If you enjoy reading up on the latest practices and trends of product management as I do, you will probably notice a growing trend to simplify product management. You will see statements like:
- Focus your product on doing one thing really well
- Giving too many options increases complexity and reduces usability
- Onboarding workflows should get the user to your products goal in as few steps as possible
- The role of a Product Manager is to say no
It is easy to see why these are very attractive positions. The most valuable company in the world (Apple) positioned itself as prioritizing simple over complex. I am not advocating for making unnecessarily complex products, and in many cases, I would agree that simple is best; however, I would like to explore, is this right solution for everything?
Understanding your target audience
Assuming you have already identified your products goals/vision, when designing any product, you should always start with who is your target audience. Are you developing a health monitor for the elderly? Are you creating a tool for developers to manage product development roadmaps? These two questions are very different.
In the example of a health monitor for the elderly, we know that their past experiences in life and cognitive capabilities have not lent to being able to deal with complex technical devices very well (on average). Ever tried explaining a smartphone to your grandmother? I am going to guess explaining something like the difference between an app and a website or SMS and email, was quite complex for what you might consider to be mundane and obvious. Now, lets take this same health monitor and target it for elite athletes. I would imagine that if you told a strength and conditioning coach for the New England Patriots that you want one of their players to wear this monitor and we will only have it alert when there is an anomaly, they will tell you the device isn’t for them. Why is this the case? At these elite levels, they need to know everything from heart rate variability to hydration and from stress to sleep. This would be the only way they can tell if they should put the player out on that critical 4th down play!
In my second example, product managing a development roadmap can be extremely simple or extremely complex. For instance, planning a roadmap for a single purpose phone app is very different from creating a product which manages data for health care systems or processes hundreds of thousands of financial transactions every second. So, if you were to create an application which you believe is going to revolutionize product management, you are going to have to give some options and it is going to get complex quickly.
Not all Product Management strategies are created equal
Product management has become somewhat of a sexy role in the tech industry. The lure of creating a product that hundreds of thousands if not millions of people use is incredibly gratifying. To say you are able to make a difference in someone’s life is some of the best feedback you can get in any job. What has created this surge in job offerings? I suspect it has a lot to do with smart phone apps.
Apps are a revolutionary concept which has simplified interactions with digital products and services. Here you have a limited power device on limited real estate and a fairly consistent engine to run on. It is no surprise that doing one thing well, or limiting options for a user to select becomes very important. Focus can drive usability in a major way. However, there is a growing number of enterprise products, Kickstarter campaigns for hardware devices, raspberry pi projects, 3D Printing, etc. Are we to say that the digital app mentality will work with these products which are no longer limited to a fixed device standard? Are the digital product managers the vocal minority when sharing their experiences and strategy ideas?
Who are we really simplifying our product for?
Whenever I read about simplifying product management, I can’t help but get the sense that the PM is just trying to make their job easier. I am all for optimizing for maximum output, but we need to be honest with ourselves; by saying no, are we really doing it for the customers’ benefit or ours? Sometimes, to make something seamless and easy for a customer, you have to do some heavy lifting on the backend. Think about google, when you go to google.com, it is the most simple and basic form. One field, enter what you are looking for. Have you ever thought about how complex it must be to make something so simple give you thousands of results in under 1 second?
Companies like Apple and Google are not on top because they are basic, they are on top because they are extremely powerful and simple to use. They give you the flexibility to be as basic as you want or as advanced as you need. With power, comes complexity, deep thinking, and careful planning. Let’s look at Twitter for instance. When Twitter started, it was a simple SMS application for communicating with a large audience. Now, Twitter could probably stay relevant for a little while that way, but they have to continue to innovate and bring new features to keep the product fresh, compelling and competitive. Why do you think you are suddenly seeing more inline pictures, autoplaying videos, periscope, etc.? If it wasn’t for Facebook, Twitter might not have had to add these features.
Simplicity is great for launching a product, but let’s not act like you can sustain a long-term business with the “do one thing well” mentality.
I am not advocating that we should create unnecessarily complex and hard to use products. This leads to bugs, crashes, complex design strategies, difficult maintenance and unsustainable documentation needs. I do feel that we should be creating simple, easy to use products. What I would like to leave you with is the question, is simple, limited and small right for my customer or am I just trying to make my own life easier at the customer’s expense?
What are your thoughts on this matter? Let me know, I’d love to hear your experiences.