Book Review: “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy

Do you know the difference between an assumption and a hypothesis? 

An assumption is something that you suppose to be true, such as “Often PMs are engineers.” A hypothesis is also something that you suppose to be true, but it is stated in an unambiguous way so that it can be tested

This is the second edition of the famous book UX Strategy by Jaime Levy. While I wanted to read the first one, that never happened! There are a lot of tactical level details in this book which are omitted, in my view, because of the conciseness of the book, nevertheless it should serve as a good reference point! In short, if you want to give structure to your product development philosophy, you should give this book a try. One important caveat the author makes is that the UX strategy practice she described in the first edition is now synonymous with product strategy. So relax all the product managers out here!

Cover Image of the Book “UX Strategy” by Jaime Levy

I have tried capturing the essence of the book in the following headers

A. On Business Strategy, UX Strategy and Product Vision

A shared product vision means that your team and stakeholders have the same mental model for your future product

A good business strategy is one centered around the customer. This is why you must validate your presumed customer segment and their unmet needs. 

  • User experience (UX) strategy lies at the intersection of UX design and business strategy
  • It’s an empirical process! 
  • Experience strategy is the combination of business strategy and UX strategy. The “user experience,” or “UX,” is how a human experiences a digital product while attempting to accomplish a task or goal
  • A stellar UX strategy is a means to disrupt the marketplace through mental model innovation

As a product matures with a growing user base, it’s crucial to revisit your strategy. Conducting validation experiments to discover new customer segments, marketing channels, and revenue streams is a job that is never done

B. On Components of UX Strategy and Lean Startup

Four tenants of UX strategy are 1. Business strategy 2. Value innovation 3. Validated user research 4. Frictionless UX

The discovery phase is where UX strategy begins. The output of the discovery phase should be based on empirical evidence, such as getting direct input from target users before going straight from an idea to wireframes and development

The business strategy identifies the company’s guiding principles for how it will position itself and still achieve its objectives while beating the competition. For this to happen, the business must continually identify and utilize a competitive advantage

For a more mature company, the strategy is about building on the company’s core value proposition while trying to evolve the company’s infrastructure and internal processes to support that growth, often called digital transformation!

Business Model Canvas—customer segments, channels, value propositions, revenue streams, and customer relationships—are elements that are essential to creating a product’s online and offline experience

Lean startup made conducting validated user research a make-or-break aspect of moving forward on a product’s strategy. Validation is the process of confirming that a specific customer segment finds value in your solution

Lean Startup was proposed by Ash Maurya in 2010. Its components are 

  1. Customer segments 
  2. Problem 
  3. Unique value proposition 
  4. Solution 
  5. Channels 
  6. Revenue streams 
  7. Cost structure 
  8. Key metrics
  9. Unfair advantage

C. On User Research

Research hypotheses are the answer to the question “What are the most important things I need to learn to determine if my solution is desirable and viable?”

Use your research to validate your decisions and ensure that the product vision is aligned with the end user’s needs

  • The purpose of conducting user research is to understand the needs and goals of your target customer in order to inform the product’s value proposition
  • Confronting your target customers is nonnegotiable. We must learn as quickly as possible if the idea we are working on is stupid and worthless
  • Don’t take what your stakeholders or team says at face value. To learn what potential customers want, hunt them down in person
  • It’s contested if you should ask a customer what they would pay for a product. Customers may lowball you or have no idea. however, getting a sense of what customers expect to pay may be helpful for informing marketing and pricing strategies

Customer discovery is about listening and not selling. The customer interview is actually made up of three parts: the introduction, the screener, and the interview. When you ask the money-shot question, just capture the essence of the person’s response and, if appropriate, ask any relevant follow-up questions

Qualitative research relies on the observation and collection of nonnumerical insights such as opinions e.g. focus groups, contextual inquiries, and ethnographic studies.

  • Ethnographic research—the study of people in their natural environment—is all about getting to the deep, dark places, much like the qualitative personas
  • Do not begin interviews with small talk. Be professional!

D. On Value Proposition

A value proposition takes the form of a concise statement that summarizes the unique benefits customers can expect from your product or service i.e. value proposition is what a company promises to deliver to the customer

But value propositions are not valuable if they do not solve a real problem. The followings are the steps to define a value proposition

  • Define your primary customer segment
  • Identify your customer segment’s (biggest) problem
  • Create provisional personas based on your assumptions
  • Conduct customer discovery to validate or invalidate your provisional persona and problem statement
  • Reassess your initial value proposition based on what you have learned!

E. On Customer Segmentation and Value Creation

The customer segment is a group of people with a common need. These segments can be identified by a combination of demographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes. For B2B products, you should create two personas: one for the person who will be paying for the product (i.e., the CTO) and one for the person who will be using the product

The problem statement should not presuppose a solution until the problem has actually been validated. By having product teams focus on the problem statement, they are more likely to have an open mind when ideating on solutions

Don’t confuse persona archetypes with stereotypes. Because personas provide a precise design target and also serve as a communication tool to the development team, the designers must choose a particular demographic characteristic with care

Because the provisional persona represents a group of people rather than one person, think of a concise, descriptive name to characterize the segment, such as “Gen X Parents in Los Angeles” or “Jewish Expats in Berlin.” It is useful to articulate common demographic denominators. Location is useful because it forces your team to pinpoint where a market for your product might exist instead of targeting the entire world

Motivation and behavior lie at the heart of value creation. Whatever product you are devising, it is crucial to understand what will motivate people to use it

F. On assessing customers’ needs and goals

What are their product-relevant hopes and dreams? What do they need to solve their primary pain point? What specific needs or goals aren’t being satisfied by available solutions or workarounds? What are the limitations they face? What is the job they are trying to get done?

  • This section is particularly important to get right because it will inform your product strategy the most. You want actionable statements that address underlying customer concerns

G. On Competition, its definition and analysis

Direct competitors are companies that offer the same or a very similar value proposition to your current or future customers. Indirect competitors offer a different value proposition, but somehow their solution may satisfy the needs of your target customer

Investigate your competition

  • What are they doing right? What are they doing wrong? Why should customers come to you?
  • Conducting research on the competition is a crucial component of business strategy
  • The most efficient way to do a comprehensive competitive analysis is to collect all of the data in a matrix
  • Scour YouTube and Vimeo for publicly available demonstrations, tutorials, and product reviews. If you need more information than what you can find online, you may need to bring in an outside agency
  • For native mobile apps, you can currently get the last month’s downloads without an account using Sensor Tower
  • One always needs to be on your toes, agile, and ready to scrutinize your competitor’s newest ideas and immediately see how they might affect your product vision
  • By benchmarking the competition, you’ll find opportunities to create value by either innovating or optimizing the best UX and business model practices of other competing products
  • If something looks incomplete or missing, did you or whoever did the research overlook an obvious competitor that needs to be considered?
  • SWOT analysis of a nonexistent product or business moves us into the land of make-believe. This is why it’s more meaningful to use it for evaluating competitors from their perspective

H. On what to build?

Reaching beyond existing demand is a key component of achieving value innovation

To get your idea juices flowing on the key features, ask yourself these questions:

  • What will make your provisional personas (hypothesized customers) love this product?
  • What is the aha moment or part of the user’s journey online or offline that makes this product unique?
  • What is a major pain point that you are trying to solve that is not currently being solved by competitors?
  • What kind of workarounds are your potential customers currently doing to accomplish their goals?
  • What is the core benefit for your customers that is derived from the output or manipulation of either your proprietary algorithm and/or data set?
  • What is the functionality or page/screen layout that needs to be designed from scratch because there is no reference for it in any other digital product?

A product recommendation should answer the following questions

  • Can a specific feature be majorly improved or new technology integrated to help customers do something that currently is too complicated or time-consuming for the existing alternatives?
  • How can you make the product experience more personalized or “smart” to increase adoption and engagement?
  • Is there a new revenue stream or disruptive business model that can be experimented with?
  • How can you achieve a competitive advantage that your competitors can’t easily replicate?

If your analysis reveals that the initial value proposition is facing certain risks, your recommendations may need to suggest a pivot on the targeted customer segment or the specific problem

Your future customers need to want to choose your solution over any other because 

a) it’s significantly more efficient than what’s currently out there, 

b) it solves a pain point they didn’t know they had, and/or 

c) it creates an undeniable desire where none existed before

I. On Prototyping

As we prepare to prototype, we’re finally juggling all four of the tenets at the same time. Don’t burn your time, money, or efforts on a product that has not been tested and validated with target customers

These are the critical questions that we need our prototype to answer:

  1. Does the solution solve the problem or major pain points that the target customer expressed?
  2. Does the target customer find the key features valuable?
  3. Would the target customer pay for the product or use it in a way that can be monetized?

The answers to questions 1 and 2 help us validate our value proposition. The answer to question 3 will help us validate our business model

To keep the long story long, this line from the book has resonated well with me. Sometimes, people have fixed ideas, and no amount of research will change their minds. <Then ask yourself> Will I help this person make their product regardless of the research, or do I walk away?

Tough words, how many of us have the courage to walk the talk?! If you don’t get this part right – costs will have to be borne by the team, company and often careers of the people involved whether or not they realise it at that point. In short, don’t solve wrong problems for your own good!

—–

PS: Pop Quiz for UX Geeks!

Q. Do you know the difference between concierge, Wizard of Oz and mechanical turk? 

A. These are the techniques for conducting value proposition experiments!

  • Unlike concierge, customers don’t know that a human is in the loop in case of Wizard of Oz
  • When someone says they are mechanical-turking a product, it typically means they are building a frontend with a human-powered backend to manually simulate a complex digital product. It’s like a crowdsourced version of Wizard of Oz

Book Review: “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz

Did you know that the collective value of all organic traffic in the world is more than a trillion dollars!

First a little story. In 2011, when I started my product career with Naukri.com (India’s largest public Internet company by market cap as of Apr 2021 and leading classified site for over 20 years), I had ZERO idea about anything called SEO. Anyway I was tasked to work on the jobseeker acquisition and engagement funnel at the classifieds leader and happened to work with an inhouse SEO team. Frankly, I did not know anything about the term called “Product-Led SEO” or that term existed in wider usage until I happened to chance upon this book

As I progressed through this book “Product-led SEO: The Why Behind Building Organic Growth Strategy” by Eli Schwartz, I harked back to those times a decade back and could retrospectively see the work our team did fit well into the paradigm this book describes. Little surprising now that Naukri was able to fend off any impending threat from many job aggregators like Indeed, Mitula or Jooble as well LinkedIn to a certain extent during that time while successfully managing to navigate the web to mobile transition. The absolute traffic from SEO grew by 3x in those 4 years and in my assessment a sound SEO position remains a competitive moat for the company till today!

Book cover of "Product-led SEO" by Eli Schwartz
Cover Image of the Book: “Product-Led SEO…” by Eli Schwartz

Coming to this book, it is a good concise one arguing essentially that product-driven growth when combined with SEO’s strategic application can unlock growth for most companies. One should not expect hands-on SEO domain knowledge from the book, for which there are umpteen online resources one can refer to. However this book does neatly describe challenges any SEO leader and practitioner faces in a complex org and offers clear tips to navigate the org dynamics. The author, in my view, remains honest in recognising the limitations of SEO craft in driving low-cost growth which makes his advice throughout the book even more credible. So let’s dive in!

General Background about SEO

SEO is an acronym for Search Engine Optimization, and that it is a process of taking known rules of how search engines work and building it into a plan to improve upon the visibility

  • Product-Led SEO builds a great product for users first and optimizes for search second
  • Maximizing SEO visibility requires taking the known rules about search engine best practices and applying a level of creativity and logic to develop a strategic approach
  • Focusing efforts on technical SEO, on-page factors, or user-experience optimization together is essential to drive results through SEO

In general, these are the 5 stages of how Google or any search engine works 

1. Discovery 

  • Discovery is the algorithm that crawls the web to identify new pages and sites that Google has not previously indexed

2. Crawling 

  • Once a URL is discovered, Google has to decide whether it wants to expend the resources required to crawl the URL. It’s typically constrained by crawl budget for every site that Google enforces

3. Indexing 

  • The indexing algorithm determines how to cache a web page and what database tags should be used to categorize it
  • The indexing algorithm will decide whether to trust the content or not based on technical SEO signals on the page
  • The most important part in any SEO audit is to check whether links are getting indexed by Google

4. Ranking 

  • Ranking uses the information from the first three algorithms to apply a ranking methodology to every page

5. Intent understanding (BERT)

  • This NLP algorithm launched in 2018 doesn’t directly impact the rankings of websites for queries, it rewrites the actual queries to what Google believes the user is searching

Latest trends in SEO

1. Complaints that SEO is only getting harder are a byproduct of all the AI already included in the algorithm

  • Google doesn’t just have a better understanding of what its users want, it has used AI to dramatically change how it values links
  • This is the change with the biggest impact on users

2. Frequent software updates from Google including the the two biggest updates to its algorithms

  • The first update was called Panda rolled out in 2010. The goal of Panda was to flush out sites that used keyword matching just to rank on highly searched terms without providing content of any value to those keywords on the page
  • The second algorithm update was called Penguin and was released in 2012. Penguin’s target was manipulative link-building practices. When Google discovered unnatural links, it levied a penalty on the site

3. Mobile SEO and Trends in Voice Search

Google ranks websites on mobile optimization the same way it does on a desktop. Google recommends having a mobile-responsive site that will look and function great on a mobile, tablet, or desktop environment. The nuances between SEO for desktop and mobile are in how users interact with search and websites after they click

  • However, on mobile there are fewer results, meaning a number-five slot on mobile is essentially like being on page two of results
  • A mobile-first index merely means Google is ranking the content of a website that is visible to a crawler that emulates a mobile browser

4. While mobile was last decade’s big paradigm shift in SEO, this decade is going to be all about voice and smart assistants

  • Also the number-one reason voice search is never going to replace multiple results is voice must be perfect, and perfect is never possible in our changing world
  • Also as voice assistants get increasingly more powerful, having a proper schema is important

What’s product-led SEO?

The key part of building a Product-Led SEO strategy is that it is a product (an offering of any sort) that is being built. An ideal Product-Led SEO strategy is programmatic and scalable, creates something new, and addresses untapped search demand i.e. build an experience that is useful for users first, and the search engines will follow

Product-Led SEO requires thinking of the reader and why they should spend their precious time enjoying the content

  • Create the content that you know there is untapped demand for. Google will reward you and will direct users to you with search-query suggestions
    • Nevertheless unlike other marketing methods, content is inherently trackable and should justify its RoI
  • Bad content for paid marketing channels is less prevalent than that in SEO since marketers know that the costs are high in case the content is not engaging their users enough

Should SEO be the focus area for early stage companies? 

  • The author recommends that early-stage companies first spend as much as they are comfortable allocating toward paid marketing before they shift to SEO. Also SEO investments should not be made by businesses that are close to the edge on survivability
    • Paid marketing will help quickly determine product-market fit, identify customer journeys, and generate revenue. Knowledge gained from paid marketing will help SEO maximize its success
  • In later-stage companies where the new hire will only work on SEO projects, prioritizing skill sets is critical
  • The business category and type of customer are two of the biggest factors in how one should invest in SEO. Visibility only matters when you are visible to the right user. For many categories, especially long-sales-cycle B2B, SEO is absolutely the wrong investment
  • SEO is an optimization channel, not a demand-creation channel. SEO efforts improve the visibility of a website when the demand is already there

Competition and SEO

1. For SEO, the competitor is any site targeting the same search terms. Also one should assess whether she is targeting queries that real humans would actually write? Since search is all about queries written by users, the underpinning of any tactical effort is keywords

2. Pay attention to your competitor’s specific tactics, whether in the content type or technical setup. How, specifically, is that site driving growth?

3. Predicting how the competition might react should be an essential part of how you develop your SEO strategies

What’s an SEO persona and how to identify it?

SEO persona is the one that pays you (or whatever the conversion element might be), and one should track those people back to the original acquisition source. Those people will be aggregated into the persona buckets that should be your focus

  • Persona research should answer questions, such as where in the buying funnel a user might be when they’re visiting a particular piece of content

Channel Strategy and SEO

1. Brand traffic is great, but it doesn’t indicate SEO success. Growth of branded traffic will plateau at the natural penetration level of the brand. The focus of SEO should always be on non-branded search since their potential is immense while branded search grows with brand awareness.

  • Consider also that good ranking on targeted keywords is often aspiration and may never be achieved
  • Paid could dominate brand placements at a very inexpensive cost in a way that organic never could. OTOH SEO is a hybrid between branding and performance traffic
  • Word of mouth is also not a sustainable strategy since that can dissipate quickly

2. SEO and paid marketing are very similar from a performance standpoint. Ultimately SEO is done by humans for humans and it takes a unique person to be able to combine customer empathy with creativity layered in SEO knowledge

Duplicate Content and SEO

How is duplicate content generated? 

  • One area that is a common source of duplicate content is the lingering legacy of site moves and updates. So, when undertaking any big update or migration, it is vital to get it right
  • A full site migration should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary for legal purposes or branding needs. One major consideration to keep in mind with all redirects is the redirects likely have to be maintained in perpetuity
  • The primary takeaway on updates and migrations is that they should be done carefully, slowly, strategically, and with full consideration of the risks

How to identify duplicate content?

  • Google Search Console can be particularly helpful in identifying problems with duplicate content
  • It’s possible that so much of a website is duplicate, it could fall into the realm where the Panda algorithm might think the website is of too low quality to be included in Google’s index

Linking Strategy and SEO

1. Links are a critical part of Google’s ranking algorithms, as a link to a page is a vote of popularity and contextual relevance. Quality is not created by a website alone. The page giving the link will also have its own authority, which will be determined solely by the search engine

  • Every domain has to stand on its own within the web, based on its own backlinks. Google claims to view hundreds of factors in determining rankings, links have always been a very prominent part of the calculation 

2. Attract links instead of acquiring them. Most social media links (Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc.) do not count as quality SEO backlinks. To generate links, just do what a PR agency would. Build relationships with journalists, understand what they like to write, and pitch stories

  • Some of the best link builders use PR methods
  • In your link-building efforts, be creative and generate unique data

3. Externally, page rank is a two-way street, so a site that wants to hoard all of its page rank would nofollow all its external links. Many websites inundated with spam links, including Wikipedia, opted to make all their outgoing links nofollow by default

  • It’s very likely there’s no real difference between a follow and a nofollow link, so one should not place much stock in the classification of a link

4. A site directory does not have to be a visually well-designed page to be effective. It can truly be an alphabetized list of every category and page on a website

  • The ideal internal-link graph looks like the route map of a budget airline that thrives on point-to-point connections

5. Featured snippets: This is when Google takes a portion of a website’s content to answer a user’s question and puts it in a box in the first position. If you are just looking for awareness, this might be a feature; otherwise, else avoid ending up in these boxes

Stakeholder Management and Navigating Org Dynamics for SEO Leaders

1. Justifying RoI. SEO should be measured the same way any product is measured: by adoption and engagement

  • Much of effective SEO Product management, especially in a large company, is about diplomacy
  • For smaller companies, if you are competing on search with a large competitor, know that you have the advantage, as they can never adapt to change as fast as you. Negotiating the system in a larger company is part of the essential skill set
  • Most sites cannot do statistically significant A/B testing on SEO because of traffic significance. Large sites can, and a change might lead to lower average ranking positions on search, but if its net result is higher conversions, it is a winner

2. One has to consider that rankings alone, as a KPI for SEO, is a vanity metric and should never be used in budgeting, or financial modeling. Also since paid and organic searches are both going after the same user, the author recommends strategizing each channel’s core competencies and having each focus on its strengths

3. A good metric in growth in impressions on search pages. Use the data you have and not the data you think you should have. Then, find a way to test and trial until you build the data you need

4. Using keywords as a predictor of how much search traffic you can expect to generate is not a viable option for a few reasons since there is competition for high traffic words and some keywords may not even exist

  • Without the ability to rely on keyword search as a north star for your new product, you need to find a proxy instead. Use a tangential product that might have similar demand, and use the search volume for that site

5. For a growth-minded Product manager or marketer, the bureaucracy can be negated by embracing incremental wins as a method to succeed. SEO should be viewed as a Product in and of itself

  • Instead of asking the engineers to update a whole bunch of SEO requirements, ask for engineers (or content or money) to build X for SEO

All in all it’s a great book for product leaders and founders to understand and lay foundations around as to how SEO can potentially unlock growth for their product! For really low level details about the art and science of SEO, author refers to very authoritative sources which can be explored. Hope you enjoy reading this book!

Book Review: “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book “Empowered: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Products” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones is a must read for all product and business leaders. Marty’s earlier book “Inspired”is probably the most-referred book for aspiring / noob product managers, authors need no introduction to the authentic insights they bring!

What follows next is my recollection of broad themes, key takeaways and compelling arguments the authors put forth. Authors have relied on their learning from 500+ organisations of different scales, what they state is generally applicable. That the book was published during Covid times is testimony to the new realities we are all living in around resilience, adaptability to change and staying true to our core values amidst volatility. Unstated but these themes keep recurring throughout the book

Cover Image of the Book: “Empowered” by Marty Cagan and Chris Jones

The book is divided into 81 chapters, although most chapters can be independently read like a well-written blog. The authors differentiate strong product teams from what they call feature teams (one striving to serve the business) and most of the book is organised around helping leaders create strong product teams in their organisations. In the strong product team, the purpose of the product org is to serve customers by creating products customers love, yet work for the business. The book also argues that the key to building strong product companies is having strong product leaders

On coaching mindset

  • Coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom
  • Developing people is job #1 for managers
  • To earn trust of the team, be interested in the team member as a person
  • While a team member’s self-assessment to develop a career plan is helpful, the manager should not hesitate from correcting the difference in perception between him and the team member. Not doing so is abdicating the responsibility!

On developing talent

  • The biggest difference between competent PMs and effective PMs is probably their people skills
  • It’s manager’s responsibility to bring a new product manager into the team and unless she is competent enough to ensure the person is NOT doing harm to the team and is making reasonable decisions
  • Constructive feedback is the main source of value you provide as a manager. There should never be surprises in annual reviews related to performance!
  • A written narrative for major decisions / products is helpful to be an exceptional product leader. It’s mostly a 6-pager doc with narrative in the first few pages followed by FAQs that might come from key stakeholders
  • An employee with an owner’s mindset takes responsibility for the outcomes rather than just the activities
  • Ability to think is the single most important behavior of a capable product person. How to assess this in interviews is by probing what the candidates do when they don’t know they answer
  • Three critical characteristics of strong product teams no matter what processes they use are
    • tackling risks early 
    • solving problems collaboratively
    • and being accountable to results
  • A product manager’s career will survive mistakes which inevitably happen if she is on the whole dependable in her commitments, always works toward the company’s best interests, and takes responsibility for her mistakes
  • Also coach your people around ethics of product management i.e. whether something should be built in addition to viability, feasibility, usability and valuable
  • As a leader, it probably helps to measure success by the growth of people one has managed or helped throughout the career
  • Also the leadership is not about you, it’s about the team member. More like an actor vs. director in a theatre aphorism “don’t fix a line”
  • Leaders need to set the expectations, establish the governance that acknowledges necessary boundaries—but removes barriers to progress—and support the teams with the necessary tools and resources

On stakeholders

  • In general the more senior an executive in the organization more likely they care about everything – customers, brand, revenue, compliance
  • Product managers need to invest in trust before they need it
  • On imposter syndrome: if I don’t do home and prepare thoroughly, the fear of looking clueless is what drives preparation. It’s not necessary something to fight against
  • Treating stakeholders like customers may dilute the role of true customer
  • On reducing number of meetings: if there is a way to make them happen asynchronously like status update is generally better

On decision making

  • The authors describe a colloquialism by Jim B, former CEO of Netscape
    • If you see a snake (i.e. an important decision to be made), kill it
    • Don’t play with dead snakes (past decisions)
    • All opportunities start out looking like snakes

On hiring

  • Hiring is the responsibility of the hiring manager and not the HR!
  • The best product companies hire competent people of character, and then coach and develop them into members of extraordinary teams
  • There are two bases of hiring 1. Competence 2. Potential. Nothing wrong in hiring basis 2 as long as hiring manager is willing to invest time to develop the person
  • Product vision is one of the most effective tools for recruiting great product managers!
  • Every new hire should raise the average of the people
  • Reference checks should be taken seriously especially to weed out toxicity in behavior which can be hidden during the interview process 

On product vision

  • Vision answers two critical questions 1. What’s the end game 2. What is my team’s contribution to it? It’s purpose is to inspire and it’s told from customer’s perspective
  • Evangelism is never finished. Just because a person is convinced one day doesn’t mean they will not be unconvinced the other day 
  • Product vision should be accompanied by product principles or tenets in order to provide guidance to PMs in decision making

On team topology

  • Establishing an effective team topology is one of the key responsibilities of a product leader
  • The best team topology will balance the needs of product, design and engineering orgs
  • Topology choice should be guided by the team empowerment, real ownership, team autonomy and alignment with other facets of the company
    • Optimise for the product team rather than executives, managers or access to customers!
  • Beware of Conway’s law i.e. shipping your org chart!
  • If you’re making changes to team topology more than once a year, something else is wrong
  • Platform teams reduce the cognitive load for experience teams in using the underlying technology whether customer facing or customer enabling

On product strategy

  • While product strategy starts with focus, it depends on insights. Product strategy requires choice, thinking and effort. For elements of the product strategy are 1. Focus 2. Insights 3. Actions 4. Management
  • Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on few pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes

On OKR framework

  • If the leaders want the product team to feel ownership of the results, then the key results must come from the team
  • The team will also need guidance from leadership on how ambitious or conservative (roof shot or moon shot) they should be in pursuing solutions
  • Activities are not key results, outcomes are 
  • All of the work need not be OKR. There could be some high integrity commitments which need to be tracked differently
    • High‐integrity commitments are intended for situations where you have an important external commitment or a very important and substantial internal commitment. They are the exceptions
  • It’s normal and often wise for different teams to chase the same objectives simultaneously
  • Technology makes many things possible, but if it doesn’t deliver on the needs of the customer, it will not deliver on the needs of the business

On product leadership

  • There are 3 things a product leader will be judged on a. Business results b. Product strategy c. Product team
  • Evangelism is one of the critical roles of product leaders in mid- to large companies
  • Top methods of evangelization
    • Use prototypes 
    • Share the customer pain
    • Share the vision
    • Share the learning i.e. information the audience needs to help come up with solution
    • Share credit generously 
    • Learn how to do a great demo! It’s sales!
    • Spend time with your developers, designers and product managers
    • Show genuine enthusiasm!
  • The best source of innovation are your engineers!

In short, a must read book for all product and business leaders. The book contains decades of product leadership experience in a very concise and easily practicable manner and you can keep it like a ready reckoner for quite some time to come!

Book Review: ‘Decoding the Why’ by Nate Andorsky

This book “Decoding the Why: How Behavioral Science is Driving the Next Generation of Product Design” by Nate Andorsky can be summed as the one attempting to bridge the gap between what is loosely known as gamifying the product experience and a typical product development in non-games companies. As you would have observed, even before Covid – product companies were focusing on driving user engagement and retention through non-monetary interventions. In a horizontal product world – everyone trying to do almost everything else – user attention is literally a currency!

Image 1: Book Cover of “Decoding the Why” by Nate Andorsky

In author’s own words, the book is intended to give readers a baseline understanding of how behavioral science integrates into the product design. What now follows is summary of the book in Q&A format

What are the limitations of an archetypal user research oriented product development process?

Basic flaw with user research could be that most of the time, one is asking users to provide explanations of behaviors they don’t truly understand themselves! OTOH, mimicking competitors’ products creates an echo-chamber of product design

Our innovations will only live up to their full potential if they are built on an understanding of the human experience. While context plays a significant role in how our behavior manifests, the underlying mechanisms remain constant and this is where behavior oriented process gives an advantage

How does the human brain function?

Tversky and Kahneman’s seminal paper, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” proposed that we attack complex problems using a limited number of heuristic principles—basically shortcuts. The brain typically operates in one of two modes: automatic and reflective, often referred to as System 1 and System 2 thinking. System 1 runs on autopilot and it’s possible for these systematic errors to be understood and “predicted”. System 2 is slower, more methodical, and dedicated to solving complex problems

How does one get started on this new approach? 

The author introduces three kinds of data points one should be cognizant of

  1. SAY data: subjective information collected from users
  2. DO data are the analytics—what users are doing on the website or product
  3. The WHY data. If you understand the WHY data behind the DO and SAY data, it unlocks a world of possibilities

How do we fight inertia wrt current user behavior?

We have a bias toward the present, giving stronger weight to present payoffs than those that will happen in the future. Present Bias ties into another theory, Hyperbolic Discounting, which states that we have time-inconsistent preferences

The way we perceive our future selves is similar to the way that we perceive a stranger. The further out into the future the loss or gain happens, the more heavily we discount it. To offset Present Bias, we must close the gap between our current selves and our future selves

In general users who perceive more personal stability over time tend to behave in a more future-oriented fashion—one that aligns better with their future self. However when the reward is too far off in the distant future, one needs a substitution to fill the void

OTOH users need guidance when they make decisions. Without guidance, they can fall into Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice i.e. when presented with too many options, we have a hard time making a decision. This is why good on-boarding and product tutorials may be sometimes critical to product adoption!

How do we design for a reward cycle?

It is important to first consider the desired action before one integrates the reward

The fundamental building blocks of a reward cycle are: trigger, action, investment and reward. Nir Eyal notes that the reward should be variable, and there should be an investment component where the user puts something into the product such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money

Dopamine is the high you get from experiencing something new and exciting. The nervous system produces dopamine during the experience of reward, but even more interesting is that the production of dopamine also happens in anticipation of a reward. The closer we get to receiving a reward and missing it, the more likely we are to engage in said behavior again. Overall, rewards and incentives don’t necessarily have to be financial as anyone who has watched Tik Tok’s growth can vouch for!

How to choose between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators?

Daniel Pink, NY Times Best Selling author opines that the three elements he believes make up true motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Intrinsic motivation drives creative tasks that are open to interpretation.

A good rule of thumb is to leverage external rewards to promote interest in an activity that is easy but may not initially interest a user. If it is a specific, relatively easy task with a concrete outcome, easy to do, and with an endpoint, extrinsic motivators would be a good place to start

Then, if possible, trigger intrinsic motivations to reinforce the action over the long term

How do we get people to keep acting on their intentions?

Commitment devices help us follow through on our intentions. A common form of a commitment device involves a person voluntarily giving up something of value that they can only regain access to by following through on their commitment. It’s more effective to structure a commitment contract where the reward money is theirs to lose rather than gain. Think of an example, of incentivising student participation in class by tying higher participation to a picnic the school will organise later in the year

Commitment contracts don’t always have to come in the form of money. These commitments can be to another person or a group of people. Goals should not be so big or far in the distant future that they feel unattainable

One should not underestimate the power of cues in precipitating an action. Others give us cues regarding what we should do. Even a small subset of a larger group making a confident move can influence the rest of the group. Social norms and the pull of the crowd can help your users follow through on their intentions. The way to drive behavioral change predicatively is by changing norms and changing the rules, effectively changing someone’s environment. Important part is to understand how to change the behavior, and the outcome will follow

Why are goals so powerful?

Regulatory Mode Theory studies the development of goal-pursuit as well as motivation. The theory lays out two main approaches from a social cognition perspective regarding the pursuit of goals: one is assessment, and the other is locomotion. Scoring high on assessment means you evaluate your options before making a decision and while scoring high on locomotion means you need to always be doing something

Streaks are a powerful way to incentivize action. They provide a sense of progress that plays into the natural way we see the world, our desire to avoid loss, and our need for growth and accomplishment

For example, the primary focus of Duolingo is to make the long-term benefits of learning a new language more immediately salient. Winning streak that increases its attractiveness as it lengthens, becoming a self-reinforcing system. On Duolingo, the grouping of these streaks is completely arbitrary. However, streak loss can be demotivating for some participants. Duolingo has countered this by allowing learners the ability to restore a broken streak

In short, people who set goals make more progress!

How do we signal trust?

We have a natural inclination to trust people who look and act like us, a bias called similarity bias. Aribnb used this to build trust between two people who have never met before in the absence of multiple reviews by creating similarity between the renter and rentee. However, if users share too little or too much about themselves, acceptance rates go down

So how did they design for this? Airbnb nudged users to write an introduction of the correct length and to include the right details about themselves. Airbnb also discovered that at a certain point, reviews trumped similarity bias. When a listing accumulated more than ten reviews, everything changed, people started trusting ratings more!

How to retain motivation?

Leaderboards spur competition, but they have weaknesses. Leaderboards can backfire. If a user gets too far ahead or too far behind, they disengage. In games, there are techniques employed like Dynamic game difficulty balancing (DGDB), also known as dynamic difficulty adjustment (DDA) or dynamic game balancing (DGB), which is the process of automatically changing parameters, scenarios, and behaviors in a video game in real-time based on the player’s ability, to avoid making the player bored (easy game!) or frustrated (hard game). Overall, a competition between users is a powerful technique to motivate action

How to leverage loss aversion to our advantage? 

Losses psychologically feel twice as great as an equal gain. Only prospective (future) costs are relevant to a rational decision, but we fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy. IKEA effect which describes the increase in the valuation of self-made products. While the participants weren’t experts, they saw their creation as ones created by experts. The more of a hand we have in creating something, the less likely we are to part with it. Fitness app Noom uses this to its advantage in their onboarding flows

Peanut effect as a way to counter big loss aversion!

The peanuts effect is when we fail to consider the consequences of small losses. In this case, it is a good thing. The peanuts effect is part of the reason slot machines steal all of our money. The decision to save is easier when framed in a way that spreads the potential losses into smaller increments. Momentum leverages the default bias and the peanuts effect to help everyday people close their intention-action gap

How to use emotions?

We process information about one identifiable person differently than information about a group of people. Identifiable Victim Effect, which seeks to understand what moves us to offer help. Think back to a powerful marketing campaign, and it would have revolved around stories. To move people emotionally, tap into layer two and convey the emotional experience to your audience. We are visual machines. The brain can identify images seen for as little as thirteen milliseconds. All types of companies can help users achieve their goals by making them the hero of their own journey – the way Pain Squad does for its users

How to integrate behavioral-first approach while building products?

The process is quite simple and can be summed as a series of steps below

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. Collect the SAY and DO data
  3. Compare SAY and DO data
  4. Identify potential behavioral drivers
  5. Identify potential behavioral solutions
  6. Create interventions
  7. Test interventions
  8. Iterate

As one can see, steps 4 and 5 are the most crucial ones and this is where learning and having an opinion about behavioral theories may help

Overall, we are just getting started in this interesting domain of marrying behavioral insights with product design. Academic understanding of what drives behavior precedes the implementation by about ten to fifteen years. Product managers and designers learn by taking theories and putting them into practice. Hopefully one should be able to discern where assumptions break down and where they start to work and then hypothesize why and fine-tune it!

Book Review: Product Leadership — How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products…

The book Product Leadership — How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams focuses on specific aspects concerning product leaders across different organisational stages

Basic premise of the book is about reinforcing that domain-specific skills aside, product leadership is more about leading people and less about pushing pixels, writing code or administering project schedules. And that it’s not about individual success, it’s about getting the best out of others

Below outline covers basic structure of the book and salient points

Key Traits of Great Product Teams

Efficient communication and decision making are key to great teams

The theme of having right people present to make daily, weekly or longer term decisions is ubiquitous in successful product teams

What’s Product Management?

The book starts with familiar UX, Tech and Business Venn diagram and its intersection to be the defining place of PM as far as these specialities are concerned. It then proceeds to describe genesis behind marketing and product schisms in many tech organisations where both departments feel they “own” the customer. The chapter ends with authors’ views on the future of product leadership revolving around driving customer experience in organisations

Product Leader’s Role

Product leadership position can be a source of truth and one of the purest forms of unbiased knowledge transfer for an organisation. Developing processes that remind teams of the customer and their needs is a big part of leader’s role. Operating at a cross-functional level is the whole point of having people who lead departments

How the team is recruited, developed and guided is probably one of the most important elements of product leader’s role. Product leaders also have first-hand insight into customer experience. In C-suite, specific to a product leader’s role is challenging task of synthesizing and figuring out other leader’s expertise and molding it to make the most effective strategy. Besides while leverage is essential elements of all leadership positions, what’s unique about product leadership is the leader’s sharp focus on strategy and to ensure that product strategy is essentially the company strategy

Product Leadership challenges

  1. Prioritisation: especially when it’s seen polarising by other stakeholders. Having a testable prototype through design sprint or directed discovery or having data behind design decisions could be helpful to reduce dissonance among stakeholders / executives
  2. Prioritisation can be modeled as co-creation exercise to neutralize politics in the organisation
  3. Managing upwards: knowing who is road blocker and who is decision maker
  4. Aligning and focusing the organisation: being passionate helps

Setting Product Principles

Getting buy-in from stakeholders for the first 5–6 things which need to be achieved in the year is the first step. Any feature should align with the product vision

Influence product manager’s decisions in the right direction since most often people do what they want to do and not exactly what you tell them to do. Make it valuable for both individuals and the organisation

Product discovery process should consumer larger time of a product leader. Also focus on why and how of the work

Successful product leaders are great team workers, seek challenge, remain attached to details, possess great communication skills especially written and demonstrate selling skills

Start-Ups and Product Leadership

Lack of clarity is the biggest challenge. Focus on the vision and not the chaos. And always solve the number one problem. Don’t skip to know your customer

In early stage products

  • Leaders can get to play the customer in order to bootstrap the system, then get in beta users and then daily users as proxy for customers
  • With so many tension, respect and empathy are part of creating a space where the team can be productive and supportive

Emerging Organisations and Product Leadership

Biggest challenge is to manage growth of the team. Have your first public win in the first 90 days as a new hire. Maintaining user focus is important. Vision is aspiration, while strategy is execution, maintain the distinction. In hiring, key is to separate the task the person did with team’s output

Enterprise Organisations and Product Leadership

An appetite for change needs to be nurtured especially when established products are concerned. Ensure that at least one product sets the company apart and focus on the most interesting customer segment. Undocumented checkpoints should be watched out for while executing product roadmap. And executives must avoid using sanitized data for taking decisions

Parting Advice

Ask often: is it valuable (to customer and business, feasible (to deliver) and delightful (to use)?

And always be learning!

Overall I found this to be a great book for understanding practical nuances of product leadership roles across organisation life-cycle. Since product management is essentially a leadership role, the book should be useful for all product people along the totem pole!

The book can be ordered from Amazon. Cannot link to Flipkart since site search was non-functional for a weird reason!