The Psychology of Product People: Impressions from MTPCon

Published Jul 18, 2018

For the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to the audiobook version of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. So engrossed by Kahneman’s insights, I’ve begun feeling that everything happening around me is somehow related to one of his teachings: the reason I really liked that first interviewee was obviously because it was before lunch; it wasn’t my fault that I mostly remembered the negatives from a meeting; I gravitated to responding to email instead of writing the article. And so on and so on.

I kept bringing it up in conversation and using it to explain (and explain away) things at work and home.

If you’re not familiar with Kahneman’s work, here’s the gist of it. The way we make decisions is affected by two systems: system I is fast, emotional, and instinctive — it’s what we use to answer 2+2. System II is slow, deliberative, and logical — we use that to fill out tax forms. Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on how fast and slow thinking impacts our ability to make “rational” decisions. He is the intellectual predecessors that paved the way for the popularity of Dan Ariely, Malcolm Gladwell, and others.

Just when I started feeling that I was almost certainly over-evangelizing, I got to spend the day at the Mind the Product Conference in San Francisco.

The main takeaway?

Pop psychology is everywhere – it’s of this moment in our society, and even more so, it’s en vogue in the product community.

I spent a lot of the day thinking about why product people are more drawn to these themes. Dan Olsen, in his talk, joked that for PMs “with great responsibility comes no power.”  And in fact, product people lead by influence, not power, and in order to influence better, they need to understand themselves and others.

The Malcolm Gladwell Effect

MTPCon was enlightening and fun, but I did leave feeling a bit overwhelmed by my notes. There were plenty of schematics and pyramids — everyone loves a framework — but really, the highlights from the talks at the conference were all about psychology.

I blame Malcolm Gladwell – his ability to tell stories and name phenomena is so alluring. His imprint was felt throughout the day, as speakers told convincing stories and named hidden psychological forces that rule our work.

Cindy Alvarez, the author of Lean Customer Development, gave a great talk about cognitive biases and how much they affect product people’s ability to collect reliable data. Probably a Kahneman fan, she talked about the “recency effect,” the tendency to remember things that occurred recently, which warps our ability to report back on a more distant experience. If you ask people how they first started using your product, they probably can’t tell you. You might want to try asking them to show a colleague how to use your product. This will likely reveal more about how they first interacted with your app.

Cindy also talked about the “backfire effect,” how when you introduce facts that contradict people’s beliefs, it won’t change their mind, and instead, they will double down on those beliefs. Leisa Reichelt from Atlassian, in another entertaining and enlightening talk, talked about the Jakob Nielsen “query effect.” When asked about virtually anything, people’s tendency will be to form an opinion. Nir Eyal, the author of the best-seller Hooked, talked about the “homeostatic response,” our need to reach for our phones to combat loneliness or boredom.

These all felt spot on, and very recognizable to anyone trying to build a product for other humans.

Getting Touchy Feely

In addition to all the psychology jargon, there was a lot of emphasis on empathy. A word favored by product manager everywhere (and, in all honesty, this publication), it was brought up by virtually every speaker. Most often, empathy was discussed in relation to understanding customers and trying to solve for their pain points. But Christina Wodtke, who delivered the opening keynote, talked about the importance of empathy within teams. She encouraged us to think about what others on our team might be experiencing, which might make it easier and more enjoyable to work with them.

Nir Eyal also talked about the psychology of Akrasia, our tendency to do things against our interests. He encouraged those in the audience to try to break their bad habits, but also practice self-compassion in the face of failure. After all, Akrasia means that the incessant checking of Facebook, or the inability to read a book for a long time, is not entirely our fault. So empathy is important not just for our customers, or our teams, but for ourselves, as well. “Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a good friend,” he recommended. Hopefully, you’ll be way nicer that way.

Shrinking Product People

In his opening remarks, Mind the Product co-founder Martin Eriksson talked about impostor syndrome. This gave the whole conference the sheen of genuine warmth and sense of community — a sort of insidery nod to the all-too-human demons we all face to varying degrees — but it also felt a bit naval-gazy. This didn’t feel like something that could happen at a tech marketing or sales conference, and certainly not at an engineering conference.

So what is it about product that makes its practitioners feel more introspective? Perhaps it’s the multifaceted nature of the work. Product people have such diverse functions in their organization that they have to be more sensitive and diplomatic with others. And, of course, most product managers lack formal authority, which means they need to lead by influence.

It was great to see so many product people get together and have a chance to step away from their everyday. Normally bogged down by Jira tickets, roadmaps, and spreadsheets, it’s good to do a bit of reflection on what it is that makes working in product so awesome. As Tom Coates, the final speaker, suggested, don’t do it as just a job. Do it for the love!