I SPENT MY FIRST SIX YEARS IN TECH at large, mature companies. I often mentioned, however, that I wanted to work at a startup to be on a small team with a new product. As an associate for Intuit’s Rotational Development Program, I had the unique opportunity of exploring product-management roles on both new and mature products over the course of two years.
In each of my rotations, the specificity of my responsibilities changed based on the maturity of my product. The core values of my role, however, were the same whether I was testing hypotheses for what could be our next $30-million product or running the annual release for a 20-year-old product.
I learned three lessons that surprisingly applied to both the startups and the mature products:
1. Put Customers First and Job Descriptions Second
My first product management rotation was with QuickBooks, a product that is two decades old. While running the beta for our annual release, I provided phone tech support to testers. At first, this was frustrating. I wondered why I was responding to problems, when I was supposed to be managing a product. As I spent more time talking to customers and watching them use my product, I learned that when they said something “wasn’t working,” it really just wasn’t working the way they expected. Without these conversations, I would have been blissfully unaware of the problems plaguing my product—leaving me with unhappy users or, worse, no users.
My final product-management rotation was on a scrappy one-year-old team that was committed to helping small businesses get loans. When my team learned that our users found it intimidating to complete bank loan applications, we started to spend our days on the phone, “holding hands” with them through the process. “I’m not an expert on lending though,” I told my manager, when I started on the team. “Don’t worry about it,” she said, smiling. “It does wonders to have someone on the other end of the line.”
As I helped business owner after business owner complete loan applications, it became clear that the education and confidence that we provided to small business owners was the push they needed to pursue their financing applications. While this process was not scalable, it provided us with deep insights about our users and the loan application process in general.
It was then up to us to innovate a simpler solution.
In both the QuickBooks and lending scenarios, I saw firsthand how product managers need to step away from design reviews and sprint planning to connect deeply with product users. Until I understood my users, there was no need for anything to be designed or built.
2. The Customer’s Perception Is Reality
My third product-management role involved TurboTax, which you may know has been around for a while. My team had recently learned from market research that students were not using our product. The statistic was unsettling for two reasons: 1) The TurboTax user experience is being continually improved to guide first-time taxpayers and 2) students with loans and college jobs were poised to receive beneficial tax refunds using our product. Digging in to our data, we learned that students knew TurboTax as their parents’ tax software—and they didn’t think it could help them.
It became my job to effectively share knowledge of our product with students. As a first step, I created marketing collateral that outlined the student-specific benefits of TurboTax. I sent it through channels that are accessible to students, like social media and college bookstores.
Sales of TurboTax to students increased significantly that year, due to our understanding of—and efforts to change—their perceptions of our product.
On my rotation with the more startup-like loan team a year later, we found that business owners weren’t accepting financing offers. It didn’t make sense to us. They put hours into the application process, getting together necessary paperwork and providing references. They obviously need financing. Why don’t they take the money once they get it?
Following up with business owners opened my eyes to a specific customer misperception: Applicants always believed that interest rates could be lower. In reality, for our specific loan type, the rates were competitive. I came to realize: Wow, they just don’t trust what we’re offering.
As my team brainstormed ways to iterate our product, we incorporated ways to educate and set expectations for applicants during the process. This helped the applicants understand the offers they received from our product in the context of banks and other options out there.
In both the scenario of the mature product and the scrappier one, the product experience was built to cater specifically to user needs. The problem, however, was that this was only clear to the people building the product. It took keen observation and deep analysis to understand how our target demographic perceived our products—and innovation to change the customer reality.
3. Savor the Surprises
My “scrappiest” rotation was with Intuit’s new business initiatives team, with a goal of coming up with the next $30-million business idea for the company. Early in my role, I sat around a conference table with Generation Y (and some X) coworkers, brainstorming. Someone asked, “Have you seen our generation’s credit-card debt?” And another added, “And spending? Gen Yers don’t budget their money. We need to create something to make it simpler.”
Without leaving our cushy San Diego office space, we whiteboarded effective budgeting tools — glorified Excel spreadsheets, incentives and education — to enable Generation Yers to spend less and save more. Two days later, we were bullish on our solution for tomorrow’s financial problems. Equipped with mockups, our first stop was a community college. With each student that we interviewed, we heard the same thing: Each month, they recorded the amount they wanted to spend for each category.
After a day of interviews, we were ready to accept that we had been wrong. Generation Yers already budgeted their money. Learning this didn’t mean we called it quits. Instead, we continued our research at more colleges, the mall and other Generation Y social hubs. Whether they were setting aside a certain amount of money each month for a big trip or a rainy day, our interviewees all budgeted in some way in order to save. They just rarely met their monthly goals.
The surprise was that it wasn’t entirely their fault that they didn’t meet these goals. The fact is that friends don’t exactly let friends save. There was significant peer pressure to spend money. And that was the problem we needed to be solving.
Rather than cling to our initial hypothesis, my team was energized to uncover the deeper problem—and took the time to fully understand it and methodologically determine our next step.
And then there was QuickBooks. Our work on QuickBooks was not without its surprises, despite the budgeting solution’s two-decade head start. For the aforementioned beta program, I recruited two sets of testers: those who had been using QuickBooks for years and had previously participated in a beta program and those who were completely new to the product. For this particular release, our team was especially excited about our new “Mac-like” design.
Each week, beta participants were asked to engage in various activities that tested our product. As I read user commentary each week, I noticed vast discrepancies in feedback. Some users hated components of our new design and others loved it. “How could people not like this new design?” I wondered. “It is beautiful!” It was shocking to me.
Instead of ignoring this undesired reaction, however, I decided to spend time understanding the opposing point of view. Finally, I realized that for users who had built specific workflows around our product, a new design meant disruption to efficiency. It was because of these reports that we made an additional effort to explain why things changed and how to maintain their specific processes—and this prevented my team from disenfranchising an entire segment of our user base.
And the Learning Goes On
Part of being in product management is keeping your eyes peeled for surprises, because they jump out at you when you least expect it. And with more mature products, it’s particularly easy to get comfortable with the status quo and to miss new developments. What’s most important is to embrace surprise as a situation that only stands to improve your product.
As you consider the requirements of a product management role, realize that no matter where you are—whether at a large company or a small startup, leading a mature product or a nascent one—the fundamental principles of success are almost identical. Push yourself to identify problems you are passionate about solving for users—and then go above and beyond the written description of your role to solve the problem for your product’s users.