This post is part of our product lessons learned 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 Lea Hickman, VP of Product Management at InVision (an award-winning SaaS-based product design collaboration platform). Lea is a tech industry veteran and before leading the product team at InVision, she was an executive at Adobe, AOL, and Netscape. Here is Lea’s story.
1. How has product management changed over the years?
Lea Hickman (LH): I think the fundamental catalyst to changing product management over the years has been the change in development processes. We are no longer in a world where we create 70-page PRDs and product specs to hand off to engineering. The advent of agile and lean development methodologies, it’s fundamentally changed the work a product manager does. Not only from a task perspective but also the type of skills that are required.
I remember early on in my career, product management was more like project management. It was someone who was part project manager, part systems analyst — where you were writing very detailed specifications. And thankfully, that has evolved into something where a product manager is more like a mini-CEO. Someone who can understand holistically what the problems really are, identify if they’re big enough problems to go after, and work with a core team to find the most efficient way(s) to solve them.
Here at InVision, we look for a very specific type of product manager. Our company solves workflow problems for design teams, so our product managers usually have a design background. The other key criteria are that they are very entrepreneurial. We typically look for folks who have founded or started their own companies.
This provides the mindset of someone who is willing to play the mini-CEO role. That person who’s willing to jump in and be a critical thinker and a great problem solver (coupled with design skills). If they have those two fundamental skills, that’s the recipe for our success on the product management side at InVision. Anything else, we can teach.
2. What’s the biggest product design challenge you’ve encountered in your career and how did you solve it?
LH: Throughout my career, the biggest challenge is probably when the iPad was first released. The iPad was introduced when I was at Adobe and we were looking to understand how users design on a tablet device.
How would they naturally and intuitively think about creating design on a tablet? This was a completely different way of consuming information. We wondered, how could it be used to create content as well?
The design challenge was focused on a different form factor. You have this device that has a camera attached to it and a completely different interface — touch. We spent a fair amount of time exploring ways to make that even better and to leverage the device.
Our CTO at the time was Kevin Lynch who firmly believed there was a great opportunity there. We did a lot of investigation and a lot of discovery work to understand how we could meet that need. We launched a few iPad products that did quite well and got a lot of adoption. In fact, the artwork behind me (and I know no one’s going to be able to see it) is an album cover that was created by a designer named Brian Yap, who used one of our tablet applications to do the illustration work.
I’m not entirely sure we solved it during that time frame — I’m not sure it’s solved today, but I think it’s a very interesting challenge, in terms of how we can leverage different platforms to create content. There’s promise and an audience for it, but I think designers need the power and precision of a more robust environment. That was the big takeaway.
3. You led the charge when Adobe Creative Suite transitioned to a subscription-based model. Do you have any recommendations for product managers on how they can best navigate big shifts in strategy?
LH: On that particular project, especially considering the scale of it (hundreds and hundreds of people were involved), consistent and repetitive communication was absolutely critical, both verbally and written. I can’t emphasize that enough. A product manager has to be obsessive about getting their story out and repeating it. Never assume that just because you already told someone, they’re going to remember what the story is, or the why behind making a pivot.
That was a huge takeaway. Over-communicate, make it extremely consistent, and do it again and again and again. Also, be sure to pre-vet key messages with your stakeholders — which is essential for making any major strategic shift. If you have an idea of how you want to shift something, meet with your stakeholders ahead of time and get their feedback prior to actually doing that broader communication.
4. What advice do you have for uniting stakeholders around product strategy and getting buy-in on the roadmap?
LH: I always make sure that whenever there’s a roadmap discussion, no one in the room is seeing the roadmap for the first time in that forum. I’ve had the most resistance from stakeholders when they were surprised by something. Now, I take whatever draft I have, and I share it really early on, like prototyping. If you present your ideas and thoughts and start gathering feedback to course correct them from the beginning, you’ll earn your stakeholders’ trust since they will buy into the process with you.
Then, take your early concepts, pre-vet them again with your stakeholders, and ask them for help to refine and shape. This doesn’t mean you’re asking for their ideas, you’re collaborating and bringing them along in the process.
Nine times out of 10, this strategy will alleviate major conflicts you’ll face when you have the official roadmap discussion or the official MVP discussion.
5. What do you think are the most important skills for product managers?
“A great product manager believes in what they’re creating, and has conviction around their ideas.”
LH: There are three traits I look for in product managers:
- Product managers need to be exceptional communicators.
- The more subtle, harder thing to interview for is conviction. A great product manager believes in what they’re creating and has conviction around their ideas. And by that, I don’t mean falling in love with your idea. I mean having a defensible conviction about your idea and being able to stand behind it and answer the ‘why’. I talk a lot about the why. We often fall short in explaining the why to other people, and that’s part of the conviction. If you can explain why you want to do something, you have conviction.
- The final trait is something that’s important for me when I’m hiring and in product managers, I like to work with — a sense of humility. Understanding it’s not about you. It’s about getting an opportunity to shop for the product and get it into the hands of users — letting users decide.
6. Are there any design principles you think successful products have in common?
LH: It’s research — but it’s not the UX type of research most folks talk about. We do research a little differently at InVision. We recently invested in and hired our second ethnographic researcher, who evaluates people and cultures. I like this approach because if you can get at the root cause of a problem through research, you’ll come up with an ultimate solution.
For example, we work with a lot of companies (big and small) who have really incredible design teams (Airbnb, WeWork, IDEO, Adobe). If we present a proposal or review a prototype for a new feature, we’re going to have a very short conversation with that team, where it’s just about the solution we’re putting in front of them.
However, if we go in and observe how the team works, and we sit with them for a while, we begin to understand their problems. One of our ethnographers has a Ph.D. in anthropology and sits with a few design teams a week. Through his observations, we’re able to get at the root cause of the problems particular design teams are having. It helps us to ask, “Is this a one-off problem or is this a persistent problem? How many people are having this problem?” This is step two of our research.
You’re basically sizing your market. Then, go into product discovery, which identifies solutions that address the root cause. When we think about design, we start at the root cause of the problem.
“When we think about design, we start at the root cause of the problem.”
Then listening to customers, observing them, and applying solutions, followed by UX testing and analysis, which determines the solution that will best meet those needs and address those core problems we’ve uncovered. It’s so foundational, giving you something you can build on and iterate on that yields great results.
7. What are some of the challenges that UX/UI teams have working together with Product Management? And what do you recommend to improve their interactions?
LH: At InVision, we have this concept of a core team, which consists of three roles: the product manager, the design lead, and the development lead.
The core team goes through all of that product discovery we talked about earlier. We found this process creates a lot of empathy across the roles and eliminates a lot of friction, particularly between the product manager and the UX or UI designer. From a velocity perspective, it cuts a lot of that friction out too. It helps these teams understand whether or not a particular design is going to be the most efficient to implement in real-time.
It allows the team to coalesce around that core MVP in terms of what it’s delivering. You don’t have a PM saying, “I need feature x by y date,” and then a designer creating things that are unimplementable and a developer saying, “Wait a minute, I have a say in this too…”
I’m a very strong believer that great ideas come from everywhere — design, development, or product. As soon as you take that away, it removes a lot of that friction.
8. What are some major product design trends that we can expect in 2017?
LH: It’s not so much about a design trend, but about designer trends. I’m finding a lot of the lines are blurring across the product team. Similar to when I was talking earlier about how we put our product teams together.
“I think it’s not so much about a design trend, but it’s about designer trend.”
More and more designers are learning how to code, and product managers are learning how to design. The whole core mix of how we built products in the past and how we’re going to be building products in the future is evolving.
To learn these languages, the tools are making design so much easier. Everything is evolving so quickly, where before you needed to have very specific skill sets. The biggest trend is the explosion—the simplification of the tooling is going to make anything possible.