The cloud is here to stay, we’re using more mobile data than ever, microinteractions are in, fully flat design may be on its way out, and Oxford’s word of the year is an emoji. But what’s on the horizon for product management? Here are four product management trends we’ll see dominating the scene in 2016:
1. Data-Driven Product Development is Here to Stay
The amount of data available to decision makers has grown exponentially as connectivity and data collection have become ubiquitous. This has left leadership spoiled for choice in this department, their questions are no longer “can we measure it?” but rather “which metric(s) should we care about?”
Product decisions must be supported by data, and once they’re executed you’ll need the data to show they were the right decisions… and then you’ll use that data to make your next decisions.
“You can’t rely on your gut instinct all the time. The numbers will show there’s a little bit of hubris in thinking that you know better or your gut instinct is correct,” says Maggie Jan, Data Scientist at Keen.io, adding “You’ve gotta have a healthy amount of skepticism when you go back and evaluate what works and what doesn’t.”
As companies embrace data, they’re often looking at the product team to be the fulcrum for collecting and analyzing this data and turning it into something actionable. Nearly every product manager job listing includes “data-driven” in the first few lines of the job description, further highlighting the importance of this approach.
“Every company wants to be data-driven these days and for good reason: thorough analysis and testing of hypotheses using data is the best and most sustainable way of improving products and services,” says Lars Trieloff, Director of Product Management at Blue Yonder.
The availability of and reliance on data can also help wrangle development teams and keep them focused on the initiatives that will truly make a meaningful impact and not just on crossing off the next thing on the list.
“One of the most difficult problems rapidly-growing tech startups face is escaping the frantic, executional culture that is imperative to early success,” says Daniel Mason, Data Scientist at Belly, “When each decision is infused with data and armed with statistical certainty, the chances of being successful are greatly heightened.”
2. Customer-Centric Development: Putting Customers Front and Center
While the plethora of data points can make end users seem like just another number, companies are countering this instinct by instilling customer-first mentalities into their approaches.
“The job of a product manager isn’t to understand analytics, it is to understand customers,” says Matt LeMay, co-founder of Constellate Data,
“The idea that we can understand people without listening to them is hubristic, narrow-minded and, frankly, sad. Talking to actual humans can be confusing, awkward, and even downright discouraging. But if we really want to understand customers, we need to accept and embrace that people are not fully predictable and quantifiable.”
One reason companies are now investing in customer centric development is that they can afford to do it again – many were hamstrung during the belt-tightening days of the recession but now have enough money in the bank to shift the focus from cutting costs to customer needs. And they’re realizing that it’s worth the investment, as customer-centric companies are 60% more profitable than their peers (according to Deloitte & Touche).
But becoming customer-centric is easier said than done, since it can require some fundamental changes in how a company operates. Switching to “solution sales” and emphasizing lifetime value vs. one-time transactions are essential building blocks.
Even older, established technology companies have shifted into customer-centric mode, with firms like IBM adopting “Design Thinking” where designers interact with users one-on-one to develop empathy for what users what are trying to accomplish. This shifts the thinking from “how they’re trying to use our product” to “what they’re trying to accomplish with our product.” But you can’t do that without talking and listening to customers.
For organizations stuck in their ways, this process can take time and effort, but the market is demanding it from their vendors. Shifting KPIs toward lower churn rates and higher customer lifetime values gets the entire organization on board with this belief.
But most important of all, you can’t become customer centric without talking to customers… a lot. This often starts with the CEO but usually ends with the product manager, who is tasked with using all of this great knowledge and insight gleaned from customer interviews, ride-alongs and surveys and turning it into fantastic requirements, customer-minded product roadmaps and smart prioritization.
3. Transparency is the New Black
While a few companies still cherish the “big reveal” events where they show off the latest smartphone or electric car, many companies are beginning to embrace a more fluid set of interactions with customers where they are quite open about what they’re building and when they will deliver it.
Fear has traditionally been the primary motivation for keeping product plans under wraps; both fear of the competition catching up or beating you to the punch and fear that too much customer communication during the product development cycle will lead to a design-by-committee environment where every product turns into a Swiss army knife that ships late and doesn’t do anything particularly well.
But letting customers know what you’re building ahead of time has some major positives as well. One plus is that customers are far more likely to buy earlier in a product’s lifecycle since they are not only buying the current features, but also the promise of what’s to come.
Another benefit is that giving customers a peek at what’s behind the curtains might head off some big problems down the line. Taking advance customer feedback (with a healthy pinch of salt) could reveal new opportunities or unchecked boxes that can now be addressed to turn your next launch from a dud into a stud.
“Your product’s growth is dependent on your ability to listen, gather feedback and iterate,” says Cat Noone, co-founder of Liberio, “If you skip this, and base your roadmap entirely on assumptions, you get the messy mountain MVP that inevitably results in the product’s downfall.”
This doesn’t mean you have to go over the top and make salary information public knowledge like Buffer did, but companies are continuing the trend of letting the cat out of the bag earlier, whether it is blogging about products before they’re released to build demand and create credibility in the market or frequently sharing roadmaps with customers and advisory to solicit feedback and generate buzz.
4. The Continuing Spread of Agile & Lean
Neither Agile development or Lean methodologies are particularly new at this point, but they are no longer relegated to engineering teams and scrappy startups. Companies of all shapes, sizes, and vintages are realizing the benefits they can bring, adopting and adapting them to fit their own purposes.
In 2011, Microsoft committed to Agile, and by 2015 they had completely transformed their organization, with 35 Agile teams in their Developer Division alone and nearly 100 sprints under their belts – they even scrapped the individual offices Redmond was so well known for.
15 years after its birth, Agile is spreading beyond pure IT and code-related projects, largely because project managers are bringing the discipline along with them when they are assigned to manage other initiatives. They know it works, they know how to do it, and they’re familiar with the tools already. Once you swap out the tech-centric terminology, the approach works for almost anything.
Marketing is one discipline where the measurability and rapid response capabilities of an Agile approach has caught on and continues to grow. “Before our agile processes we were creating content, but at a plodding pace,” says Andrea Fryyear, Agile Content Marketer at Widgix, “Now that we can more accurately measure our team’s bandwidth, we can devote time each sprint to creating and distributing content.”
Even lawyers are getting into the act. Jason Gershenson, an independent technology attorney gave it a try and isn’t looking back. “I love being able to see all of my work in progress at a glance, and having the steps in my workflow laid out visually really focuses me on finishing tasks and delivering work—work that I get paid for—to my clients.”
And while some may not realize the older Lean methodology didn’t spring from scrappy software startups (it was actually the manufacturing industry), it’s now being utilized in a wide variety of settings including healthcare, government, military, and education. Just like Agile, Lean is also being applied to more and more non-technical aspects of company operations. For example, in the sales process Lean is used to emphasize lead scoring and qualifying prospects before sales team members invest their time in pursuing opportunities, as well as standardizing the approaches and tools used to close deals.