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.

Is Your Product The Hero?

Craig Menear, CEO of The Home Depot, used a phrase I’d never heard before in business or marketing, “The product is the hero.”

Via NPR’s Marketplace “Corner Office” podcast, How The Home Depot became an e-commerce giant (December 20, 2017).

Update: Mike Davidson made a great point via Twitter about improving this to frame the customer as the hero:

The tools are not heroes to be used by you, the hero. You use them to win. Great point.

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.

Family Scrapbook and Rolomeal

This isn’t my typical post on business, web design, or technology. Instead, I decided to put two of my product ideas up for cool web applications that I’ve been tossing around for a few months. I might pursue them someday, but I thought, “Why not share these in case someone else can take them and run with them?”

Family Scrapbook

View and share your family stories, photos, and memories.

This product would tie in photos, stories, and events to create a virtual scrapbook. Think of a private version of Facebook where only your family is involved. Ideally it would be web-based so that sharing and managing the data could happen at any time from various locations.

The application would include historical pages that have scrapbook-like collections of photos and stories. To improve from the typical photo gallery where you simply view photos, Family Scrapbook would focus on a design where the photos and stories could be visually linked, just like a real scrapbook.

As a bonus, the Family Scrapbook could tie into a third-party family tree software to include (or pre-populate) important names, dates, and events. As a result the bulk of the family history would be quickly started and you could concentrate on filling in the details.

This idea came about after I tried to set something up with Flickr to get my family to share photos. My wife took on the task of digitizing and organizing all the family’s photos, and she needed help with dates and identifying certain people. After we started the project we realized that we also wanted to record the stories, memories, and special connections that the pictures represented to family members.

To get the project going we set up my family with Flickr accounts, scanned and uploaded a ton of photos, and sent everyone instructions on how to participate. We received comments that helped with organization and identification, but the sharing and memories part of it never got of the ground as an online project. The encouragement to write a story, upload photos and mementos, and tie in the entire family history just wasn’t there with the Flickr setup.

With something like Family Scrapbook, however, I think it could make this activity be fun and rewarding for the people who put effort into it. It would bring families together—especially if they live long distances from each other—while creating a visually engaging archive of the family history.

Rolomeal

Keep track of your meals.

This product seeks to answer two questions: “What should I have for dinner” and “What did I have for dinner?” It would include two basic items: (1) a meal index and (2) a recipe index.

The purpose of the meal index portion is to be able to easily track the food you eat1. You would enter details for each meal: date, title and brief description, link to recipe(s), and list of needed ingredients. Then you’d use the application to browse your meal history and get ideas for what to make again, or as a historical reporting tool to help you remember details of previous meals.

A key feature is the simple input for new entries; for example, you’d want to allow just the bare minimum of a title like “Macaroni and Cheese” without all the rest. If the entry is too complicated the product won’t be used much, I’d imagine… You could also have different settings for restaurant meals versus meals eaten at home.

The recipe area would go along with the meal index, both as a reference and as a starting point for inspiration. It could be built into the same product or accept recipes from other existing desktop or web applications. The recipes would be attached to meals so that when you are inspired by a meal (as seen while browsing your history) you could quickly find the recipe and ingredients needed to make it.

This product could be expanded to a social application in order to share ideas for meals (via a Facebook app, e.g.). Things like “See what your friends are having for dinner” or “View the top-rated meals including chicken in your community/group” come to mind. As a web application this type of sharing would be easier than with a traditional desktop program.

The idea for this application first came to me one night when—like we do often—my wife and I discussed what we should have for dinner. “When did we last have Beef Stroganoff?” “Have we had chicken yet this week?” These questions would be easy to answer with Rolomeal.

Bonus features: allow people to request random entries from the meal index for quick inspiration, similar to the “I’m feeling lucky” button on Google. You could have this “Surprise me!” feature for recipes, too. You might also track statistics to see your eating habits. But, I see it as being geared towards an inspirational meal idea tool rather than a nutritional or weight-loss tool.

Other possible names: MealDex or ChowDex.

There’s an app for that!

If anyone knows of existing web applications that already are similar in purpose, please leave a comment below with the details.

1 In discussing this idea today with my wife, she reminded me that what she really wanted is a way to see if she’s made her favorite meals recently. She wouldn’t want to keep track of all meals, just the memorable ones. When it comes time to decide on a meal, she could then see all the favorites and pick one that hasn’t been made in a while.