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: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

Finally I got hold of this book “Making of a Manager: What to do when everyone looks to you” by Julie Zhuo, I heard about it from Twitter and got intrigued. I recommend reading this book to all managers, especially the ones newly-minted as well those who want to ensure they are not reinventing learning from wildly successful companies like Facebook where the author has learnt the ropes – rising from an intern to VP of Design. Seeing the recommendations from Silicon Valley stalwarts in the first few pages of this book would probably motivate you to dive into as it did for me!

Cover of the Book: “The making of a Manager” by Julie Zhuo

You would find this book easy to read (can be finished over the weekend), situations relatable and advice quite sensible to put into action immediately. That said, the overall tone of the subject matter is generalist in nature and may not especially cover for the peculiarities that PM managers face. That should however not deter you from imbibing the deep lessons embedded in the short 10 chapters of this book. What follows is my key takeaways in the order in which they appear in the book

A. What is management?

  • A manager’s job is to
    • build a team that works well together,
    • support members in reaching their career goals, and
    • create processes to get work done smoothly and efficiently
  • Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together and therefore if the team’s outcomes are mediocre, you cannot be termed as a great manager
  • Being awesome at the job means playing the long game and building a reputation for excellence
  • Manager’s tasks can be filled into 3 buckets – people, process and purpose (making the team aware of what success looks like and ensure they care about achieving it)
    • Your role as a manager is not to do the work yourself, even if you are the best at it, because that will only take you so far. Role is to improve and process people or the purpose of the team! However if you are in survival mode, do what it takes!
  • How to know if you will be a great manager?
    • Do you find it more motivating to achieve an outcome or play a specific role?
    • Do you like talking to people?
    • Can you provide stability for an emotionally charged situation?
  • While manager is a specific role, leadership is the particular skill of being able to guide and influence other people and therefore in order to be a great manager, one has to be a leader!
    • If you can pinpoint a problem and motivate others to work with you to solve it, then you’re leading
    • Also leadership is not something that can be bestowed. It must be earned. People must want to follow you

B. What to do in the first 3 months as a manager?

The playbook varies depending on whether one is a freshly minted manager (apprentice), founding team member grown into a managerial role, new boss leading the team internally or an external hire or a successor replacing someone

  • To have hard conversations, it is essential to internalise that you own your team’s outcomes
  • To get honest feedback from your reportees, ask how their dream manager looks like
  • You need to proactively invest in building relationships. Being vulnerable sometimes helps in generating trust
  • You will be far more successful aspiring to be the leader you want to be and playing to your strengths than trying to live up to some other ideal

C. How to lead a small team?

  • No matter what work you do or the size of your team, knowing how to diagnose and solve problems with your reports is critical to your shared success
  • Trust is the most important ingredient
  • If the answer to your questions around “How are you” is fine for multiple weeks from a report, take it as a sign to prod further!
  • If you don’t truly respect or care about your team members, you cannot fake it! Managing is caring!
  • Supporting and caring for someone doesn’t mean always agreeing with them. What caring does mean is doing your best to help your report be successful and fulfilled in her work
  • If your report feels that your support and respect are based on her performance, then it will be hard for her to be honest with you when things are not going per expectations
  • If you can remove a barrier, provide a valuable new perspective, or increase their confidence, then you’re enabling them to be more successful
  • Your report should have a clear sense at all times of what your expectations are and where he stands
  • Help people play to their strength. However it does not have to always work since sometimes success is a function of personal and org priorities! 
  • When you decide to let someone go, do it respectfully and directly. Don’t open it up to discussion
    • Change is hard, but trust your instincts. Would you hire this person again if the role were open? If the answer is no, make the move
    • The end goal of management is to get better outcomes. When someone isn’t a great fit for his role, there is a cost
    • The growth mindset has taught us that anyone can get better at anything given the will, hard work, and time. The question is, how long would it take? And how would that affect the team?
  • Don’t tolerate brilliant assholes on your team, it actually is better off when they leave! In general, you should make people moves quickly!

D. How to be a great manager? Art of giving feedback

  • For a leader, giving feedback—both when things are going well and when they aren’t—is one of the most fundamental aspects of the job
  • Four common ways to inspire a change in behavior 
    • Set clear expectations in the beginning
    • Give task specific feedback as quickly as you can
    • Share behavioral feedback thoughtfully and regularly 
    • Collect 360 degrees feedback for maximum objectivity
  • Every major disappointment is failure to set expectations
  • You feedback only counts if it makes things better
  • The best way to give critical feedback is to deliver it directly and dispassionately
  • Own the decision, be firm and don’t open it up for discussion!

E. How to manage yourself better?

  • Being a great manager is a highly personal journey, and if you don’t have a good handle on yourself, you won’t have a good handle on how to best support your team
  • No matter how often imposter syndrome rears its ugly head, it doesn’t have to derail you
  • Be brutally honest with yourself
  • The first part in understanding how you lead is to know your strengths—the things you’re talented at and love to do. This is crucial because great management typically comes from playing to your strengths rather than from fixing your weaknesses
  • Develop a growth mindset i.e. be motivated to seek out the truth and ask for feedback because you know it’s the fastest path to get you where you want to go
  • When a negative story takes hold of you, step back and question 
    • Is your interpretation correct? 
    • Are there alternative views you’re not considering? 
    • What can you do to seek out the truth?
  • To fight self-doubt, visualise success. It is a powerful tool!
  • Maximize on the job learning. Treat your manager as the coach and not as a judge!
  • Take advantage of formal training! Or maybe professional coaching
  • When you invest in your personal learning and growth, you’re not just investing in your own future but also the future of your team

F. How to organise meetings?

  • Analyse efficacy of meetings by their purpose. It could be broadly of 5 types 1. Making a decision 2. Information sharing 3. Providing feedback 4. Generating ideas 5. Strengthening relationships 
  • A great decision making meeting has the following components
    • Gets a decision made
    • Includes the people most directly affected by the decision as well as a clearly designated decision-maker
    • Presents all credible options objectively and with relevant background information, and includes the team’s recommendation if there is one
    • Gives equal airtime to dissenting opinions and makes people feel that they were heard
  • Invite right people to the meeting
  • Give people a chance to come prepared. Float a pre-read if possible 
  • Before concluding the meeting, summarise next steps
  • Make it safe for people to contribute. Sticky notes or having a round-robin around the table are helpful
  • Some meetings don’t need you and be ruthless in culling ineffective meetings
    • If you trust that the right outcomes will happen without you, then you don’t need to be there

G. How to hire well?

  • Hiring doesn’t just matter at scale—even a single great hire can make a big difference in your team’s outcomes.
  • The most important thing to remember about hiring is this: hiring is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to build the future of your organization
  • Design your team intentionally. Have a thoughtful one-year hiring plan in the beginning. Tweak as you go along
  • Hiring is your responsibility. Align with your recruiter in defining the role, sourcing, the onboarding process and onboarding really closely
  • Describe the role as clearly as possible and deliver an amazing interview experience
  • Examine a candidate’s past experience. They are probably the closest predictor of performance at the job!
  • Hiring is a gamble but do make smart bets! And since it’s a gamble, reject weak hires!
    • If you are going to make a bet, bet on someone who has at least a few passionate advocates in the interviewing panel!
  • References matter the most, contact your common connections towards the same
  • Prepare your interview questions in advance. Take a long term view with top talent!
  • Build a team with diverse perspectives, hire people who are more capable than you!
  • You can’t create great outcomes without consistently attracting talented people and ensuring that they can also hire well
  • Make it clear that building the team is not just one person’s job, it’s everyone’s job!

H. How to make things happen?

  • Start with a concrete vision. An inspiring vision is bold. It doesn’t hedge. You know instantly whether you’ve hit it or not because it’s measurable. And it’s easily repeated, from one person to the next. It doesn’t describe the how, it simply describes what the outcome will be
  • Create a believable game plan i.e. strategy
  • Craft a plan based on your team’s strengths
  • Focus on few things well, prioritise
  • Define who is responsible for what
  • Treat big projects like a series of small projects. Keep in mind the planning fallacy: our natural bias to predict that things will take less time and money than they actually do
  • Choose perfect execution over perfect strategy
  • Good process is ever evolving. A resilient organization isn’t one that never makes mistakes but rather one whose mistakes make it stronger over time

I. How to lead a growing team?

  • Differences between big and small teams
    • People treat you differently. They’re less likely to tell you the ugly truth or challenge you when they think you’re wrong, even if you’d like them to
    • Context switching, everyday
    • You pick and choose your battles i.e. what are the most important topics for you to pay attention to, and where are you going to draw the line
    • At higher levels of management, the job starts to converge regardless of background. Success becomes more and more about mastering a few key skills: hiring exceptional leaders, building self-reliant teams, establishing a clear vision, and communicating well
  • Delegation is an art. It doesn’t mean you walk away!
    • The rule of thumb for delegation goes like this: spend your time and energy on the intersection of 1) what’s most important to the organization and 2) what you’re uniquely able to do better than anyone else
    • Anything your report can do just as well or better than you, you should delegate
  • People trump projects—a great team is a prerequisite for great work.
  • Beyond people, you and your report should be aligned on why you’re doing what you’re doing and what success looks like
  • The act of constantly trying to replace yourself means that you create openings to stretch both your leaders and yourself

J. How to nurture culture?

  • As you manage more and more people, you’ll play a bigger role in shaping culture. Don’t underestimate the influence that you can have
    • Pay attention to your own actions—the little things you say and do—as well as what behaviors you are rewarding or discouraging
  • Make a list of the aspects of culture that you admire about other teams or organizations. Why do you admire them? What downsides does that team tolerate as a result?
  • Never stop talking about what is important
  • If you say something is important to you and you’d like the rest of your team to care about it, be the first person to live that value
  • When a report does something difficult that is in the spirit of your team’s values, recognize them for it
  • Invent traditions. Rituals are powerful

This is a great book, do read and internalise the lessons. Almost all of those are universally applicable across roles!

PS: Additional recommendations from the author for frequent referencing are the book “Crucial Conversations”, articles like High Output Management and How to Win Friends and Influence People

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: “Strategy Excellence for Product Managers: A Guide to Winning Markets…” by Greg Cohen

This book “Strategy Excellence for Product Managers: A Guide to Winning Markets through Product Strategy” combines practical wisdom with theoretical frameworks we are already familiar with. In that sense, it’s a valuable read. The author Greg Cohen has 2 decades’ experience in the industry and the resultant scars are visible in his writing!

The book is divided into 11 chapters, however one can start reading from any chapter. In the beginning, the author tackles the question most business books tend to understate. The distinction between vision and strategy is that although vision creates a shared picture of the future, it does not take into account the fact that markets are dynamic. The author also opines why relative growth in a competitive scenario is validation of a good strategy 

Rest of this post summarises key learning from each chapter

Chapter 1

The vision inspires the team towards a better future. The roadmap shows how the vision will be achieved over time while the strategy is about positioning ourselves where the most value will be in the long-term. There are five inputs to a product strategy exercise namely customer, market, competition, technology and business strategy

For developing customer understanding, voice of customer research helps while when doing market analysis, the objective is to understand which segments are most important for the product vision. OTOH when analysing how technology impacts product strategy, it’s important to understand capabilities, adoption rates and its cost structure 

As a product manager where often the gaps are noticed is: not realising that the choice of strategy has to be evaluated in relation to the company’s capabilities and culture. So if the company is not investing in cutting-edge tech work, product strategy has to reflect that limitation

In short, the product strategy must incorporate the business outcome a product needs to fulfil for the company and the time horizon to meet that objective

Chapter 2

The product vision is any product’s raison d’etre. It is a high-level articulation that communicates the product’s value, often by painting a picture of the future

Unlike the product strategy, which can be complex and involved, the vision is an easy-to-understand articulation of the most important parts of the plan. The vision keeps three crucial factors

  • the target customer
  • the in-scope problems that the product solves; and 
  • the most important dimensions of the product

Chapter 3

A strategic roadmap distills the product strategy into sets of capabilities that one wants to release in a given sequence over a defined time frame. Strategic roadmaps ultimately answers the questions – why and why now

A strategic roadmap helps focus all stakeholders on the pieces of the product that must be developed to achieve the strategy and the roadmap has to be vetted against the team’s capacity to produce a credible plan

The three steps to developing a strategic roadmap are 

  • Laying out the external environment i.e. tech, regulation, market trend, competitors
  • Adding product plans and strategic objectives
  • Vetting the plan with dependencies and resource constraints

Chapter 4

In this chapter, the author introduces a few frameworks for prioritising product backlogs. These are summarised as below

  1. Return on Investment: quickly understood metric for company-wide projects and also easily “sold” to management. However it can sometimes prioritise short-term over long-term sustenance and that not all decisions are ROI led. Sometimes people also forget that ROI calculations are as good as assumptions gone into them
  2. Voice of Customer (VOC): This provides a good picture into customer pain points and of course VOC is essential component of every other prioritisation method. However sometimes market shifts can be missed if one over-indexes on VoC. Customer cannot quite often tell about new segments or markets to go after
  3. Must, Should, Could, Won’t (MoSoCoW): this is often hard to apply correctly and is not quite suited for innovation-led products. However it can be useful for first-level prioritisation in a release 
  4. Kano Model: It looks at how the inclusion or exclusion of a feature contributes to customer satisfaction and how that satisfaction changes based on the level of the implementation. However it does not include product strategy or cost view. Typically any feature in this framework can be modelled along three curves: Must Haves, Delighters and PerformanceHowever one has to consider that customer expectations change over time and today’s delighters could be Must Have very soon. Besides, customers are not often a monolith – so not all features are equally important in these buckets for all 
Kano Model

Image 1: Kano Model

  1. Prioritisation Matrix: This s a lightweight, fast, and effective tool to help stakeholders make their beliefs explicit. It is also likely the best way to link product roadmap to company’s strategy, however it is subjective and doesn’t include costs 
  2. WSJF Method: Weighted Shortest Job First method prioritises those items which deliver the most value soonest. The key factors when applying WSJF are: value; time sensitivity; risk reduction and opportunity enablement; and duration/effort. However it does not take product strategy or customer perspective into account
  3. Feature Life Cycle Based Prioritisation: essentially this method buckets features into proof of concept, validated learning, minimum marketable feature and polish features. This method however considers cost and risk. And based on the company’s strategy, some risky (POC!) features can be front-loaded
  4. Value, Risk, Cost Matrix: It can help us visualize investment allocation across a “portfolio” of new features. This lens is also useful for evaluating investments across projects. However value is not necessarily connected to product strategy and value and risks assessments are highly subjective 
VRC Matrix for Product Backlog Prioritisation

Image 2: Value, Risk, Cost Matrix: Prioritisation Priorities are indicated

One has to frame prioritization in the context of product goals and corporate strategy. Overall objective with prioritization is to develop a winning plan and get stakeholders to understand the prioritization

Chapter 5

As a product manager, one needs to focus on product growth and how the product is doing relative to the market. The Ansoff Growth matrix highlights broad phases per product lifecycle

Ansoff Market Growth Matrix

Image 3: Ansoff Market Growth Matrix. Product development is a depth strategy

Chapter 6

This chapter focuses on product-market fit. PMF typically requires focusing on 3 areas: problem, product and business model. If one takes business model as constant, we have 4 scenarios which product managers find themselves in

Image 4: Problem-product Solution Mix by Greg Cohen

When the business model itself is uncertain the hardest business models to test are those involving channel distribution. It takes time to grow channel relationships, and further time and effort to get those partners active

A nifty trick author proposes when doing customer research is to probe customers around 5Ws. Probe means asking ‘why’ without sounding like a 5-year old – Whys uttered 5 times! One can use phrases like “Tell me more”, “would you describe the last time that happened”, “what is the implication of that”, “how do you deal with that”, “what do you do next”

Chapter 7

This chapter focuses on purposeful learning. The sooner companies, product teams, and product managers are willing to acknowledge that they don’t always have all the answers, nor will they have the complete set of answers upfront, the better they will do at managing the uncertainties and risks of new product development

The most we can ask of any team is to deliver validated learning at all stages of the development process. To do this, you have to do two things: become a purposeful learner and create a learning plan

Few techniques to become a purposeful learner are 

  • PDCA: Plan, Do, Check, Act. Also known as the Deming cycle.55 This model assumes the scientific method can be applied, and that a statistically significant data set can be acquired. It works very well for web analytics and quantitative studies
  • OODA LOOP — Observe, Orient, Decide, Act: OODA explicitly incorporates cultural context. With the continuous application of the OODA loop, you can navigate an ever changing landscape
  • Build, Measure, Learn. Within all these processes, the core is to describe how one believes the world works and test it frequently

OTOH learning plans have a question and a test. The team should first formulate a question and then generate a hypothesis or prediction for each test

Chapter 8

This chapter focuses on basic strategy frameworks. There are two components to strategy – where to compete and how to compete. There are 3 ways in deciding where to compete: scale, depth and innovation. Whereas in choosing how to compete – there are 3 positions: leadership, value and low cost. Leadership companies (Apple) focus on delivering superior capability or performance at a premium price. Value companies (Amazon, Flipkart) focus on delivering a high value to price ratio, and low-cost companies (Dell) look to compete almost purely on price

Niching is when a company selects to serve a narrow segment of the market with a product that matches that segment’s unique needs and preferences. Author opines that the companies choose niching when they will struggle to succeed in the mainstream market. This can be contested, niching is sometimes quite a viable strategy to outcompete a behemoth. Think classifieds as a business model are still thriving – surviving 2 decades of technology disruption!

Chapter 9

This chapter provides introduction to familiar frameworks for doing industry analysis. Porter’s five forces framework is touched viz. threat of rivals, threat of new entrants, threat of substitutes, bargaining power of suppliers, and bargaining power of customers

  • When threat of new entrants is high, profit potential becomes limited
  • Non-consumption, or doing without, is also a substitute
  • Suppliers also have power if they offer highly differentiated offering or where there are no substitutes. Scale strategies and standardizing inputs allow you to improve your bargaining position with suppliers
  • Depth strategies are a way to gain power with customers
  • Innovation strategies, along with leadership or value differentiation strategies, are a way to avoid pure price competition with rivals. Relative market share is calculated by dividing your market share by your largest competitor’s market share

Porter’s Five Forces analysis allows us to understand the pressures on the different players in the industry

Chapter 10

This chapter can be avoided without much loss of information. This focuses on market Maps – powerful visualization tools to compare companies’ strategies for deciding where to compete

Chapter 11

This chapter focuses on pricing. There are three factors that influence the price one can command for the product: value to customer, competitive intensity, and costs. As an example, airlines successfully charge travelers different prices for the exact same product, a technique known as yield management

There are three basic pricing strategies from which to start: Penetration, Skimming, and Maximization

  • Penetration pricing is when a company prices a product low relative to its value. Jio’s earlier plan in Indian telecom industry is one such example. Freemium pricing strategies are a version of this pricing strategy
  • Skim pricing is when a company targets a segment of the market with a high willingness to pay, favoring high margins over volume. Apple’s pricing strategy in India is one such example 
  • Maximization is when a company focuses on optimizing total profit or revenue. Amazon as company seems to follow this
    • Contribution margin is the money left over after all incremental costs have been subtracted from each additional unit sold. Thus, contribution margin is the money that is available to cover the fixed and sunk costs of the organisationAfter subtracting all these costs, any additional money left over is true profit. To maximize profitability, you maximize contribution margin. This decision is independent of fixed and sunk costs

How you charge for your product is a key pricing strategy decision that is as important, if not more important, than what you charge because it is easier to adjust your price than to change your pricing model

You should not miss reading the appendix of this book where the author explains different kinds of product-business fit challenges through the case study format. Overall this book is a good read for a mid-senior level product professional!

Book Review: Practical User Research: Everything You Need to Know to…” by Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

“The issue with startups is not that they do not understand what UX is. I think they are just not ready for it”

“Stakeholders may not realize that face-to-face interviews with 12 people are more reliable than a survey with 100 to 200 respondents”

Have you ever wondered when you should involve user research into your product development? Or think that quantitative research is more reliable than qualitative research? Or wonder how user research can influence business strategy? Or confused about the difference between a user profile and user persona?

This book “Practical User Research: Everything You Need to Know to Integrate User Research to Your Product Development” authored by industry veteran Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit offers a systematic approach to incorporate user research into products. This book is a great read, and can be quite easily used in real life product management situations. Let’s dive in

Structure of the Book

The book is divided into 10 chapters. First 2 chapters concentrate on explaining to readers how user research as an expertise has come about and also how traditionally product development happens across industries. In Chapter 3, the author explains how product managers can introduce or evolve user research function into their organisation depending on their maturity. The author argues that the main obstacle to introducing user research into product development is maturity phase of the business. Chapter 4 and 5 explain how to prepare for user research

Chapter 6 explains main methods for quantitative research namely analytics, surveys and card sorting. Chapters 7 and 8 focus on collecting data and analysing findings for a few qualitative methods. Chapter 9 goes into aspects like ethics, compliance and consent in user research – areas which are generally considered as an afterthought. In the last chapter 10, author briefly touches on how user research projects unfold in real life through 10 case studies she has conducted across multiple industries and cultures

A. Introduction to User Research

User research consists of putting an end user’s needs at the center of the researcher’s investigation. Role of the user researcher is to provide evidence-based findings using quantitative and qualitative research methods. In user research, we are not interested in the demographics, job role, etc. We are interested in participant’s motivation or their behavior while using the product

Like many other disciplines, it traces its origins to the military. After WW2, there was a need felt for optimising weapons in order to minimise injuries to soldiers. Many disciplines like ergonomics, design, human-computer interaction, usability and user research emerged consequently

While doing research, we have the choice of taking a quantitative approach or a qualitative one. Often, stakeholders prefer numbers to case studies. However, when the research is properly done, both approaches are reliable and robust

Quantitative Research

  • Takes a top-down approach, starting with the big picture and using deductive reasoning
  • Validates a hypothesis, theory, or preconceived idea
  • Answers the questions how many, how often, and when
  • Doesn’t answer why or how people are using the website

Qualitative Research

  • Takes a bottom-up approach and starts from a specific observation and goes to a generalization and informs theory. It for the same reason leaves room for unexpected avenues
  • Identifies phenomenon, common patterns, and systematic occurrence
  • Useful to answer the questions how and why

Often, businesses have difficulties understanding that user research is not going to provide them with what they want to hear but rather help them identify what the user needs to perform a transaction, to complete a task, or to carry out their daily job

A typical digital product development goes through 5 phases

  1. Discovery
    1. Get a full understanding of the current situation. It helps to decide at the end of this phase whether the project should be moving to alpha
    2. If made correctly, this will limit the risk of failure and create a clear account of what should be done in alpha
  2. Alpha
    1. It is the moment when the team can try different options
    2. At the end of the alpha phase, the team should have a prototype representing the future service
    3. Sometime after completing an alpha phase, the team may realize that it needs to revisit original objectives and needs
  3. Beta
    1. Building stage of product development for the backend and the front end to provide a minimum viable product/service (MVP/MVS)
    2. At the end of the beta phase, the end-to-end minimum viable product should be ready to move to the private beta phase
  4. Private Beta
    1. Way to put live the new service with a small number of users
  5. Live

B. How research can fit into this framework?

Discovery: this phase is an excellent time to do competitive research

Alpha: In this phase, one can conduct pop-up research, also called guerrilla research which is a quick user testing session in which you test screens and prototypes with real users in their natural environment

Beta: One can test prototypes and solutions

Image 1: Integrating User research during PDLC. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

The following diagram summaries research methods typically used in developing digital products

Image 2: Methods used in User Research. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

How can one arrive at the Research maturity stage for the organisation since it’s so critical for continued success of the function? 

Author derives a version from the famed Nileson Norman corporate maturity model for UX

Image 3: Nileson Norman corporate maturity model for UX. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

While rest of the stages are self-explanatory, in Skunkworks user experience the organization realizes that relying on design team intuition is risky, and the organization starts requesting some data

Image 4: Savarit User Research Maturity Model. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

The author opines about a new trend in user research org: research ops team! It needs to be put in place once the organization already has a certain degree of UX maturity and a good understanding of the differences and advantages of conducting research in the product development life cycle. Typically sometimes user research leadership dons this role depending on size of the company, number of user researchers and project complexity!

C. How to prepare for User Research?

  1. Identify if you need user research for your product
    1. The first question to ask is “Does my product/service involve users?” f it does not include end users, you will probably not require any user research.
  1. Review the research that was done in the past and identify the gaps
    1. Identifying the gaps is the starting point of conducting user research and finding out what you don’t know
  2. Identify your users
  3. Build a case to get budget for your project
    1. While building the case to stakeholders, one has to make sure that they are not reinventing the wheel. One needs to have a clear account of what they are trying to do and why, what the benefits are of doing it, and what the risks are of not doing it
  4. Get your stakeholders on board to support the project
  5. Put in place the relevant capability to conduct the research

D. Research Preparation

This is the most important part of user research

Image 5: Steps in a Research Plan Document. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

Few points to remember here

  1. The methods to collect data are different from the research method that one may be using. The approach to collecting your data is not the way you are going to analyze the data. Following diagram provides a good heuristic

Image 6: Methods to Collect Data, depending on the development phase of the Project. Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

  1. Every participant has the right to withdraw at any time during the research. This should be respected
  2. Use a screener / questionnaire to recruit people for research. However be wary of panels since sometimes although using a panel is cheaper, but it may provide only those people who spend a lot of time taking part in studies, user research, and marketing just for the incentive
  3. It is easier to get participants if you are giving an incentive
  4. Organizing all documents in a clear format may save the team a lot of time

E. Research Methods // Quantitative Research Methods

Point to note here is that quantitative approaches used in isolation will provide only validation of preconceived ideas

Analytics: few points to note

  1. Business context is important while analysing data. For example, in grocery shopping, it takes more than two minutes to fill up a shopping basket. So time spent metric has to be interpreted carefully vis-a-vis other categories
  2. It’s important to realise that analytics alone is not enough, and does not answer the questions of why, how, and who

Surveys: Generally used to describe a population. A survey is a methodology that uses questionnaires to collect data

  1. The advantage of conducting a survey is that one can get a large sample size that will validate some of the assumptions
  2. Surveys are useful to validate findings from qualitative research or for data validation
  3. One can also pay for a panel; useful if looking for a specific audience that is difficult to reach

Card Sorting: It’s asking intended readers to sort items into groups or categories that make sense to them. Few online tools such as Optimal Workshop’s Optimal Sort or UserZoom’s Card Sorting can be used here. Types of card sorting can be of three types: open, closed, hybrid. Some of the use cases for using card sorting quantitative research techniques are

  1. Designing a new information product or improving one already existing: Open card sorting
  2. Whether different groups of readers use the same approach to finding items: Open
  3. Where new topics fit into an existing website or intranet: Closed
  4. Whether you can reduce the number of categories, by testing whether a smaller set still works well: Closed
  5. Set the tone of the organizational pattern while encouraging participants to generate and name their own categories: Hybrid
  6. Further explore groupings that were unclear in an earlier sort while providing categories for groupings that were clear: Hybrid

Having ~40 cards ensures that one will generate the data needed to make decisions about Information Architecture. Beyond 60 cards, participants will be less likely to complete the card sort

Also one must randomize the order in which participants see the cards and the categories unless there’s a specific order to test. This removes list-primacy bias from the overall result

Two of the techniques to interpret data from card sorting are: dendrogram and similarity matrix

F. Research Methods // Qualitative Research Methods

A qualitative approach requires a small sample however analyzing qualitative data takes more time than the data collection itself. Some of the methods used to collect qualitative data are contextual inquiries/ethnography, interviews, focus groups, user testing, and diary studies

  • To have reliable results with qualitative research, it’s recommended to have a minimum of eight people if you are conducting user testing every two weeks
  • When product is live or in private beta and if one wants to test the end-to-end journey before release, it’s recommended to have between 12 to 24 participants

Contextual inquiries/ethnography

Here the researcher conducts a face-to-face semi-structured/conversational interview within a user’s natural environment. It’s an observational approach. It’s recommended to be used at the start of every project

  1. Understanding their day and which tasks they have to complete at different times helps us understand which information they will require at time t
  2. It enables us to capture not only how they are using the current product but also to identify the other tools/products that they are using
  3. It however can be time-consuming and is more challenging to record

Interviews

User interviews are frequently used to capture general information about users. There are three types of interviews: structured (pre-defined response), semistructured, and unstructured (natural conversation)

Focus Group

It’s a session that lasts between one and two hours and takes place with six to ten participants who discuss a specific topic. It could be useful when you want your stakeholders involved in the project

Usability Testing

Usability testing/user testing is a face-to-face session with real users who are interacting with the product not only to evaluate the functionalities and the efficiency but also to capture the user’s behavior. However Usability is associated with quantifying success rate, task on time or error rates or satisfaction. User testing can be done as soon as there are some screens available. This is also useful for launching new websites and for evaluating end-to-end user journeys

Some techniques are A/B testing, eye tracking (when there is lot of information – tool Tobii Pro), guerilla testing or pop up research and System Usability Scale (SUS)

System Usability Scale

It is a quick usability test that is now a UX standard. It provides a high-level satisfaction score of the usability of a site, application, or any technological item. SUS is a simple, ten-item scale giving a global view of subjective assessments of usability

SUS scores have a range of 0 to 100. It is not a percentage. A score above 68 is above average, and a score below 68 is below average

Image 7: Interpreting SUS: gold standard for usability testing. Created by John Brooke (1986). Credit Dr.Emmanuelle Savarit

Diary Study

This approach permits us to get insights from users while they are experiencing a situation. The study is longitudinal and captures temporal information

  1. Diary studies are used a lot in the field of education to understand the learning process or seeing how streaming services are being watched
  2. It helps us uncover if participants develop any habits over time
  3. It also allows a peak into user impressions as well as their frustrations
  4. This technique is becoming more democratic now with proliferation of smartphones however making sure that participants remain proactive is a challenge for user researchers

How do we analyse Qualitative Data?

Affinity Diagram

A fast way to analyze data is to create an affinity diagram. Jiro Kawakita created this method that simplifies a large amount of data by grouping it by the themes that emerge from the data

  1. However this analysis should be done with as much objectivity as possible
  2. This method is suitable for brainstorming or early-stage analysis to identify the different steps of a user journey

Thematic Analysis vs. Content Analysis

  1. If we identify that the user makes the same comments while booking a flight or conveys the same issues or frustration, that means we have identified a systematic pattern

Difference between User Profile and User Persona

A user profile is a set of characteristics based on demographics, job role, age, the industry the user is working in. A persona is a typical user who has specific characteristics such are interests, goals, behavior, attitude, habits. A persona is not a real user, it is not a case study, and it is not an imaginative character

G. Few ethical questions in User Research

  • How do we make a website or a digital product accessible so that people with a disability can use it in terms of perception, comprehension, navigation, and interaction?
  • Making respondents comfortable, taking their consent for data use, signing up NDAs for protecting company’s information and also understanding that their participation in the research is voluntary, and one cannot force them to respond to our questions

To sum it up, a general process for conducting user research can be summed up as below

  • Get a brief
  • Refine the scope of the research in order to set up stakeholder expectations
  • Work with your stakeholders to draw up the research questions
  • Choose the relevant method to answer the research questions
  • Identify the right participants
  • Collect and analyze the data
  • Extract meaningful and actionable findings
  • Share your findings with your team and stakeholders

And this process mostly remains the same across industries, org maturity levels, engagement model of the user researcher or geographies!