempts will invariably be wrong.
Why do clear objectives help with Product Thinking?
The best objectives are those that relate to how customers interact with your company and your product. By doing the work to develop clear objectives, your roadmap contains a set of customer-focused initiatives, not just a wish-list of features.
Benefits Product Thinking brings to a Product Manager
It gives them a focus on the customer and their business, not just the attributes of their product. To have a focused strategy, the product has a greater chance of success since it is built with the customer in mind.
A good example of where you can see the fingerprints of a Product Thinking approach, it’s worth looking at GitHub’s API. Some time ago, they hired a Product Manager who focused exclusively on their API.
You can see evidence of this in how they market their APIs with specific Calls to Actions, and in how aware they are of the learning needs of their users. Their documentation isn’t just extensive, it’s also very aware of the user journey most users have, and the fact that they will probably need to convert from the REST API paradigm to GraphQL.
Lastly, they seem very aware of the fact that most technical users will want to try an API to see how closely it matches what the documentation promises, so they offer a sandbox where you can play with your real data.
Ultimately, Product Thinking is about reminding Product Managers that their product is just how they deliver value to customers. It focuses their minds on their customers and their business and less on their products. That might seem counter-intuitive, but the best products happen because someone’s priority was the people who needed it to solve their problems.
Discover the role of an API Product Manager.