6 Product Management Insights from Mind The Product San Francisco 2016

Jim Semick

Jim Semick
Founder & Chief Strategist at ProductPlan

Over 1,200 product managers gathered yesterday at the San Francisco symphony hall to hear 9 amazing speakers talk about the latest insights into product management. Our team enjoyed listening to the speakers as well as meeting with ProductPlan customers and other fellow product managers. So many great observations in one day. Here are our top 6 take-aways.

1. Great product managers need to be comfortable in the “uncomfortable.”

comfortable in the uncomfortable

Ken Norton kicked off the 2016 Mind the Product conference with the following analogy: Product managers operate like Jazz groups. Jazz by nature is chaotic. He made the observation that product managers can create innovative products by surrendering to the unknown, following the music where it goes, and “creating dissonance.” The best product teams provide space to take risks.

The takeaway? Get uncomfortable. There are no such things as mistakes, only missed opportunities. Software is unpredictable, so just go with it. You can read the full blog post from Ken’s talk here.

2. Product innovation never stops (competitors don’t wait while you write your JIRA ticket).

roduct innovation never stops

Des Traynor from Intercom provided a simple (but powerful) observation: People have been solving the same problems that your software solves for a long time. Technology that makes it cheaper, faster, or easier for your customers to make progress in their lives will disrupt your product — unless you disrupt it yourself.

Product teams can never rest and must keep innovating with the latest trends. Your product is not a single destination — it’s a system. You need to treat new competitors with respect. If you think of your product as an isolated application, rather than part of an overall system that solves a problem, then you will be disrupted (and you may not realize it when it’s happening).

3. Your customers aren’t “users,” they are people.

Maria Giudice, VP of Experience Design at Autodesk, spoke about the importance of truly understanding your customers as opposed to working with your assumptions. Create programs to get closer to your customers (like a “customer tour of duty”).


One of the key takeaways: Don’t think of your customers as “users.” They are people who need to be treated with empathy.

4. Are you naughty or nice? Assist your customers to achieving their goals.

Nathalie Nahai focused her presentation on user interface design, specifically a customer’s journey and the psychology behind successful products. In her talk, she gave examples on how companies either “undermine customers’ goals for their benefits” (naughty) or “assist their customers to achieve their goals” (nice). Nathalie divided the customer journey into 3 “battle fields:” Conversion, Adoption, Monetization. For each of the phases, Nathalie gave specific examples (naughty and nice) of what product managers should or should not do.

She concluded her presentation by reminding all of us that we are both architects and users of future technologies. And it is up to us what kind of world we want to build.

5. The experience is the product.

We’re often quick to share all the things that make up our great products. Peter Merholz kicked off his talk by comparing two product descriptions of the “photographic apparatus” in the nineteenth century.

The first product description is very lengthy and starts with this: “This apparatus consists of a box containing a camera, A, and a frame, C, containing the desired number of plates, each held in a small frame of black Bristol board…”

the experience is the product

In contrast, the product description that Kodak used (which probably contributed to the success of the company) was simply: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Peter Merholz talk was a good reminder that there is more to our products and services than merely the things we build.

6. Innovation is great, so long as the core mechanics (and language) are familiar.

innovation is great

Scott Belsky, Founder of Behance and VP of Products for Adobe, talked about how it’s more important to solve problems for new users than to bloat your product with features for power users. He urged product managers to simplify. The challenge? Keeping it simple is complicated.

Scott believes that innovation is important but not at the cost of keeping products easy. (A common theme at MTP). This is one reason why Scott believes that the product team should be responsible for marketing copy because it is part of the product experience.

2016 Mind the Product Theme

The conference was inspiring and we left feeling motivated and excited to be a part of the product management tribe. The presentations and conversations were multi-faceted. A common theme that we spotted across the entire conference was the “importance of the human aspect” for product managers. From “assisting customers to achieve their goals,” to “customer tours of duty,” to “people, not users.”

Attending events like Mind the Product is a good step in establishing more personal relationships in a world where it is so incredible easy to just be stuck behind screens. But it should not stop here. Don’t build products in silos based solely on assumptions without validating them with your customers at every step of the process. Product managers need to focus their decisions on customers (read: humans).