This post is part of a series of interviews that we are conducting with product leaders across various industries. In this interview series, product leaders share their advice with their fellow product managers. We hope this series will shed light on trends and challenges in the profession, and be helpful to new and experienced product managers alike.
The following is a conversation with Julie Cabinaw, VP of Sales, Marketing & Innovation at Scentsy (a leading provider of home and personal fragrance). Before Scentsy, Julie held a variety of product management and user experience roles at Microsoft, Healthwise, Hewlett-Packard, and Amazon. Here is Julie’s story.
You have been involved in bringing new products to market for quite some time. How has product management changed over the years?
Julie Cabinaw (JC): Thinking back to the early stages of product management, I remember really trying to convince developers that we had value to add to the equation. In the late 90s, developers often drove the vision for products — and it was based quite a bit on what technology could do. Sometimes, user specific needs were secondary.
I think we’ve really seen a maturation of product management’s relationship with all the other parts of the company. We’re working with sales, we’re working with marketing, and we work so closely with technology. We really exist as a unifying force to be the voice of the customer. We help make sure that customer experience — or in our case at Scentsy, consultant and customer experience — is the center of what we’re doing. As product managers, we’re relied upon to be the voice of business, consultant and customer needs, and to rationalize these sometimes conflicting viewpoints. The maturation of the product management field has been really fun to be a part of.
“Product Managers need to be the voice of business and customer needs, and to rationalize conflicting viewpoints.”
You worked in a variety of product-related roles over the years, including UX positions at Hewlett Packard and Healthwise as well as leading the content experience team for the Amazon Kindle. What’s the biggest product design challenge you’ve encountered in your career and how did you solve it?
JC: There have been so many fun challenges to work on over the years. I have two examples. One is from the healthcare space. In healthcare, people have struggled with the role of technology — knowing that it could be absolutely essential to improving people’s decision-making relative to their health issues, but also not wanting to over-complicate things for patients and families.
One very user-focused challenge that we had at Healthwise, a Boise-based health decision-focused company, was helping people make better health decisions. We had to understand where patients were in their thinking about their healthcare issues. The challenge was understanding what was important to them, and then combining that information with what we knew about the patient transactionally (maybe their claims history or patterns in data that might predict that they have more health issues with a particular concern) — as well as what the best medical guidance might be. It was an incredibly big product design challenge and it continues to be something that’s very near and dear to my heart.
The folks at Healthwise do amazing work in researching the needs of patients and representing those through content technology. I think that’s probably one of the proudest things: being part of something that really made a difference through technology. That ability to make an impact, and improve someone’s life is a similarity to the product management function at Scentsy. It’s so exciting!
On the other hand, the scale of working on content experience at Amazon is fascinating — being able to understand the magnitude of a project that has so many technology implications. There are so many different versions of the Kindle that you have to take into account in order to roll-out a new feature.
When you think about people using their Kindles, many people still love the first Kindle that they ever purchased. And so, when making decisions about how far back to go on a feature set, you have to understand how that experience is going to play out for millions of users around the world with different languages and with different expectations from a user experience standpoint.
It was an amazing thing to watch happen at a company like Amazon. The efficiency and the scale that they bring to it, while still being laser-focused on the customer, was really fun to learn from.
You are currently the VP of Marketing & Sales Technology for Scentsy. What are your recommendations for how product and sales and marketing teams can work better together?
JC: What’s most important, I think, is bringing together a cross-functional team for an opportunity to share a vision.
People who are involved in a project early on, from the beginning, should be able to represent their viewpoints and answer tough questions. We try to do a lot of design thinking in the technology program work that we do at Scentsy. We broaden and explore different problem spaces before we narrow in on a solution.
This approach has two advantages. One is creating the best possible product. And second, more to your question of how to bring teams together, it focuses everyone on understanding that what we’re about to do is bigger than us — bigger than any of our particular interests on our team. It’s really important to keep the focus on the problem that we’re solving and the people that we’re solving it for.
Another thing that’s important is being a good listener. I think sometimes people listen for the things that validate what they already want to do. It’s so much more important to listen openly and make sure you’re getting a complete understanding of how someone thinks about things, what they’re looking for, and what they’re concerned about.
At Scentsy, we’re exploring a partnership between our hard goods product team and our technical product team. It’s really interesting to, for the first time, bring together these teams that have never worked with each other, but that have similar backgrounds in many ways in terms of being owners of their products. In bringing them together we really get the best of both worlds — and listening goes a long way in that.
“Data provides a strong foundation for everybody to understand the problem in a similar way.”
I think the other thing that really helps when you’re talking about needing to reduce friction between teams is making sure that people understand things from a data-focused perspective. There’s always a balance of guts (intuition) and data that goes into the things that we do, but data provides an incredibly strong foundation for everybody to understand the problem in a similar way. Having everybody sit and watch users struggle with something, or succeed fabulously, gives everybody a shared understanding of how things are going. It’s crucial to get everybody grounded in reality through data, rather than just their impressions or their opinions of what might be the best path.
And finally, I think good processes are really important to have when you’re working together. The larger a company is, the more some kind of process is needed to make sure that things don’t get missed, and that you don’t miss out on opportunities to understand each other’s perspectives.
Given your extensive UX experience, are there any design principles that you think successful products have in common?
JC: Foremost, I think great products are designed based on user needs. We see a lot of great technology, and we think of potential applications for that technology, but being grounded in the most important problems that users are trying to solve is not so much an aesthetic design principle, but a principle that keeps everybody focused on what they’re really trying to accomplish.
The next thing that we’re always looking for is simplicity in design. There’s a lot of things we can do with any particular product, but should we do them? Should we do them now? I think everybody gets very focused on a long-term vision for what something will be in the future. A lot of companies I’m seeing are maturing to a state of understanding the concept of an MVP, and getting comfortable with continual iterations and cycles to improve on that. I think that continuous deployment and having regular ongoing releases allows us much more technical agility.
Bridging from UX to product management, as late as five years ago, it seemed that every product manager’s fear was not getting to come back anytime soon to what they just released and improve upon it. You felt like you needed to cram in as much as you could in that first release, and it may not have been the quality that you wanted it to be.
So improvements in the way that we deploy things technically have really allowed us to have more simple MVPs. And then, minimalistic design is kind of the companion to simplicity in feature sets — ensuring that the design keeps the focus on the most important next action that a user can take.
Minimalism is so important when you’re trying to accomplish a brand experience, and when you’re trying to realize the goal of having someone buy something or complete a task. Minimalism is often hard. It’s much harder to develop something and scale it back to the most essential than to just kind of throw it all out there and hope for the best. It requires a lot more discipline to achieve minimalistic design.
Finally, exploring the gaps in what is not said by users, to understand unmet needs and create a product that perhaps a user couldn’t have articulated that they wanted, but delights them in providing new solutions they had not anticipated.
What advice do you have for uniting stakeholders around product strategy and getting buy-in on the roadmap?
JC: I’ve had the chance to hone this skill over many years, but I think some of the best lessons that I learned have come in the past couple of years, both here at Scentsy as well as at Amazon.
There are a lot of articles around Amazon’s working backwards process. I encourage people to explore the Amazon process. The idea is to unite your stakeholders around a shared vision of customer experience. The process involves writing the press release, a crisp and succinct six page strategy, answering hard questions about the approach via FAQs and committing to disciplined and rigorous document reviews. Working backwards allows the rest of the project to flow in a much nicer way. We make sure that we understand how we’re going to measure success, and we make sure that we can think of any possible question that a user could have or any scenario that could develop that we would need to address.
It’s something that I’ve brought into my work currently, and I think we’re having higher quality and better releases as a result of more rigor upfront. Not everyone was super excited at first, with a more rigorous approach. Then I had one of my team members, after having gone through the process, reach the C-level review for the program that she was proposing. She was able to answer every single question that got fired at her, and to get approval for a very ambitious sales technology program.
“First and foremost, you need to unite everyone around a shared product vision.”
So, first and foremost, you need to unite everyone around a shared vision and get them bought-in on the story. Then, follow up with strong evidence for the KPIs that you’re trying to achieve. You need to be able to show that you’ve done your homework in regard to the return on investment that your product will produce. And even if you don’t have the perfect scenario, working with your partners in sales and in finance to build a model based on logical assumptions is the really big part of the battle.
Finally, for resolving differences of opinion around experiential issues, bringing in user feedback and data is really essential. You need to show that you’ve arrived at your recommendations based on real user input.
How do you incorporate customer feedback into your roadmap?
JC: One of the most important things, and something that I’ve done at the last couple of organizations that I’ve been a part of, is making sure product management is unified with UX.
They should have such a tight alliance that there’s just a natural understanding among the team that customer feedback has a role in every phase that they move through — whether that’s researching the initial idea for a concept, getting feedback on prototypes, or the Wizard of Oz-type things where we’re simulating a product’s experience and understanding reactions to it.
Right now we’re in a thousand person beta for a new product. We uncovered a fairly significant issue and we’re excited that we encountered that issue with 1,000 people rather than 130,000 people.
It helps you understand things so much better once you get the the product out into the wild. When we release something out to our consultants and our customers, we have several mechanisms to evaluate it. We’re using A/B testing. We’re using on-site surveys for new features, and we’re doing ongoing usability testing of both existing features and new features that are being planned. Any given week we’re probably running at least three or four usability tests on things in different phases of the cycle.
For us, feedback is an incredibly big part of what drives our roadmap. It helps drive the next set of features, and course-correct features we may have planned but that need to be tweaked.
What are some big mistakes that you’ve seen product managers make (or mistakes you’ve made yourself)?
JC: I am going to speak from personal experience, but I have seen other product managers do this too. I think when you’re younger, you want so much to be the hero of the product, and you care deeply about your product. But what can happen is that you take too much on yourself, and you don’t realize the value that other people can bring to the table.
You think you have to do it all yourself. You’re not inclusive enough, and in the end, you don’t create a product that is good as you could have created, had you allowed those people to be a part of it. It’s often a matter of ego. You say to yourself, “I know what the right thing is. I’ve got the data. Thank you for your opinion, but I’ve got it.”
I think that this is especially common when you’re newer and you’re trying to prove to people that you know what you’re doing. What ends up happening is that you prove you can build something pretty good all by yourself, but you could have created something much bigger and much better if you had some other input.
“There is a balance of head and heart in any good product manager.”
Another mistake is not understanding that there is a balance of head and heart in any good product manager. Every single situation involves a mix in some way of those two parts. You have to have that foundation of data and analytics to make decisions, but sometimes product managers who don’t appreciate the heart, or the personal impact of a product design choice, may miss opportunities to put in little kisses that move a product from being a good utilitarian experience to something that people talk about.
Finally, another common mistake I see product managers make is having a big vision, but not realizing how much scenario planning they need to do in order to achieve it. You can’t afford to gloss over the details. You may, for example, realize that there’s a gap in a feature set that you need to release. This means you’re either going to delay your product, or you’re going to release something that’s not as good as it should be because you’re missing a big part of it.
This relates back to the first point about making sure you have enough voices in the mix giving you feedback and helping you make better decisions. But it’s also about playing devil’s advocate with yourself and with your team — asking, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here? What’s the best thing that could happen here? If the best thing happens, do we have enough bandwidth to handle what’s going to come at us?”
What do you think are the most important skills for product managers?
JC: What I’ve learned over the years is that there is an expectation that good product managers have a basis of technical and business acumen. They should functionally know how to write requirements and how to communicate with developers. They should understand how to build a business case from a financial perspective. Those things are kind of a given, in my opinion.
When I’m hiring someone new, the things that I’m looking for most are the things that I’ve realized over the years result in better members of my team. The most important thing is passion. You can see that light in some people’s eyes where they just get so fired up; I call it the raw meat factor. You can just feel from everything that they’re doing that they’re going to go after what they’re about with 110%.
On the other hand, you may have somebody who’s like, “Yeah, I’m really good at what I do, but it’s just a job.” Those can also be good people to have on your team, and you need a balance of all sorts of people. But with product managers, I’m looking for a spark. And, along with a spark, intense curiosity.
In good product management teams, people ask questions about each other’s work. To some it might appear aggressive, but it actually results in people thinking harder about what it is that they’re doing. Done respectfully, intense curiosity can lead to figuring out the root cause of why you’re making a decision, or why users might be feeling a certain way, or why something’s going on with the analytics on your site. It’s all about not just taking things at face value, and trying to understand the “why”.
Finally, the last two features I look for are soft skills. Every new market that you might be in — you have to be fluid and teachable, and agile. We’re not looking for someone who won’t make mistakes, we’re looking for people who are willing to make mistakes, but won’t make the same mistakes twice.
You also, I think, have to be willing to have a chameleon-like aspect of yourself. It’s not that you don’t keep your core values or your core skills, but you should understand how to soak up the environment and the context of a company. You should be able to build relationships and understand the factors that drive people in the company to make decisions, and understand how to meet their needs.
I think those things — passion, curiosity, teachability, having chameleon-like aspects, and the softer relationship management skills — go a long way. But they need to be built on a base of technical acumen and business strength.