Search This Blog

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Dropbox’s Carousel Design Deconstructed (Part 2) | Smashing Magazine

Dropbox’s Carousel Design Deconstructed (Part 2) | Smashing Magazine

In a Wired article covering Carousel’s launch, Gentry Underwood, CEO and cofounder of Mailbox (which was acquired by Dropbox) and lead designer of Carousel, detailed some of the key requirements that his team prioritized.
Below is a list of some of them, as well as some requirements highlighted in media coverage of Carousel’s launch and from our evaluation of existing products and design patterns in part 1.
Back up all photos and videos
The app has to save not only the photos that users want to see in the gallery, but also ones they don’t want to see yet but might want to at a later date. Not to mention, this takes up more storage, which is ideal for Dropbox’s business. Most photo apps allow you only to delete photos, not hide them. “It’s a 100% destructive thing,” Underwood says. And the permanence of deleting photos requires a heavy two-step process of hitting the trash button and confirming the action. Underwood claims that this leads to users not deleting media and, ultimately, to sloppy media galleries with misfires, blurry selfies and many imperfect versions of the same shot.
Display all photos and videos
According to Underwood, another big problem with media gallery apps is that they seem to start from the last time you bought a smartphone. This is especially true for stock apps like Apple’s Photos. However, even with photo stream and other apps that sync a portion of your photos locally while saving the rest in the cloud, users can never see their entire media history — they have to go to their computer or the web for that.
Show the best photos and videos
The most obvious solution for this is to make it easy to manually hide undesired media, presumably with some quick swiping action. However, the app could also surface media that users would most likely want to see, like ones with faces or, more importantly, smiling faces. Beyond finding the best media, the app could also highlight one or more thumbnails of media that seem most interesting.
Enable quick navigation
Media should be automatically sorted in events based on common attributes such as time and location. The groupings should also show just a sample of the photos from that event in order to save space while navigating through a long list. Finally, users should have multiple ways to scroll through media (for example, slowly or quickly).
Feel native
Making it seem like everything is stored locally would set this application apart from the competition. After all, that snappy feeling is what makes Apple’s Photos more appealing than Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Dropbox and the like. Among other things, fine-tuning the caching and other back-end tricks could help dramatically. But some clever perceptual tricks could also be done. For example, multiple thumbnails of each media file could be saved at various resolutions and be dynamically deployed based on how fast the user is scrolling through the gallery. Faster scrolling would trigger lower-resolution thumbnails so that they load instantly and make the app feel native. Moreover, adding, moving, changing and deleting media files from Carousel or Dropbox should happen lightning-fast.
Enable public and private sharing
Users should be able to share videos and photos with others easily without having to use platforms with storage limitations, such as email. Also, they should be able to easily select between public sharing (i.e. on social networks) and private sharing through email, SMS and private in-app chat. “Carousel’s sharing tools can be utilized through any email address or phone number, whether the recipient has a Dropbox account or not,” says Underwood.
Enable public and private discussion
Although in-app discussion is an option when media is shared privately, as mentioned above, it’s not necessary. However, allowing for focused discussion on a set of photos — particularly after an event, when users want to congregate and compare photos — can be valuable. As an alternative to Facebook Messenger, SMS and email, where many other conversations go on, offering a dedicated set of chat threads for users’ personal media and nothing else would be beneficial. It would also be a great way to acquire new users for Dropbox.

What Do Users Get?

Basically, users get a camera roll for Dropbox. As Federico Viticci from MacStories eloquently puts it, the app is a clean and imaginative “alternative Camera Roll and Photo Stream based on Dropbox storage with built-in sharing for individual or group conversations.”
Carousel’s MVP is effectively two things for most users: a Dropbox uploader for backing up local photos and videos, and an enhanced version of Apple’s native Photos app, with improved viewing, sharing and discussion functionality. The app doesn’t let users take, edit or manage photos, other than hiding them (or deleting them, if they can find that feature), or view in anything other than chronological order.
For now, if users want to take and edit photos, then their mobile camera, Instagram or Camera+ are great options. To organize photos into folders, they’ll need to use Dropbox directly. And to view them in anything other than chronological order, they would sync Dropbox with a more advanced media gallery such as iPhoto, Picasa or Unbound. You will understand Carousel’s MVP much more easily by testing it out than by listening to me explain it ad nauseam. Below are four screenshots of what you can expect. To help you along, MacStories thoughtfully runs through what you can expect in your first experience.

Building Mobile Developer Skill Sets: 4 Tips - Tech News | Latest Technology News

Building Mobile Developer Skill Sets: 4 Tips - Tech News | Latest Technology News

Building Mobile Developer Skill Sets: 4 Tips


As more companies become mobile app developers for the first time, here's advice on managing two big challenges.
Companies are scrambling to build mobile apps, creating a gold rush for developers willing to retool their technical skills and adopt a new design mindset. Even nontechnology companies are becoming mobile app developers for the first time to help create new business models and drive new results.

This poses two challenges for enterprises.

First, companies are now building apps for customers from scratch without basic knowledge of the right mobile architecture. As banks, retailers, healthcare providers, and organizations across all industries look at mobile as a primary way to engage directly with customers, businesses must now invest in both the people and the technology to manage their mobile strategy.

Second, as new technology simplifies the development process, younger and younger developers are emerging in the workforce. Today, the average developer has less than two years of experience. As a result, many developers don't have the skills or the institutional knowhow to develop a secure, scalable app that will generate business results. This can create greater risks for organizations -- risks that managers don't often recognize.

As companies continue to advance their mobile development strategy, here are four key concepts to keep in mind.

1. Be results-oriented: Focus on transformative apps.
Companies that create transformative apps can build new revenue streams, improve service, increase brand awareness, and even advance industries. The functionality and reliability of mobile apps reflect strongly on the company image -- and organizations that squander user confidence with poorly performing apps sacrifice any edge they might get from mobile.

I've worked with hundreds of companies on their mobile initiatives. I once consulted with a global retailer on an in-store shopping app that cost more than $1 million and took a year to build. The app looked gorgeous. But testing the app for a few minutes revealed a huge usability problem: I could walk into the store, scan items, and add them to my cart -- but I could not view the cart and its contents. A difficult conversation with the CMO followed.

The idea had been that users could build a shopping list, which could then be added to the cart in total or as selected, allowing pre-creation of the list and quick pickup. During the development process, the shopping list was removed from the project, to be added later. Should this have been caught? Most certainly -- but from a quality-assurance point of view, I could scan and buy, so it was missed. With some slight revision, the app was released and now generates nearly 30% of the company's revenue.

The bottom line: Don't burn your development dollars on features that don't add value or improve the user experience. Strong mobile teams are delivering business-changing apps that fundamentally change the way people work.

2. Don't neglect quality app development.
Many projects today are delivered by small, agile teams, enabling rapid delivery of new capabilities. But the technical aspects of app development -- like how apps are scaled and layered security approaches -- are often overlooked. Speed must not mean loss of app quality.

Enterprises that focus on mobile as a strategic differentiator start with the understanding that they need a strong architecture to support the new needs that come with mobile. Unlike development in the past, enterprise mobile apps require sophisticated data management, integration with enterprise systems, security, and use of services like notifications and geolocation.

The good news is that businesses don't need to create a new mobile architecture from scratch. A number of on-premises and cloud development platforms are available to developers.

The key is to learn from those who have gone before you. Take a strategic view with mobile -- hire skilled mobile strategists and developers, focus on changing the processes that inhibit mobile agility, and implement the architecture to enable both the apps and the new processes.

3. Vary skill level across the development team.
Most companies are not yet experienced in delivering mobile at any scale, and many learn mobile the hard way -- by going through multiple failed or low-value projects before they realize the need for a focused strategy. Finding skilled mobile developers is getting easier, but finding those who have implemented integrated enterprise-grade apps is more difficult.

The two most critical hires a company can make to build a mobile team are a mobile strategist and a software engineer. A mobile strategist must be able to bring together the business and technology teams, determine the value of projects, make process change, build teams or find the right partners, and make sure projects are delivered with excellence. A strong software engineer can be the difference between an app that is built once and enhanced over time and an app that must be rebuilt significantly for each release. Software engineers reduce the cost of implementing mobile by designing scalable apps. More importantly, software engineers greatly reduce the risk of security holes, performance issues, and weak functionality, which are the primary reasons people stop using apps.

One of the most compelling success stories I experienced involved an auto parts manufacturing company that was still primarily dealing with a paper-based process. I helped the company recruit an experienced mobile strategist and put together a center of excellence, with sponsorship from both the CIO and the CMO. The cooperation that resulted between IT and the lines of business and marketing enabled the CEO to create truly transformative concepts for mobile. These ideas ranged from using the accelerometer in the iPad to judge braking speed in the company's fleet to initiating direct-to-consumer purchasing.

4. Continue learning new skills.
The "born-on-a-smartphone" generation of developers must keep up with an ever-changing technology landscape. The best approach to navigating this landscape is to focus on continuously developing the team's skill sets. For example, it's critical to have skills that transcend a single ecosystem. Focusing on any one mobile operating system or platform can corner you into an undesirable skill set.

One of the best ways to keep up with change is to engage with mobile groups and meetups. Most mobile-focused groups provide a broad view into technology changes, what startups are doing, and how others are handling change. This can be invaluable in avoiding the issues others have faced.

As you think about how to scale your mobile development team, it is wise to develop relationships with local universities. Many companies have received great benefits by sponsoring simple app delivery projects and training developers through internships, which ultimately creates a funnel of talent for recruiting.

A new generation of developers with creative ideas, combined with experienced software engineers, can fuel a strong mobile engine for companies. Business leaders cannot simply subscribe to the "build it and they will come" philosophy. It's critical that they build the team, the strategy, and the architecture that will create the foundation for mobile success.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day) | Smashing Magazine

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day) | Smashing Magazine

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day)


In Fairness

This one is the most important characteristic of a product manager — the one that rules them all. I once had a discussion with a colleague in our development team about the development process for new products that we had rolled out a few months before. One of the words he used to describe the new process is “fair.”
It was a passing comment, and I didn’t really think much of it at the time, but since then I’ve kept going back to that conversation and the importance of fairness in product management. All of the characteristics I’ve talked about are great, but fairness is the one that a product manager simply cannot do without.
Let’s look at one definition of the word and consider what it means in product management:
fair (adjective)
free from favoritism or self-interest or bias or deception.

FREE FROM FAVORITISM

One of the fastest ways for a product manager to become ineffective is to play favorites with a team, product line or user base. As soon as people sense that you are not looking at all ideas equally and fairly, their trust in you will inevitably erode. And without trust, you’ll have to work a lot harder (and longer) to get people to follow your road map.

FREE FROM SELF-INTEREST

If you start doing things purely for reasons like “Because I want to” or “Because my performance is being measured this way,” then trust will erode again. You cannot be effective by nursing your pet projects and ignoring the needs around you.

FREE FROM BIAS

This often happens when product managers receive news they don’t want to hear, especially from the user research or analytics teams. If something doesn’t test well, don’t make up reasons why you are right and users are wrong. Do the right thing and realign the design.
One of the hardest skills for a product manager to learn is to take their own emotions and feelings out of the equation when making decisions. Yes, a lot of gut feeling goes into a product vision, but that should not be based on personal preference or preconceived ideas. This is much easier said than done, but it’s something to strive for and to be aware of at all times.

FREE FROM DECEPTION

This one seems obvious, but you see it often, especially with metrics and assessment. Don’t ignore or distort negative data or blame a problem on someone else. Your job is to own the product, and this means owning its successes and its failures. You’ll gain trust and respect only if you acknowledge the failures as much as the successes and commit to doing better next time.
A product manager is often referred to as “the great diplomat,” and with good reason. Our responsibility is to balance the variety of needs from inside and outside the company and to somehow turn that into a road map that generates business value and meets user needs. A focus on fairness will help to accomplish that goal:
  • Fairness to users
    Approach users with respect, openness and transparency. Understand their needs, and explain to them why you might need to do something that will make it more difficult for them to meet those needs.
  • Fairness to the company
    Do everything you can to understand the needs of marketing, merchandising, customer support and other departments. Pull them into the planning process; be clear about how projects are prioritized; and help them adjust to that process so that they can define their project goals in a way that gets them on the road map.
  • Fairness to technology
    Don’t try to force the development team to make the product’s technology do things it’s not capable of doing. Understand the technical debt in the organization, and work actively to make those improvements a part of regular development cycles.
A lot of this comes naturally with good product managers, but we need to be conscious of it every day. Fairness is a prerequisite to building great products. If you’re not fair, you’ll be dead in the water, working with a team that has no reason to trust that you’re doing the right thing.

A Prerequisite For Success

One last topic needs to be addressed. An organization can hire the best product managers in the world and implement the best development processes, but it will still fail if one prerequisite for success is not met. There needs to be an executive mandate and company-wide understanding that, even though everyone has a voice, decisions about product ultimately rest with the product manager.
This one is hard to swallow for many companies. When I mention this part in training courses on product management, the mood in the room often changes. This is when people start complaining that, even though they see the value in the role, it would never work at their company because team leaders aren’t willing to give up that ultimate control over the product. The strategies for dealing with this warrant another article. For now, here’s what Seth Godin reportedly once said: “Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.” The product manager is there to make sure things happen — the right things.
figure-3-dilbert-preview-opt
When everyone has a say (Image: Dilbert, 1 July 2010) (View larger version)
Executive teams and individual contributors have to buy into this role. If they don’t, then the product manager will become impotent and a frustrated bystander to a process that continues to spiral out of control. And they’ll end up going somewhere where their value is appreciated.

What Now?

We’ve covered a bunch of what might be considered “soft issues” in product management: what product managers are like, how they work with other people, what differentiates a good one from a bad one. It’s tempting to skim over these issues to get to the how — the processes and day-to-day activities of the role. But that would be a mistake. I haven’t seen a role in product development that relies more on these soft skills than that of the product manager. A product manager could have the best strategy and could execute brilliantly, but if they’re not able to work well with people and rally them around a cause, they will fail. So, if you’ve skipped over any of those sections, consider going back and reading them.

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day) | Smashing Magazine

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day) | Smashing Magazine

Why Companies Need Full-Time Product Managers (And What They Do All Day)


Characteristics Of A Good Product Manager

Now that we’ve covered the importance of product managers, the next question is, “Who are these people?”
Most of us are familiar with the idea of T-shaped people: those who have deep knowledge in one or two areas, with a reasonable understanding of a variety of disciplines related to their main field of focus. In 2009, Bill Buxton wrote an interesting article for Businessweek in which he calls for more “I-shaped” people:
These have their feet firmly planted in the mud of the practical world, and yet stretch far enough to stick their head in the clouds when they need to. Furthermore, they simultaneously span all of the space in between.
This is a good description of the unique blend of skills that product managers need. First, they need to have their head in the clouds. They need to be leaders who can look into the future and think strategically. They need to be able to develop a vision of where a product should go, and they need to be able to communicate that vision effectively. Furthermore, product managers need to show their teams how they plan to get to that vision. And I do mean show: through sketches, prototypes, storyboards, whatever it takes to get the message across. They also need to be flexible and be able to change course when needed; for example, when market needs or expectations shift substantially or a great business opportunity presents itself.
But a good product manager also has their feet on the ground. They pay attention to detail, and they know the product inside out. They are the product’s biggest user — its biggest fan and critic. They understand every aspect of the complexity that needs to be worked through in each product decision. And they’re able to make those decisions quickly, based on all of the information at their disposal.
Most importantly, a product manager knows how to ship. They know how to execute and rally a team to get products and improvements out into the world, where the target market can use it and provide feedback.
figure-1-i-shaped-preview-opt
I-shaped people (View large version)
In short, a product manager is a visionary as well as a doer, a manager as well as a maker. And they need to move seamlessly between those extremes, sometimes at a moment’s notice. Sound difficult? That’s only the beginning. Let’s look at some more characteristics of a good product manager.

LEADER AND COLLABORATOR

Being a leader and a collaborator at the same time is a difficult balance to strike. The first challenge is that collaboration is often mistaken for consensus. That’s not the case. Consensus cultures often produce watered-down, unexciting products, products whose endless rounds of give-and-take have worn down the original idea to a shadow of what it was. Consensus cultures also wear down the teams working on the product, because they don’t really get what they want, only some of it.
Collaboration is different. In collaboration cultures, people understand that, even though everyone has a voice, not everyone gets to decide. People are free to air their opinions, argue passionately for how things should be done, and negotiate compromises. But that certainly doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree with every decision.
The first step to building a collaboration culture is to have a good leader. As you’ve probably surmised by now, the product manager is the ultimate decision-maker. But that only works if they are a trusted and respected leader in the organization, someone who can get the team excited about the vision, as well as make decisions that are best for the company and its customers. A good leader also readily admits when they have made a wrong decision, and they own up to it and do whatever they can to fix the mistake.
This isn’t a post about leadership — there are plenty of those to go around. But I’ll still share one piece of leadership advice from French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry that has helped me over the years:
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum people up together to collect wood, and don’t assign them tasks and work. Rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
What does “the endless immensity of the sea” mean in your context? Instead of telling people to build a bunch of features, how can you inspire them to think about how the product will help users accomplish their goals? That’s how you’ll be able to unite teams around a common vision.
So, how does a good leader foster this kind of collaboration culture? By creating an environment and creating processes that allow collaboration to feed on itself, and by understanding that every person is different and will react unpredictably at some point.
To create the right environment and processes for collaboration, focus on the physical environment first. Make sure that physical workspaces allow team members both to have impromptu discussions with each other and to shut out all distractions and focus on work for a period of time. The MailChimp office is a great example of this. The team created a collaborative workspace based on the following principles:
  • Commingle and cross-pollinate
    Instead of segregating teams, mix people up according to their personalities and the projects they’re working on. This will lead to valuable discussions that might not have happened if everyone was stuck in their own silo.
  • Facilitate movement
    Open desks, couches, standing tables: these are all elements that encourage people to move around and work together when needed.
  • Ideas everywhere
    Cover walls and whiteboards with sketches, designs, prioritization lists and road maps. This will not only contribute to better communication, but also leave the door open for anyone to improve ideas that others are working on.
  • Create convergence
    A common space for lunch (and coffee!) is important because it will allow people to run into each other, even people who don’t normally work together on projects. Again, this can lead to great ideas and perspectives.
  • Create retreats
    The hustle and bustle of collaboration spaces has great energy, but it is sometimes distracting. Individuals and teams occasionally need a quiet space to work, so make sure they have meeting rooms or quiet retreats that prevent any interruption.
Workspaces are more important than we might think. We went to great lengths to create a welcoming, creative space at the studio I used to work at, and the effort is paying off. Most clients prefer to come to us for meetings, and they cite two reasons: the excellent coffee (we went a little overboard on the coffee) and the great atmosphere to work in.
Steve Jobs understood the value of physical spaces very well. He is quoted in Walter Isaacson’s biography as saying this about the design of Pixar’s new campus:
If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.
Of course, physical space is only one part of the equation. A lot of work happens remotely now, and we have enough tools at our disposal to make that an effective and rewarding experience for everyone involved. From communication tools like Campfire, HipChat and Slack to collaborative project-management tools like Trello, Basecamp and Jira to source-code repositories like GitHub and Bitbucket, we have no excuse anymore to force everyone to be in the same physical space at all times. There is still much value in talking face to face and in collaborating during certain stages of the process, but even that can happen in digital spaces.
So, what’s next after you’ve worked on the physical and digital environments? Next is a feared word. Many people think “process” is synonymous with “things I have to do instead of working.” But a lot of appropriate, or “right-fidelity,” processes are possible. To quote Michael Lopp: “Engineers don’t hate process. They hate process that can’t defend itself.” When it comes to creating a culture of collaboration, several processes — defendable processes — can make life easier for the whole team.
One essential process to get right is regular feedback sessions on design, development and business decisions. The challenge is that feedback sessions can get out of hand quickly, because we’re just not very good at providing (or getting) feedback. We are prone to seeing the negative elements of someone’s ideas first, so we often jump right into the teardown. This puts the person on the receiving end in a defensive mode right away, which usually begins a spiral down into unhelpful arguments and distrust.
There is a better way. In an interview on criticism and judgment, French philosopher Michel Foucault laid out the purpose of any good critique. In his view, criticism should focus not on what doesn’t work, but on how to build on the ideas of others to make them better:
I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would fight fires, watch grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgements but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes — all the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.
Keeping this purpose in mind, let’s turn to the process used by Jared Spool and his team at User Interface Engineering. The team uses this process specifically for design critiques, but it could be applied to any kind of feedback session:
  1. The person presenting their idea or work describes the problem they are trying to solve.
  2. If everyone agrees on the problem, the team moves on. If there is not agreement on the problem to be solved, some discussion is needed to clarify. Hopefully, this step isn’t needed, though.
  3. Next, the presenter communicates their idea or shows their work to the team. The goal is not only to show the finished product, but to explain the thought process behind it. The presenter should remain focused on how the idea will solve the problem that everyone has agreed on.
  4. The first step in giving feedback is for the people in the room to point out what they like about the idea. This isn’t a ruse to deliver a crap sandwich (you know, start and end with something positive and eviscerate in the middle). Rather, this step highlights which approach to the problem is desirable.
  5. Critique ensues, not as direct attacks or phrases such as “I don’t like…,” but as questions about the idea. Team members will ask whether a different solution was considered, what the reason was for a particular choice and so on. This gives the presenter a chance to respond if they’ve thought through the issue already, or else to make a note to address it for the next iteration.
  6. At the end of the meeting, the team reviews the notes, especially what everyone liked and what questions they had. The presenter then goes away to work on the next iteration of the idea.
As the product manager, you are responsible for making sure that feedback sessions happen and that they are respectful and useful.
The goal of collaboration is for participants to make ideas better by building on the best parts of different thoughts and viewpoints. As long as people trust that the decision-maker (that’s you, dear product manager) has the best interests of the product and company at heart, then they won’t have a problem not getting their way every once in a while. Be confident, trustworthy and decisive — and make sure that everyone feels comfortable raising their opinion with the team.
All of this is much easier said than done, of course. Product managers need to steer the team through the collaboration process, and sometimes the trust just won’t be there in the beginning. That’s OK — trust takes time. Live these values, lead by example, and the culture will come.

COMMUNICATOR AND NEGOTIATOR

A more accurate label for this section might be “Overcommunicator and Negotiator,” because if there’s one thing a product manager never gets tired of, it’s telling people what’s happening. But instead of sending a ton of email, a better way is to work in the open as much as possible. Make sure that notes, sketches, plans and strategies are all accessible to everyone in the company at all times. This could take the form of whiteboards that are placed across the office or in a company wiki or in project spaces. Working out in the open has the added benefit of giving context to conversations: All comments and decisions will be in one place, instead of spread out over multiple emails (or, worse, in meetings where no one remembers to take notes).
Being a product manager sometimes feels like you’re being torn limb from limb. Most stakeholders have only their own department’s interests at heart (as they should — they’re paid to fight for what they care about). In contrast, a product manager needs to negotiate the best solution from all of the different directions that stakeholders want to take, and then communicate that decision effectively and without alienating people who don’t get their way. That’s not an easy job.
figure-2-torn-preview-opt
What product management sometimes feels like (Image: central panel of “Martyrdom of St Hippolyte” triptych, Dieric Bouts, c1468)
The design community has a phrase to refer to the difficult process of managing the expectations (and assertions) of a variety of stakeholders: design by committee. Like consensus culture, decision-by-committee cultures are pervasive, particularly in large organizations. I’ve always liked the approach that Speider Schneider proposes in his article “Why Design-By-Committee Should Die”:
The sensible answer is to listen, absorb, discuss, be able to defend any design decision with clarity and reason, know when to pick your battles and know when to let go.
This is not as easy as it sounds. So, over time, I’ve developed the following guidelines to deal with decision-by-committee in a systematic way.

RESPOND TO EVERY PIECE OF FEEDBACK

Responding to every demand, criticism, question and idea takes time. But failing to respond will waste even more time and energy down the road. Someone listening to another person’s idea and deciding not to use it is one thing. Someone not even listening is something else entirely. Instead of dealing with the political ramifications of not hearing people out, take the time to respond thoughtfully whenever someone offers feedback or an idea (no matter how unfeasible).

NOTE WHAT FEEDBACK IS INCORPORATED

When you implement a good idea, don’t do it quietly. It’s an opportunity to show that you’re flexible and open to good feedback. Let people know when and how their ideas are being used. Also, this should go without saying, but don’t take credit for someone else’s idea.

WHEN FEEDBACK IS NOT INCORPORATED, EXPLAIN WHY

Most of the feedback you’ll receive can’t realistically be incorporated into the product. Don’t sweep those decisions under the rug. By forcing yourself to be clear and straightforward about which feedback won’t be incorporated, you’ll also force yourself to think through the decision and defend it properly. Sometimes you’ll even realize that what you initially dismissed as a bad idea would be an improvement after all. People are generally OK with their feedback not being used, as long as they know that they’ve been heard and that there’s a good reason for the decision.

USE A VALIDATION STACK TO DEFEND DECISIONS

In their book Undercover User Experience Design, Cennydd Bowles and James Box explain the user experience validation stack, yet another method that can be used to defend product decisions. When defending a decision, always try to cite user data as evidence, such as usability testing and website analytics. If you don’t have direct access to user data, look for research — either research you’ve done or third-party research into related areas. If all else fails, fall back on theory. The principles of visual perception, persuasion, psychology and so on could be very handy in explaining why you’ve made certain decisions.
These guidelines should make it easier to negotiate different needs and requests from internal stakeholders. But remember Speider’s recommendation in his article: Pick your battles, and know when to let go. That’s the art of being a good negotiator and communicator.

PASSIONATE AND EMPATHETIC

Product managers love and deeply respect well-designed, well-made products, both physical and digital. And they live to create such products. They are the people who go to parties and can’t shut up about a new website or app or, more likely, can’t shut up about how cool what they’re working on is.
They’re passionate not only about product, but about users, too. They understand the market well: their customers’ values, priorities, perceptions and experiences. Passion for product is useless without empathy for its users. Building a great product is not possible without getting into the minds of the people who will use it. If we want to anticipate what people want and guide them along that path, then empathy is non-negotiable.

QUALIFIED AND CURIOUS

Product managers usually come from specialist backgrounds, such as user experience design, programming and business analysis. To apply their specialized knowledge to this new field — in other words, to become more I-shaped — they will need to be able to learn new skills very quickly (and under great pressure). Insatiable curiosity is a prerequisite for this ability to learn quickly. Why? Cap Watkins puts it well:
If you’re intensely curious, I tend to worry less about those other skills. Over and over I watch great designers acquire new skills and push the boundaries of what can be done through sheer curiosity and force of will. Curiosity forces us to stay up all night teaching ourselves a new Photoshop technique. It wakes us up in the middle of the night because it can’t let go of the interaction problem we haven’t nailed yet. I honestly think it’s the single most important trait a designer (or, hell, anyone working in tech) can possess.
A good product manager does whatever it takes to make a product successful. They constantly worry about the tiniest of details, as well as the biggest of strategy questions. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what needs to be done, their curiosity pushes them to remain committed and to become as qualified as possible to make the right decisions.

TRUSTWORTHY AND ETHICAL

A good product manager inspires trust in their team with every decision they make. To be trustworthy, they need to be fair (more on this later) and consistent, and they need to always take responsibility for their decisions. They also have to admit when they’re wrong, which is difficult at the best of times.
On the one hand, a product manager needs to be confident in the decisions they make. They need to constantly learn and grow and hone their craft. Theory and technique need to become so ingrained that they become second nature, the cornerstone of everything they do.
On the other hand, they need to be open to the fact that some of their decisions will be wrong. In fact, they need to welcome it. They should hang on to a measure of self-doubt every time they present a solution to the team or to the world. Admitting that someone else’s idea is better than yours and making changes based on good criticism will do wonders for improving the product — and it will build trust among the team. John Lilly phrases what should be a mantra for all product managers: “Design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.
The best product managers are those who are guided by a strong and ethical perspective on the world. An discussion of ethics will only get me into trouble here, but it would be wrong not to at least touch on the subject. In short, we’re not just making products; we are putting a stamp on the world, and we have an opportunity to make the world a better place. Perhaps no one says it better than Mike Monteiro in Design Is a Job:
I urge each and every one of you to seek out projects that leave the world a better place than you found it. We used to design ways to get to the moon; now we design ways to never have to get out of bed. You have the power to change that.
How do we identify projects and problems that fit these criteria? One way is to watch out for what Paul Graham calls “schlep blindness”: our inability to identify hard problems to solve, mostly because we’re just not consciously looking for them. Paul’s advice to combat this? Instead of asking what problem you should solve, ask what problem you wish someone else would solve for you.
Another great source of ideas for worthy projects is the field of social entrepreneurship (i.e. pursuing innovative solutions to social problems). Meagan Fallone has a great overview of the nature and importance of this type of work:
We in turn can teach Silicon Valley about the human link between the design function and the impact for a human being’s quality of life. We do not regard the users of technology as “customers,” but as human beings whose lives must be improved by the demystification of and access to technology. Otherwise, technology has no place in the basic human needs we see in the developing world. Sustainable design of technology must address real challenges; this is non-negotiable for us. Social enterprise stands alone in its responsibility to ensuring sustainability and impact in every possible aspect of our work.
The book Wicked Problems is a great source of ideas on how to put our effort towards meaningful work.
Of course, people define socially important work differently. That’s OK — what’s important is to think it through and to clearly delineate the work you want to be involved in.

RESPONSIBLE AND FLEXIBLE

To garner sympathy from others, product managers like to say that the most difficult part of their job is that they have all of the responsibility but none of the authority. In other words, even though product managers are responsible for the success and failure of their products, no one normally reports to them. This is why good communication and collaboration skills are so crucial.
The danger of all having all of the responsibility for a product is rigidity: not letting go of tasks that could easily be delegated and stubbornly sticking to the plan when circumstances have changed. That’s why product managers must remain flexible. Planning is critical, and an essential part of planning is allowing for the right information to change the plan if needed.
This need for flexibility can unnerve some product managers, but it’s a necessary part of the process of building a great product. So, get comfortable with ambiguity. This job has a lot of it.