There are lots of ways to define a product manager’s job, but here’s one viable way you could succinctly describe the product management role: identify flaws and design solutions for them.
You can find design flaws everywhere, if you’re looking. They’re in your competitors’ products, in the standard processes your customers use today to get things done, and even in your own products. The point is, these design flaws are actually opportunities. As Airbnb co-founder and chief product officer Joe Gebbia explained on the TED Radio Hour, “Anytime you see duct tape in the world, that’s a design opportunity.”
Why a Design Flaw Can Be Great News—Even if You Spot it in Your Own Product
As product professionals, we don’t always get it right. And we rarely get things entirely right on the first try. Sometimes we design our products in ways we find intuitive, but our users don’t. Other times we over-develop or under-develop a piece of functionality. We might make features that are too complicated, or overly simplistic, or just not quite right.
But when we spot those design flaws—or when users raise their hands to tell us about them—we aren’t failing. We’re getting valuable new information. We’re learning specific details about how to improve our product. And more importantly, gaining new insights into our users: how they do things, how they think, and how they prefer to work. This is great stuff!
Discovering design flaws can lead not only to improvements to that aspect of the product, but also to insights into broader improvements. It can even lead to ideas for entirely new products to solve related challenges for your users.
Case Study: The Apple Design Flaw That Changed the Unboxing Experience
Of course, it’s always preferable if you can find a design flaw in someone else’s product, rather than your own. You can then use that insight to inform a better solution for your customers. One real-world example of this came from—who else?—Apple.
Back in the 1990s the standard customer experience when buying a new electronic device was different. You’d bring your new gadget home and open the box to a sticker inside that read: “Charge before use.”
Tony Fadell was one of the iPod’s original product team members. He explained during a TED Radio Hour that this was a terrible practice on the part of electronics manufacturers. Customers who’d rushed to the stores to purchase their products would then have to wait hours to start enjoying them.
Naturally, Apple saw an opportunity in this design flaw. Apple was the first company to package their consumer products fully charged and ready to use out of the box. Apple’s massive success with that strategy won them millions of fans. It also forced other consumer-electronics companies to reflect on their own negligence. That’s why, as Fadell points out, today just about every battery-powered product is packaged fully charged.
3 Places to Spot Design Flaws That Could Lead to Product Opportunities
Where can you find this type of opportunity? How do you actively uncover design flaws worth fixing?
As we stated earlier, there are at least three places to look. You can search for low hanging fruit in competitor’s products, existing processes, and within your own products. To make this more concrete, let’s review a real-world example of each.
1. Find a design flaw in a competitor’s product.
The Apple anecdote above could serve as a good example of capitalizing on a design flaw in your competitors’ offerings. But here’s another one.
A few years ago, many major banks began adding new fees for standard consumer banking services. These services included debit-card usage and accessing money from the financial institutions’ own ATMs. As an AmericanExpress.com article explained, there were several huge flaws in the banks’ rollout of these new charges.
First, their timing was terrible. This was during a period of high unemployment and financial anxiety among the working and middle-class customers these banks served. Second, the banks did a lousy job of communicating the new charges. As a result, many banking consumers assumed these were opportunistic attempts by the banks to grab more money from them.
As these public missteps generated awful press for big banks, many credit unions—banks’ competitors—were paying close attention.
Spotting the flaws in the design of the new-fees rollout, these credit unions quickly took action. They advertised lower-cost competitive products without the new charges. They positioned themselves on the side of the little consumer and against the greedy bankers. As that AmericanExpress.com story explained, the Credit Union National Association reported hundreds of thousands of consumers opened new accounts at credit unions within weeks of the big banks’ new-fee announcements. This was largely a direct result of how poorly the banks rolled them out.
The lesson: Always be on the lookout for mistakes your competitors are making. Opportunities can hide either within competitive products or within any aspect of their customer experience. Be ready with a better alternative of your own for their dissatisfied customers.
2. Find a design flaw in your customers’ existing processes
As we pointed out in a recent post on product innovation, when a couple of professionals at a trade show in Paris couldn’t find a taxicab, they hit on an idea that would soon change the world.
The inspiration for Uber, like many other products, came from its creators identifying a design flaw in the status quo. For whatever reason we all came to accept that only “licensed cab drivers” should be allowed to drive us.
But, of course, Uber’s co-founders spotted the flaws in this way of thinking. First, there can be only so many licensed cab companies—given the time, effort, and money that go into applying for a taxi “medallion.” And that of course can lead to shortages of cab drivers in busy areas when customers are most in need of them. (Which is exactly what happened to Uber’s frustrated founders waiting for a cab outside that Paris technology conference.)
A second design flaw in limiting who can serve as a cab driver, is that it needlessly leaves a lot of potential spare capacity unused. At all hours of the day, and all over the world, there are people who want rides, and people with cars who’d be happy to provide those rides for a fee.
All Uber did was unlock all of that capacity, matching ample supply with ample demand for a valued service.
The lesson: Is there a flaw or inefficiency in how your users are forced to perform some part of their workflow or daily tasks? Is there some way you could develop a product (or add to your existing product) to improve that situation?
3. Find a design flaw in your own products
Did you know that Instagram was originally named Burbn? (One of the cofounders really likes whiskey.) And did you know it was originally designed as a location-based app? Instagram was formerly a tool to let users check in at locations and earn points for meeting up with friends also on the app. Oh, yeah, it also allowed them to post photos.
As Instagram’s creativity researcher Kevin Sawyer told The Atlantic, the Burbn app “was too complicated… a jumble of features that made it confusing.” That was the design flaw. Then came the opportunity.
Instagram’s founders used analytics tools to study exactly what users were doing with the app. They hoped to learn why it hadn’t caught on with users. They discovered people were bypassing all of the app’s location-check-in features but using the built-in photo-sharing tool. In fact, as Sawyer explained, “they were posting and sharing photos like crazy.”
With that knowledge, the founding team decided to reimagine their app with a far narrower focus: a photo-sharing platform. And that led to today’s Instagram.
The lesson: Sometimes a bug or design flaw, is actually just a user story you hadn’t thought of yet. But your customers did. If you discover your users are interacting with your product in ways you hadn’t intended, you don’t need to view that as a failure. It might actually be an opportunity in disguise.
Design Flaws Can Be Gifts
Sometimes a team really designs something terribly, and it just needs to be fixed ASAP.
But more often than not, a design flaw is just the market telling you something you didn’t realize. Design flaws can help you build better products. Always be on the lookout for those opportunities, and treat them like the gifts they are.