Product Teams

Four Product Management Skills You Need Now

Published Feb 24, 2016


1. Empathy

Product managers, now more than ever, need the ability to empathize with users. It’s a UX buzzword that simply means putting oneself in the emotional position of another person, a la “I feel your pain.” It sounds simple but many product managers confuse empathy with sympathy for the user. What’s the difference between having empathy and sympathy? While they’re not always mutually exclusive, empathy means you can truly feel the experience of another (sometimes that’s because you have experienced it yourself -as in, you’ve used the product, witnessed people using it or had the same problems that needed solving).

But being able to imagine what users need, and what they feel, when using your product is a tricky thing to do. Personas are a debatably helpful stereotype but they’re ok in a pinch and can be a place to start. The great thing is you can learn empathy when you gain in-person knowledge about the user, and can internalize that experience into the solutions you are shaping. That’s why conducting site visits and live interviews can make a huge difference. Make new friends and visit your users. Sure it can be scary. (“But, they’re going to complain the whole time!! And be grouchy!! They’ll have their angry eyes in!”) Maybe they will complain—for a minute. Bring cookies, sit down, and listen. It’s like your mom—all they really want is to know you’re listening, that you care and that you’ll show them you’ve listened by doing something. And maybe they want you to feel a wee bit guilty sometimes, just because.

2. Curiosity

It may have killed the cat, but curiosity is a product manager’s lifeblood. There’s a lot of software products being shipped daily. What makes yours more special, intuitive, better looking, etc.? How can you be sure? It’s great to be loyal to your one-and-only product. After all, you two have a special kind of relationship built on trust and many days, weeks, or years of being together. But unlike your sweet honey-boo at home, this is one area where it pays to play the field.

Look around. Other products and other product managers are innovating and shipping just as fast, if not faster, than you. Stick your head in the sand of complacency at your own peril. To stay relevant, make time to be curious. Go to product conferences, camps and group meetups. Keep a network of other trusted product managers. Read product blogs, articles and books. Listen to podcasts. Be a sponge and soak up new ideas when and where you can. Lastly, product oriented “stuff” isn’t the only place for inspiration either. Inspiration (and innovation) can be found in the arts, sports and other non-software related arenas. Maybe the latest hot-rod car show will inspire your next UX design or a mid-century modern house tour will convince you that less is more. Be open.

3. Tenacity

Rapid agile software development and the multitude of new applications promoted daily mean that an individual product has to fight even harder to be noticed, viable, and fill a need. Flash-in-the-pan applications that have momentary traction and then are cast into the technology dustbin are much more common. As a product manager, you need to believe in your product—desperately, wholeheartedly, passionately and tenaciously. Hold fast to thy product vision!

But… you also need to back that belief up with some user testing and measurable data, and be open to the story that data tells you. Some product people forge ahead and “go confidently in the direction of their dreams” and others forge ahead—stop and look around—and then forge ahead some more. Being tenacious rather than being stubborn can keep you on the product path but leave some open-mindedness to adjust course if necessary so you can achieve your ultimate end goal.

4. Personality (storytelling)

Telling someone how you feel is far less effective than showing them how you feel. Gone are the days of dry requirements docs and a checklist of things to build. If products were movies, this might be the MGM golden age of cinema. It seems as if every product has a story and a personality that jumps through the screen. That could just be crafty marketing but it’s like we’ve finally filmed software in Technicolor. Not only does your product fill a need or perform a job, there’s a flavor to it. How does your product accomplish the job? If your product could speak or dance, how would it sound? or move? Is it a personality people can feel something about? Can they love it? Or love to hate it?

Your personality as a product manager doesn’t have to match the personality of your product, but you should at least hear its voice. Everything from the button colors, to the written tone of your tooltips speaks volumes about your product. A military product application for inventory shouldn’t have the lighthearted style and romantic tone of a dating application. (Like long walks by the beach? Click here to assemble your munitions list!) Every interaction with your product should reveal and reinforce its personality. That’s partly product marketing’s job and partly the realm of good user experience design. More importantly, a good product manager can collaborate, combine and direct the best ideas from all parties into a cohesive unified experience.

The whole point of giving your product a personality is to make it easier and more interesting to tell a story. Users “like” lists of jobs a product does. Users “love” to hear a good product story. And when you love something, you’ve bought in—bought into that product, that team, that experience, that company, that story. Users quickly ditch a product they like for something they can love. So, learn to tell a good story. Watch a Pixar short film. Read A Wrinkle In Time. Listen to Jim Dale read Harry Potter. It doesn’t have to be complicated or business-y but it does have to be relateable.

Creating a new product or iterating on an old one requires inspiration and trying the same old methods can get stale. Adopting a new method or perspective every once in a while, even if it fails, can help you to see old tools in a new light and view your products in a new way.