A Product Lead is a Quality Driver

As my product lead role evolves I’ve started to see patterns emerge in my work across WordPress.com teams at Automattic. Two that keep coming up for me are focus on people, not technology and be a quality driver. I’d like to dig into the Quality Driver aspect in this post.

A Quality Driver navigates all the levels, end-to-end

Here’s a recipe for success as a product lead that I’ve now written down on a paper card near, and placed on my desk. I’m working on internalizing it as I put it into practice.

+ Obsess over customers.
+ Know how we want to communicate our message.
+ Understand our business goals and core mission.
+ Keep in touch with where the technology is headed.

Driving quality as a product lead takes place at many levels, from strategy to operations to tactics. At the highest level we write stories — sometimes framed as bets — to set the vision. Then working with teams on projects, schedules, organization — all the way through to the details of design, engineering, marketing, and support.

The key for me as I grow into this role is to synthesize everything as I navigate through the various levels. (For more, see my previous post on Synthesis: Navigating Levels Effectively.)

Another way I’ve to frame this Quality Driver  is in the form of a job description. A bit aspirational and ambitious to motivate me to grow and scale my product leadership. It’s my new mindset.

Quality Driver as a job description

Strategic — Raise awareness for the top issues facing our customers, and coordinate with teams to make the needed product changes. Pay attention to the end-to-end experience of our products, acting as the chief quality officer. Hold a holistic view across the business and own every aspect of the customer journey.

Operational — Act as an effective facilitator between developers, team leads, and company leadership. Align team resources to company goals and product initiatives. Engage with product teams for effectiveness, motivation, and project management. Build a culture of trust, quality, and high performance.

Strategic — Communicate a strategic vision and turn it into action. As a compassionate and effective product steward, use the ability to succinctly communicate our CEO’s vision to teams, as well as communicate everyone’s aspirations to the CEO. Find the gems, bring them to light, and move the needle. Work on the right things, avoid crashes, and be a few steps ahead of everything — knowing how every change fits in with our plans. Help everyone understand the context of their work and the broader vision for our products.

Knowing my success

Following the recipe I started with above, I can measure my impact as a product leader by watching for:

  1. Business growth for a sustainable and profitable future.
  2. Better customer engagement and satisfaction.
  3. A natural and healthy flow of communication.
  4. The happiness and effectiveness of teams.

Abstract, High Resolution, Listen & Learn

Have you watched Abstract on Netflix yet? World-class designers share their life and work and philosophy, which I’ve found fascinating. A common thread in the episodes I’ve watched so far is that design doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In order to produce something useful and beautiful that people will love and buy, you have to engage with the world. It involves talking to people. Listening and verifying with your own eyes and ears.

Ralph Gilles — Head of Design at General Motors — says in Episode 5, “Go out and talk to people.” He gives the example of his Chrysler/Jeep design team engaging with millennials literally “in their living rooms.” Listening to their problems and trying to solve those problems, taking it all back to the car design lab. “How do you know what consumers want even before they know what they want?”

Tinker Hatfield — shoe Designer at Nike — says in Episode 2, “Get outside, engage with the world.” How a steady stream of fresh input leads to innovation and being outside, doing sports he loves, helps him staying connected to everything. Running a mile in their shoes, if you will. An example of the years of close back-and-forth work with Michael Jordan to perfect the Air Jordan basketball shoes.

I’m sensing a trend here: if I listen, I learn. When I approach my own software work, do I understand the needs of the person for whom I am designing and developing? If the answer is no, I need to step outside my office and talk to people using the software.

Another compelling series to hear from talented and innovative product designers is High Resolution, available on YouTube. In Episode 8, similar ideas emerge from Automattic’s own Head of Computational Design & Inclusion, John Maeda:

Don’t focus on kerfuffles within your org — keep your focus on the world. That’s where you are meant to be. No matter how great of the place you’re in.

… Creative people are diverse-oriented, and great remixers. — John Maeda

These thoughts remind me of the “jobs to be done” philosophy where success comes from understanding peoples’ circumstances. And not only accepting input when it fits a certain profile I already expect.

The key to successful innovation is identifying jobs that are poorly performed in customers’ lives and then designing products, experiences, and processes around those jobs. — via Harvard Business Review

Discovering what those jobs are requires engaging with your customers, in their lives, in their work. Now it’s time for me to get outta this chair.

Design Success Ladder: Meaningful Products

Via design.org: The UX Design Success Ladder: Achieving Meaningful Product Design.

Design-Success-Ladder-The-Key-to-Achieving-Meaningful-Product-Design-1.png

Product success envisioned as rungs of a ladder, that you climb up from the bottom: functional, usable, comfortable, delightful, meaningful.

I first heard this concept last year at WordCamp Phoenix in a presentation by Ward Andrews; the article showcase examples of products or services at each level.

Takeaway message: don’t stop at functional and usable. Set the bar higher.

The Bias of the Absent Visitor

If your software product’s user interface doesn’t support _____, or support them well — your data won’t include _____ in your access logs. You could think they don’t visit often enough to include them in your team’s decisions about the interface. Instead, you can focus on segments of the population based on device, browser, OS, language and location, or any other criteria you feel are important and worthy of attention. It’s simple: make it work for the majority.

This is a blind spot. I call it the bias of the absent visitor. Since they’ve never come by, you can easily fall into assuming they don’t want to or need to use your interface. You might think you can just ignore them safely.

The reality is that they might have stopped by once or many times, had a terrible and unwelcome first experience, and have never come back. They could have seen a blank, white page instead of your carefully crafted design and content. Might have even told their friends not to bother.

This is one of my biggest blind spots. I hope that writing it down will motivate me to remember that the absent visitor is just as valuable as the typical one.

Design for Real Life

Real life is complicated.

Even after we’ve tested all the important user flows and polished the edges in our app or site, people still stumble. Why? Because we’re humans, and because our products still have:

  1. Broken flows: transition points or interactions, like a form on a site, that aren’t working correctly.
  2. Content gaps: someone needs a specific piece of content, but you don’t have it—or it’s not in the right place at the right time.
  3. Pain points: people get hung up and are likely to abandon the site or app.

Making digital products friendly isn’t enough to make them feel human.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Design for Real Life from A Book Apart; the ebook is only $11.

design-real-life.png

Instead of treating stress situations as edge cases, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations—to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward.

The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Order Design for Real Life from abookapart.com. See also the WordPress.org Flow glossary for terms inspired by this book that we use in testing WordPress.

Video: Empathy and User-centered Design

Here’s a short talk I gave at WordCamp London 2015 on the topic of empathy and user-centered design. Reblogging from the vault of yesteryear since I haven’t published it previously.

The big difference between good and bad designers (and developers, copywriters—all of us) is how they handle people struggling with their design. In this lightning session Lance will argue why empathy is important to beautiful, engaging, and useful products.

View full-screen video starting at 17:04 minute mark, and read the description on wordpress.tv.

Full text below.

Continue reading “Video: Empathy and User-centered Design”

WordPress Core Responsive Image Support

Testing this plugin to improve responsive image support for WordPress is a great way for front-end designers and developers to get involved in core WordPress, modernizing the platform that powers almost 25% of the web.

Via WordPress › Update: Responsive Image Support for Core « Make WordPress Core.

Davide Casali: Gestalt Design Principles for Developers

Video on WordPress.tv, highly recommended. My colleague Davide “Folletto” Casali shares basic design and user interaction fundamentals. (Slides.)

Responsive Footnotes

harvard-footnotes

I love web design like this. Both beautiful and useful: footnotes in context so you can read and return without leaving your current place in the text. Two examples—that work in desktop down to mobile—from Upstatement: NPR Code Switch and the newly redesigned Harvard Law Review.

Hat tip: Jack Lenox.

ChangeOrder: The User is Out

ChangeOrder: The User is Out is an insightful take on why designers shouldn’t be called on to speak for users. Instead, ask the users themselves.

Of course, it is a bonus when you are your own client—if you use your own product, then you can answer user experience questions from both a professional and a personal perspective.