As a founding partner of investment group #Angels and former Director of Product at Twitter, April Underwood knows a thing or two about goal-setting and prioritization. Not only was April recently named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business - 2015, she also spent the early part of her product management career at successful companies like Google and Travelocity.
In our first episode of Product Management Confessions with April, Wizeline Head of Product Matt Pasienski dives into some hard questions about goal-setting and managing expectations when releasing new features and products.
April also shares some lessons from her experiences at Twitter and Google including:
- It’s a good problem to have when users notice new features
- Create a framework of best and worst case scenarios
- Build in enough time for product development teams to test, measure, and improve
Matt Pasienski: What's the show with Underwoods on it?
April Underwood: Oh, House of Cards.
Matt Pasienski: Yeah. I'm not going to make a joke about that.
April Underwood: Okay, cool. Watch out for cultural references because I'll miss them all.
Matt Pasienski: Oh, really?
April Underwood: Yeah. You would think that I did not work at a company where media is a big user audience.
Matt Pasienski: Okay. I'm here with April Underwood. Thank you so much for joining me. Just as a short introduction, you've worked at a number of amazing companies, most recently Twitter where you were the Director of Product. You're doing your own Angel thing. You can explain that in a little bit. But you've worked at The Climate Corporation, Travelocity, Google. You've done it for many, many years. We just want to get a little background on what you think makes product managers successful, hear some of your stories, what you think works, what doesn't.
The first thing I wanted to get at was a lot of times we talk about companies who are starting from scratch and building things up and what is all the strategy there. At Twitter, especially the last couple years, you have a full-blown successful institution where people are going to come in, they're going to complain. Anything changes, you're going to hear about it. How do you manage product in a situation where changing the product is very touchy, when there might be a lot of pushback for any change but you still have goals you need to meet.
April Underwood: I think it falls in the category of a good problem to have, when you change your product and people care. A lot of times you work on products and you make changes, and people may not notice. I think definitely something you found at Twitter and that you see with other big consumer products is that when you make changes to it, people feel a real sense of connection, a sense of ownership with that product. Consumers, users, can have a really strong emotional reaction to changes that either catch them off guard- there's just things that are simply surprises- make the work that they like to do harder, or actually, worst-case scenario, make the product less useful for them.
Matt Pasienski: But you still want something to happen ...
April Underwood: Yes.
Matt Pasienski: ... so at Twitter you were working a lot on the monetization features.
April Underwood: Exactly.
Matt Pasienski: That's obviously something that's not necessarily completely aligned with the user goals of using Twitter. What do you do when you have that pushback? How do you build support and make sure that the person who's in charge of maybe the MAU or whatever the active user number is is not going to be put out by the people making revenue number? That's obviously your goal on your side of the business.
April Underwood: Sure. I think at the highest level what's most important is that there's a shared sense of vision for where the product and the company are going, so that if you've got different, distinct teams around the company that are working on goals that may even be at odds with one another, there's an understanding of what all of that hangs off of in terms of the company vision, in terms of how we do business, how we build products. Then also understanding that there are multiple goals that need to be balanced so that there's some understanding across one product and engineering team versus another exactly. How to think about those things which are intention.
I actually think a little bit more to some of the experience I had at Google. When I was at Google, I got to work on a few different things. I joined when it was 20,000 people. One of the things that I got to work on was actually bringing monetization to many of Google's consumer properties. This was in about 2008, 2009, and Google was just starting to explore ways to monetize Google Maps, Google Finance, image search, a variety of different properties. There were lots of different people around the company working on different sides of that. They were working on making the consumer experience better. They were also working on exploring how to monetize that experience.
One of the things I remember is actually I had the opportunity to sit in some meetings that had product leadership all the way up to nearly the top from both the ad side and also the consumer side. I found that really valuable to see that ultimately these decisions have to be made by getting the right people in a room and evaluating those trade offs. You can say you want to be data driven, but ultimately you have to take some risks and decide whether you believe that the consumer experience that may have a negative impact on monetization is compelling enough and has enough potential upside that it's worth taking that risk. You have to make that argument on the other side as well.
I've seen some product managers do this very well by basically laying out a variety of scenarios. An individual PM making a case for his or her feature and saying, in best case scenario, this is what could happen. Worst case scenario, this is what can happen. Just giving a group of decision makers, usually a more senior team, a bit of a framework to have that discussion and to understand what the real trade offs are, so that they're unable to anticipate some of the potential downsides that could come and those risks can be managed.
Matt Pasienski: It's a bit like a negotiation where you're setting out a framework and you're saying, we're going to go negotiate within this framework. On your side is we want you to increase the revenue. This is clearly the numbers we need to hit. It seems like goals are a big part of that negotiation. What happens when one side's goals maybe are even worse than the worst case scenario that they laid out?
April Underwood: I think what you're asking is what if they-
Matt Pasienski: Okay. You worked at Google and Twitter. There probably wasn't too many of these huge downside misses, but what do you do when someone's half of the deal isn't living up and the revenue isn't there? Or, the customers aren't participating in something that maybe has a big downside on your ability to monetize?
April Underwood: Then you need to be willing to ... Any time you launch something, you have to make sure that you give the teams time to continue to evaluate the results of that and take action upon them. That is sometimes hard to do. Sometimes you're working on a new feature, and as soon as that team is done, you've already got them subscribed to work on the next thing. I certainly haven't been perfect in this, and I don't know that anyone is. It's very important to leave the product manager, the engineers, the designer that have worked on a feature enough time to understand how their users react to a new feature and then make modifications as necessary. Baking that into your road map, the expectation that you will learn things after launch and you will make adjustments.