A conversation during an interview for a Product Manager

Imagine a conversation between the Head of Product (HoP) and a candidate interviewing for a product manager position in his team.
HoP: You need a build a feature which allows users to do <a specific task with the product>. How would you go about it?
Candidate: First figure how the user will get <something needed for the feature to work>. Then blah blah …
HoP: Hold on. But why would you want to build this feature?
Candidate: err.. Yeah, I have the same question. So you have <yet another feature> to which it is related, so blah blah & more blah…
He is told later that he doesn’t make it to the next rounds. Why? Because he did not ask “Why do you want the feature?”

But why “Why”?

The key question for a Product Manager is always “Why”?Any feature built on behest of a product manager has a high impact on various parts of the business. Engineering teams build it, marketing teams talk about it, sales teams try to pitch it, consumer care teams prepare FAQ and answers calls about it. With so much of organizational effort being spent, a Product Manager, before building a feature into a product should ask “Why do I need this feature?” Is it to make money, or to attract more users, or one of a zillion other reasons.

A comparison

It is important to know clearly the business goal you are working towards and “How clear is the objective” is evident through the user experience. To demonstrate this, I’d compare two actual products I personally use – one of them I keep going back to, the other I occasionally go back to hoping it has improved.

The Economist App

Why's of a Product Manager It has a clean user interface. The focus is just on one thing – consuming media (reading & listening). ‘Economist in Audio’ is a mind blowing way of reading through the whole magazine. You can liken it to listening a podcast & listen at your convenience. Driving often between Belgium & Amsterdam for work, I listen to this over the car audio – that’s as simple as it gets. You can also download selected audio sections (like only the business section instead of all). Why is it cool – its a big memory saver! You can create playlists of articles from a section. Navigating through sections and articles is extremely straightforward. A word on advertising in the app – non-intrusive. When launching a section, you see a clean one page banner with a clear on-screen-text stating “Swipe left to exit”. Not only does it deliver the ad-experience in a subtle manner to the reader, it often even is of a quality good enough to trigger the user to explore the advert further.
This user experience gives a clear message – “We care about what our subscribers & advertisers feel about the experience”. The Product Manager has a clear objective identified for the product – deliver a very high standard to their subscribers, so that more users keep coming back. For a media-publishing house, circulation figures are an important KPI. It boosts the other side of this business model – advertisers seek eyeballs.
Can they do something more? Introducing selective ‘notifications’ & ‘content recommendations’ will bring the user back to read an unread article. Adding support for GoogleCast/ChromeCast Audio to this App could be interesting. The numbers of Android TV & Chromecast sticks are heading northwards (although this is subject to assessment of some more data that The Economist App team is privy to – whether users listen to the app more on the go or while at home). On the advertising front, they could experiment with video-ads when users explore one level deeper. The barriers to watch video on mobile networks has gone down. Much can be done while still keeping the promise of a stellar user experience.

Harvard Business Review App

Why's of a Product Manager This has a cluttered interface – there’s a shopping cart, a bookmark logo and a settings icon. Despite being logged in as a HBR subscriber, at first shot you are told to ‘buy’ the periodical each month. Only on digging around a bit more, can you directly download it. On subsequent attempts in opening the app you’d still struggle through all those navigational issues to find where had you downloaded the last one. Then there is the attempt to browse through individual sections & articles. For reasons unknown to me, in an attempt to provide easy navigation across sections, the browsing experience within an article gets compromised. So, when you turn pages in an article intuitively, you’d end up changing a section – aargh. The fact that the App also presents the ability to purchase other HBR case studies/books in the app makes the app unusable. “Should we highlight the periodicals or should we show the case-study catalogue?” that confusion disrupts the experience. And now being completely spoilt, I dearly miss a ‘HBR on Audio’ feature.

What can be done? Asking ‘why does the App exist’ will help.“To sell books or to bring back users?” Improving the reading experience of subscribers will go a long mile in bringing them back more often. The app can learn a lot from the subscribers’ reading habits.  Knowing which category of articles he reads more often will give insights on what case studies & books he is more likely to check-out. Mixing the advertising model with recommending books from its own catalogue as an occasional advert, will make it much less intrusive. Here is one more detailed review of the App experience.

In Conclusion

Being clear of business objective is vital to design the right user experience in the product. Not only will it help you keep things simple, but will also get you happy users – and that is never bad for business!

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