This week, more than 1,500 product managers gathered in sunny San Francisco to ‘Mind the Product’. Over the course of the last 5 years, Mind the Product has clearly risen as the premier gathering for product managers. Just like in prior years, product managers from near and far created a vibrant energy, and it was great to see old friends and create new ones over coffee and conversations.

And of course, as always the presentations were very inspirational and made us once again thrilled to be part of the product management tribe. Here are our key takeaways from the 10 talks at this year’s Mind the Product.

1. You Have to Leverage New Technologies for the Next Generation of Customers

Aparna Chennapragada - New product ideas come from new capabilities

Mind the Product alumnus and Google’s Director of Product Management, Aparna Chennapragada kicked off this year’s presentations by sharing her insights on artificial intelligence (AI). Today’s pace of innovation is massively affecting how product managers build products. Just as our generation expects features that were cutting edge less than 10 years ago (like the touch screen, or mobile computing, etc.), the next generation will expect a whole new set of functionality. Product managers have to account for that now or otherwise their products will soon become obsolete.

Aparna ended her Mind the Product talk by sharing a couple videos that showed a toddler trying to ‘scroll’ through a non-digital magazine page and then another toddler trying to engage with a water fountain by giving it voice commands. AI is rapidly advancing and will soon be the new norm for future generations of customers.

2. Product Managers Need to be at the Heart of Their Products

Nate Walkingshaw - Product Triage

In what was one of the most unique intros to a talk that we’ve seen in a while, Nate Walkingshaw started off his presentation by playing a recording of a 911 call from an EMT dealing with a gunshot wound victim. This set the stage for Nate’s compelling analogy about what product managers can learn from EMTs.

  • Product managers need to be ruthless prioritizers: While product managers might not deal with life or death situations every day, they do need to quickly triage what issues are a priority or risk the death of a product.
  • Product managers need to be metrics driven: Just like a heart rate can reveal a lot about the current status of a patient, the “product pulse” (sprint frequency, feedback loop, etc.) of a company can also reveal its health. Chaotic shipping of code or extra long sprint cycles are just like an irregular heartbeat.
  • Product managers need to be empathetic: As an EMT, Nate needed to quickly establish rapport/trust with patients, and often had to put himself in their shoes to understand their pain. Being a product manager is no different.

3. Get Out of the ‘Build Trap’

Melissa Perri drove home one of the core challenges for product managers: don’t get stuck in the “build trap” (the cycle of building features from the backlog without proper prioritization).

Product managers often feel pressure to be continually shipping features at high frequency. One of Melissa’s examples was around the importance of customer feedback versus assumptions. The reasons her team assumed customers weren’t sticking around on their food-delivery service (for example, “the price is too high,” “we should give signup gifts,” etc.) were very different from the actual reasons (users couldn’t find the menu, they didn’t know what food came in their next box, etc.).

Melissa shared three core tenets of company culture that make product managers unsuccessful:

  • Fear of legal and compliance when experimenting
  • Not allowed to contact customers
  • Too busy to try something new

Her conclusion: to escape the “Build Trap”, drive high alignment through a good strategic framework.

4. Product Owners Need to be Futurists

product managers futurists
Zenka, an augmented reality artist and TEDx speaker, followed Melissa and spoke on a broader topic: the future. As Aparna previously mentioned, today’s pace of innovation is massively affecting how product managers build products.

Product managers, in addition to making decisions based on current metrics and customer feedback, also need to continually be keeping an eye on the future. Lowes, for example, hires science fiction writers to imagine what the future of retail will look like, and then uses some of those ideas to shape their product strategy.

While most PMs might not be able to hire science-fiction writers, keeping an open mind and anticipating future customer needs can go a long way. Zenka challenged product managers to “Dream it. Plan it. Do it”.

5. Don’t Forget That Emotions Matter

A Mind the Product fan favorite, Dave Wascha hit the stage right after lunch and had the crowd engaged in no time. Drawing from his decades of product management experience, Dave’s talk 20 Years of Product Management in 25 Minutes was chock full of practical career advice for product managers.

At the core of Dave’s message was an important principle: don’t forget the human element in your products. His presentation certainly lived by that principle, complete with songs by a barbershop quartet from PagerDuty and an introduction to his mom who “happened” to be in the audience.

Dave gave 4 examples of products and their human side (both good and bad):

  • Smalt (a speaker/mood light/salt dispenser): Products need to solve a real need. “Having fun while I put salt on my food is not a problem I have.”
  • Oral B Pulsar Toothbrush: Features need to actually matter to customers. “Some poor bastard spent 5 years of his life determining the ideal degree of the bristles.”
  • Evernote: Pricing needs to make human sense. One of Evernote’s pricing tiers includes 60 MB of data transfer, but most users have no idea what that actually means to them.
  • True Jerky: True Jerky includes dental floss in their packages of jerky. Those types of features are based on emotion and result in real customer delight.

The key takeaway is that there’s no single way to do product management, but ensuring your product management process has a human element will result in building products that people love.

6. Above All, Focus on Your Core Users

Josh Elman - Are people really using your product?

Josh Elman, a partner at the VC firm Greylock Partners, shared fantastic insight from his time at Twitter and his experience working with investment companies. He focused on how to find your core users and how to make them successful (slides here).

Most product managers today have an overwhelming amount of data at their fingertips. It’s important to remember, however, that all metrics are relative and benchmarking yourself against a company with a different business model isn’t helpful. For example, the concept of a core user for Twitter (where an active user might be in the app everyday) is significantly different than a core user for AirBnb (who might only use the app 3-5 times a year). Instead, companies need to identify the metrics specific to their product to better understand the usage patterns of their core users.

7. The Pace of Innovation Is Slower Today Than it Ever Will be

Janice Fraser shared her wisdom on how large organizations can remain nimble and foster a culture of innovation. The fact is, the pace of innovation today is slower than it will ever be for the rest of your life. Innovative software companies (i.e. Netflix, Salesforce) are pushing established legacy companies (i.e. Sprint, Black & Decker) out of the S&P 500.

In order to stay competitive, large companies need to encourage a company culture where risk-taking is rewarded, particularly in product management. “In environments where failure is politically damaging, hiding it is a natural reaction. So there are LOTS of zombies sucking out the brains and budget of your organization.”

8. Dealing With People is Very Hard

Taking the stage at Mind the Product for the first time, Janna Bastow shared her insights around dealing with challenging people situations when planning your product roadmap. In a series of “roadmap therapy” sessions, she shared tips for successfully dealing with coworkers and customers.

Some of these key recommendations were:

  • Choose language that fosters communication and provides psychological safety (“How might we…”, “I bet…”)
  • Use data to confidently challenge decisions handed down from executives (“The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy” – Jeff Bezos)
  • Encourage team buy-in and reduce friction by making your roadmap accessible and easy to read (“Acronyms suck” – Elon Musk)

9. Your Prototype Needs to be Ugly

Caitlin Kalinowski - Your prototype needs to be ugly

Caitlin Kalinowski, who cut her serious engineering chops at the likes of Apple and Oculus, shared six principles for building MVPs and prototypes:

  • Define your non-negotiables
  • Let the product drive your style
  • Solve the hardest problems first
  • Build ugly prototypes
  • Converge quickly or reset
  • Iterate like crazy

Here at ProductPlan, we especially emphasize the importance of #4 and #6: get to market fast and work closely with your customers to first fully understand their problems so you can adequately solve them. And this will take many iterations. Caitlin shared that it took Apple well over 50 iterations of their MacBook trackpad to get it to the current state. Apple did not solve all the problems in their first version – chances are, neither will you.

10. You Can Either Exploit Your Customers’ Problems or You Can Solve Them

Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden - Solve customer problems

Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden, the authors of Lean UX, closed this year’s stage by reminding product managers that we all can either solve customers’ problems or exploit them. Both options will make you money. But we need to choose wisely, because our decisions will shape the world we’re living in.

Jeff and Josh shared the following framework to help product managers understand if they’re solving the customer’s problems: We believe that meeting this user need, with these features, will create this business outcome. We’ll know we’re right when we see this evidence.

Mind the Product and the People

Just like last year, Mind the Product was very inspiring and made us feel, once again, proud to be part of the product management tribe. All of the presenters did a wonderful job in sharing their stories to help all of us be better product managers.

This year’s Mind the Product emphasized the importance and challenges of human relationships in product management – internal relationships within the organization and the relationships that product managers have with their customers.

Product managers play a key role not only in shaping internal company culture, but also in the customer’s perception of their organization. And you can choose if you a) want to solve your customers’ problems or b) if you want to exploit them. Choose wisely.

Share your takeaways and thoughts in the comments below.