Sunday, November 11, 2012

Product Management: Prototyping is your job

One of the key responsibilities of product manager is to make sure that product is usable by the customers.  This is a difficult task for a novice product manager.  That's because it is easy to jump right into designing product without understanding what the problem is to be solved and how the product should help the user solve the problem.

Often this understanding the problem and testing the solution step receive cursory review.  This shows up later in the product training and deployment phase, and by the time it is recognized it's often expensive to change the product behavior or user interface.

That's why all product managers should thinking about building a prototype.  This is especially true for a Version 1.0 product because the risk of missing the key value to customer is far greater because of initial engineering investment cost is higher hence product managers have to make lots of trade-offs.  It's easy to trade off something critical and only to release a product that is not good enough for anyone.

Once prototype is built, it's time to test the user stories, and see how difficult or easy it is for a user to do things.  Prototype can be paper drawing or PowerPoint slides.  Whatever helps the user visualize the interface and action works.  Here the key is to help user visualize the interface and task.

I came across how Nintendo engineers built their quick prototype of their browser built for mobile game console (presumably Nintendo Wii U).  Nintendo is a console game company.  It has never built a browser, let alone building a browser on mobile game console.  Different from smartphone browsers, mobile game console is held with two hands on each side.  User interface of such a browser needs to be easy to navigate with using two thumbs and available control buttons.

Faced with these challenges what did Nintendo engineers do?

They built a prototype.  It's just like a pen and paper prototype except that they had to worry about the user's handheld position.  So they built a cardboard box mock-up of a mobile game console.  To simulate multiple screens they created scrolling paper screen.

Motoyama (designer): "We wouldn't know how it felt unless we could actually hold it, but since we didn't have one, the only thing to do was make one. In the middle of the night, I cut pieces of cardboard and glued them together."

Product manager's job is to deliver a great product that solves the real world problem.  Prototype is one of the milestones for making a great product.

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