Product Development pivotal to shaping the future of “what you should do, not what you could do”

First published on the AOP website on 16 December 2010

Projects rigidly planned and set in stone from the start, relying on the dreaded 100 page spec document are all things of the past.

This was the message coming loud and clear from AOP’s Product Development Forum on 9 December - where digital inverts the production model, release is step 1, not the end goal, and the future is in user-centred design, Agile, rapid iterations and continuous development.

Nic Newman, former Head of BBC Journalism Products within the Future Media department kicked off proceedings with a neat summary of where UK media stands around the Product Manager (PM) role, which stands to orchestrate and co-ordinate in the space between technical, editorial, commercial, design and marketing, with the needs of the audience at the fore.

Video by Patrick Smith / the Media Briefing

Defining the PM role

Channel 4, FT, Guardian and BBC among others have all recognised the critical nature of the PM function, he said, raising the importance and responsibility that sit with the role.

Still, battles of control over ongoing development are still commonplace in UK media, he explained – perhaps part of the reason rapid product development is “not something we’ve been traditionally good at”, where tech was traditionally seen as a support, rather than creative function.

Focus “all that internal heat and energy” outwards, on the marketplace, he advised:

  • A common understanding of your PMs’ roles is a prerequisite for success, not just training individuals, and for each publisher that definition will differ
  • So how do you define a product, or PMs’ scope within your company? – “understand what your core business models are and focus your limited resources on them”

User-Centred Design

Dennis CTO Paul Lomax gave a long list of top tips, (included below) gleaned in part around the launch of, which was developed around the User-centred design (UCD) process - a philosophy in which the needs, wants and limitations of the end user are focused on throughout the design process.

In case there was still any doubt, “web users have no patience” – a key consideration.

You have to create testable assets, user stories and journeys, Lomax advised – analysing and predicting how users will use the product - in effect, the approach is the antithesis of the pre-formed 100 page spec document of the past.

Simplicity is Key

Widening the scope of the discussion, Thoughtworks’ Head of Experience Design Marc McNeill reminded us that “IT doesn’t have a good track record” - in fact, as many as 1 in 4 IT projects in general are destined to fail.

To avoid your own, he advised publishers to “move away from a linear process, towards continual envisioning, then evolving.”

Missing features on iPhoneMissing features from iPhone compared with the competition

Missing features on iPhoneMissing features from iPhone compared with the competition

Pointing to the ‘missing features’ on the iPhone compared to certain Nokia devices, McNeill emphasised the importance of simplicity in product development: “focus on what is minimal” he said, citing research which shows only 7% of features in applications are ever actually used.

As Newman put it, perhaps the key to the PM role is focusing on “what you should do, not what you could do.”

Echoing the other speakers, McNeill explained how ThoughtWorks doesn’t see Product Managers as siloed, or even associated with a particular department “they cover all areas”.

Anojan Abel, European Product Manager at eBay agreed, explaining that its Product Managers are “definitely not a technical function” (his own background is in economics). At eBay in fact, PMs are also quickly expanding their remit to become more and more like overall Business Managers.

Channel 4 elevates the Product Manager's role

Channel 4’s definition of product is “an ongoing user-facing proposition”. This rules out one-offs, commissions and projects, and also tech platforms, such as its CMS.

C4 Product Manager Marc Haefner explained how its PMs’ authority has recently been elevated, up to the level of commissioning. Effectively, this is a move from the purely strategic, to end-to-end ownership and overall responsibility for product success.

How did this change come about? – championing of the role from the top: since becoming Head of Online in July, Richard Davidson-Houston, “passionate about product, endorsing the discipline” has enabled its development.

Paul Lomax, CTO of Dennis’ Top Tips for Product Success

  • "Web knowledge trumps domain knowledge – in print, editorial (the ‘subject expert’) would lead the development process", however, said Lomax, "context changes your audience, regardless of how well you know them"
  • Projects don't slip by months, they slip by the hour – “when things go sour, don't wait for the weekly update meeting”
  • You need an autocratic product manager (this is not a democracy). Often, each function of the company wants something different, but in any case, stakeholders, and 'highest paid persons' (HIPPOs) “need to feel like they’re driving”, even if it’s really just the PM and the audience in the driving seat
  • Chiming with Lomax’s point, for the launch of eBay’s ‘Daily Deals’ product, European Product Manager Anojan Abel said sales, marketing and finance all felt that they were driving the process
  • Show stakeholders iterations, not just the finished product, making them understand the development process – “the wall is the new desk”, post storyboards to the wall - let everyone see the risks
  • Actually observe the customer, "they’re not necessarily doing all they say"
  • But - vision is also hugely important – it’s not just about user needs
  • Create personas: usually 4 or 5, to help validate decisions – make them detailed individuals, part of the story
  • Don’t forget Google is a user
  • Advertisers are also users – a sexy feature only used by 5% of users might still be of disproportionate use to your sales team
  • Prototype at every stage. Build as you go. Wireframe everything. Test, test, test with real users