Thursday, June 28, 2012

Product Management: are you asking the right question?

How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?
First open the door, put the elephant in, then close the door.
Simple instructions tend to miss important details;
go figure them out, product owners

Not everything in life can be spelled out in simple instructions.  There are bound to be missing steps, exception cases, and simply wrong instructions even at times.  Some of these instructions come from someone else, but more often it comes from your own thoughts.  We all tend to filter the answers that we receive with our own preconceived notions and stereotypes.  
What's really troubling about it is that you have no idea that you have them.  Your frame of reference is moving at constant speed, and you have no way of proving that you are moving unless you compare your speed with object outside of your reference (excuse my geeky analogy).

I will be the first one to admit that I suffer from this I-know-my-product-best syndrome.  Often I read one thing and make all kinds of assumptions about it, and ends up concluding something entirely off the mark.  

Classic example is talking to a customer who is having a problem.  When a support ticket comes to my desk and it's from a new customer, I immediately put on this filter that makes me suspect user error.  Whatever I hear, I tend to look for clues that support my preconceived theory while reading about the case.

It sounds hopeless.  If you have a filter that you don't even know that you have on, how the heck would you be able to figure out whether your interpretation of instruction is right?

If you were able to solve the problem, it could mean that 1) instruction is correct and you got the steps right, or 2) instruction is wrong but your filter distorted the instructions so as to yield the correct result.

How can you know?

You don't.  You would never know.  But you know what?  Thankfully it's not the question that will make you more successful in your career.  

You see, it's not about proving that you either have or don't have this refractive filter.  It's not about you figuring out whether instruction that you received is correct or not.  It's not even about your ingenious ability to figure out missing steps in the instructions.  Simply put, it's not about you.

Instead it is about your customer and his problem.  In this customer's universe, you are not in the picture as you.  You are there as your product helper.  You are not his problem (his work) and not the tool (hopefully customer already have bought your stuff which means your tool is somewhat helpful) that he uses to solve the problem.  You are there to make the tool better or fix the tool so that he can get on with his work.

Yes, difficult to believe, but it is true.  No matter what you have been led to believe, you are just not as significant as you might like to believe from customer's perspective.  Your customer has his own problem that he has to deal with, and he is not thinking about whether you solved your puzzle filling in the gaps in the instruction.  Sooner you realize this fact, easier it will be on your career and mental health.

The question ought to be this:

How can customer overcome this tool problem to get his job done?

So let me rephrase the opening line.  Product manager should tell this joke as following:

How does customer put an elephant into a refrigerator?
Customer does not have to; elephant can get in on its own.* 
(* Our refrigerator 3D-scans any object before it gets put in and voice-suggests bigger refrigerator model that supports automatic elephant-loading dock.)

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