With an estimated four out of five new products failing to make a dent in an already overcrowded marketplace, it's more important than ever for product managers to avoid the mistakes that often lead to serious disappointments for themselves and their teams.
From still using clunky spreadsheets instead of fit-for-purpose roadmapping tools (PMs often waste many hours per week), to taking an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to functionality, it seems product managers are at greater risk of getting things wrong rather than right. Below is a list of 10 mistakes that every product manager should be sure to avoid, and what you can do to safeguard against them as you tackle your next big project.
One of the most important aspects of a product manager's job is to be able to ask the right questions, whether that means giving your team a prompt for feature advocacy or getting on the phone with customers to gain valuable insights.
But to create the space and environment for transformative growth, you need to make sure your vision doesn't cloud your insight. Yes, everyone needs to work toward a common goal, but if you set over-specific parameters from the beginning, you may generate boxed-thinking patterns corrosive to the spirit of innovation you're trying to foster. Put on your investigator's hat; ask the right questions; analyze your data; test; and communicate. This will help keep your team working forward and onward – toward the solution – instead of trying to find the right roadmap to something you've prebuilt in your head but may not be what your end-user needs.
Of course you want to know what your users are thinking and build products they'll grow to find indispensable. But most customers aren't engineers or designers - it's not their job to think innovatively. As Henry Ford famously said, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they'd have just said faster horses". Before the iPhone, the average mobile phone user wasn't spending time brainstorming about a device that would enable them to listen to music, keep up with breaking news, and do their banking all at the same time. They were busy getting on with their lives, blissfully unaware of what they were missing out on. Product managers should certainly be aware of customer wants, but revolutionary innovation happens only once you're able to give people something they didn't even know they needed.
It's true that select customers need only know about an exciting new feature before they decide to try out a product. Engineers and techies, particularly, may be fascinated by specs and consequently make buying decisions based on them. But not your everyday consumer. They need to know what benefits your product will bring to them. Will it solve any problems they have, make their lives easier or more enjoyable? If your latest innovation or new feature doesn't alleviate some kind of pain point for the user, or at least address some need or desire, chances are it's probably not a benefit. Thinking first about the problems you want to solve for your users – and second about how to get to those solutions – will help you stay in benefit-creating mode as you kick off your product journey.
Novelty has its place – "new" is a powerful buzzword for a reason. But innovation for its own sake is simply not enough. Think of how many new, never-before-seen products come onto the market every year. How many of them actually take off? Spoiler alert: less than 5% that actually manage to succeed. Being new is a feature, not a benefit. You can create something that's never existed before, but if it's not actually solving a problem or adding perceptible value, you haven't struck gold. If the most important thing you can think of to say about a product is that it's brand new, consider whether an everyday user – not a specs junkie – would find that an irresistible temptation (absolutely not). To avoid this pitfall, make value, not novelty, the engine that propels your strategy.
For a team to work effectively, it's crucial not to allow communication gaps to emerge and widen over time. People can handle a lot of information and moving parts; what they can't handle is lack of insight and knowledge that creates stumbling blocks and undermines their contributions. So make sure you're effectively communicating your vision and strategy from the get-go, maximizing the roadmap at your disposal to bring everyone on board, no matter the gear-shifting that'll need to take place as you move ahead. Organization is obviously key, but with some practical planning tech in your hands and a real commitment to communication, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to keep your teams properly informed and centered on the mission at hand.
This is the bells-and-whistles trap. When a product doesn't quite turn out the way you'd expected or isn't received well, it can be tempting to expand upon it – by adding an extra feature, for example. If it does more things, more users will get on board, right? Not necessarily. When a product is already struggling to connect, adding extra functionality could deteriorate the user experience even further. To be successful, your baseline features and capabilities need to be airtight. Once you've got those down – as do your users – you can then focus on continuing to build on that strong foundation.
From cash-strapped college students to Fortune 500 CEOs, the emotional factor is almost omnipresent in the user experience. According to author and Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, it's emotion, not our discriminatory buyer's mind, that determines which products we invest in. So, when the budget starts to thin out and you need to make tough decisions, think twice before you bump down the UX on your list of priorities. The marketplace is absolutely saturated with new stuff all the time and users' attention spans are notoriously ever-shrinking. If you want to stand a chance, you simply can't underestimate the importance of not just how your product looks but the "voice" it uses to communicate and the feelings it provokes in the user. For that, you need writers and designers at the top of their game.
Often, your customer and user won't be the same person. So while it's important to address the needs and concerns of your buyer, for a product to be ultimately successful, it needs to add value or alleviate the pain points of its users. Typically, product managers and their teams will primarily be familiar with their customers – in other words, the people holding the purse strings. However, their needs may be very different from the needs of the people who'll end up using the product in their day-to-day lives, be it in a professional or personal capacity. This is where sales and marketing can really help. Their valuable knowledge of the influencers and users at a customer company, for example, may be invaluable in helping the product manager understand where their team's focus needs to sit.
Despite the popular cliché of a genius designer whose lightbulb moment suddenly changes everything, most revolutionary products are actually the result of a cumulative, collaborative process. When Apple began digging deeper into what was happening with touchscreens in the early 2000s, they were thinking about tablets, not a mobile phone. Yes, it was thanks to Steve Jobs that Apple pivoted and began working on what would eventually become the iPhone, but his decision carried years of experience and a misstep or two behind it. If you want that lightbulb moment, you have to be willing to put in the time stumbling around in the dark, undertaking the required experimentation and funnelling the creative energy required to ignite that charge and light up the room.
In most cases, you'll have to work within certain parameters for any project, including budgets, deadlines, and quality metrics. These are all essential aspects of the product journey – indeed, you wouldn't be able to build anything without them – yet none of them tell you if what you're building will end up being useful and profitable. When all's said and done, success won't come down to whether you stayed within budget or finished ahead of deadline, but to whether customers recognize the value in your product and are willing to pay you for it. This is where usability testing becomes a product manager's best friend, signposting you throughout the development process and helping your team to constantly recalibrate for optimal user experience.