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Prototyping for Product Managers: Q&A with Rian Van Der Merwe

Prototyping for Product Managers: Q&A with Rian Van Der Merwe


Wildbit Product Manager and UX writer, Rian Van Der Merwe chats with us about the importance of prototyping in Product-UX strategy.

You seem to have loads of projects on the go – Product Manager at Wildbit, freelance writing on UX and Product Management for the likes of Smashing Magazine, not to mention speaking engagements and your recent book, Making It Right: Product Management For A Startup World. What does an average day look like for you?

I’m an early riser, so I usually get up at 5:30 and go for a run or a bike ride first thing. The rest of the early morning depends on the day. On days where I take the kids to school we’ll get them ready, I’ll walk them to school, and then start my workday around 9am. On other days when my wife takes the kids to school I start work at 7am (I work in my basement, so I’m pretty happy with my 10-second commute). One of the fantastic things about Wildbit is that we enforce a strict 40 hours / week rule, so when I start work early I also end early. Those are the days I pick up the kids from school (and sneak in the odd hot chocolate with them here and there) and hang out with them.

I also use the late afternoon and evening for reading, writing, working on talks, etc. Although, I have to say, since I started at Wildbit I’ve toned down those activities quite a bit. The work I’m doing at Wildbit is deeply satisfying and also extremely tiring (in a good, “woah, my brain is full” kind of way), so once I’m done there I prefer to spend time with my family or continue my mission to read every single post-apocalyptic novel ever written.

Can you give us an overview of your book? Why did you feel the need to write it?

While I lived in South Africa I noticed a deep lack of understanding and education on the Product Management. So as part of my work at Flow Interactive I created a two-day training course on Product Management. The course ended up being really successful — and it also got better every time we did it. After every course I’d collect feedback from attendees and make changes based on that feedback.

That’s how the idea for the book came about. I realized that the course was basically an MVP for the book. It served as validation that the idea had traction, and I was able to improve the content through user feedback along the way. So I thought to myself, how hard can it be to turn my prototype (400 Keynote slides) into a product (the book)?

Turns out, not as easy as I thought… But it was certainly a great foundation to have a detailed outline like that, full of content that I knew would resonate with people because we tried it out already. The book covers the two main roles of a Product Manager: product planning (discovery, prioritization, roadmapping, etc.) and product execution (design, development, QA, etc.). I try to remain as practical as possible, so that someone can pick up the book and immediately start implementing some of the methodologies of modern Product Management. But of course, you should judge for yourself if that’s true 🙂

Can you tell us more about Wildbit and how you manage the Product-UX strategy there?

We make tools for developers, and I work on a product called Postmark. We provide infrastructure for sending transactional email — those automated emails you receive when you click on a “Forgot Password” link or buy a Minecraft license. It’s great to work on a product that has developers as its audience. We’re dealing with people who are incredibly technical, which means the feedback they provide on the product is detailed and thoughtful. Email is complicated, and working on something that takes away some of the complication so that our customers can go back to focusing on their business has been incredibly satisfying.

I’m 3 months into the role now, and I’ve been spending most of my time on putting a product strategy and market-led roadmap together. We had our team retreat (you can read about how we created our vision and roadmap here), and after that I worked with the team on fleshing out our roadmap and defining the upcoming projects and features in more detail. A couple of years ago I wrote an answer to the Quora question What should a Product manager at a startup focus on in the first 30, 60 and 90 days? and that’s basically the steps I’ve followed at Wildbit.

 


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What’s the role of prototyping in good Product Management? And what do you as a Product Manager look for in a prototyping tool?

I see prototyping as having two main benefits:

  • It’s great for usability testing before development starts in earnest
  • It’s a great spec for developers to work from

“For me it’s extremely important for a prototype to be interactive. And I don’t mean just “clickable”, I mean dropdowns that work, text fields that take inputs, etc. The more realistic, the better the results from usability testing, and the less confusion there is during development. This is especially important for a team like ours where most of us are remote.”

Because of this, I gravitate towards interactive prototyping tools like Axure, Proto.io, and of course, Justinmind 🙂

What are the main challenges of pulling off successful software development projects, and how does prototyping help you tackle them?

“I think one of the biggest reasons for delays and conflict in software development is a lack of shared understanding.”

If a designer and a product manager and a developer have a different idea of what a product or feature needs to do, that’s a big problem — and one that’s often discovered way too late in the process. We’ve been taught in the Lean movement that “deliverables are bad”, and yes, some of them are, but by getting rid of all deliverables so many details can get lost. I’m not arguing for 40-page “Product Requirements Documents”, but lightweight documentation like prototypes and product opportunity assessments go a long way to remove ambiguity and help teams stay in sync.

Can you give us an example of a time a prototype helped you solve a tricky situation or produce something really cool?

Yes, we’re working on a feature called Domain Verification right now (it enables customers to add a DNS record to a domain which will allow them to send transactional emails from any email address on that domain). We work in small teams at Wildbit, but even between the 4 or 5 of us, it was really difficult to come to an agreement on the user flows and ideal solution. After one of the calls I created a quick interactive prototype of what was in my head, and shared it with the team. We ended up going in a slightly different direction, but that’s the anchor we needed to get us going in a shared direction. I threw away the prototype, but I don’t consider it throw-away effort. Without it we might still have been struggling to come up with the right solution.

“Sometimes prototyping can help us move forward in a way that no amount of talking can do.”

How can companies align their product and their UX strategies effectively? 

I believe a UX strategy should flow directly from the Product Strategy. They’re not separate entities. For example, our mission at Postmark is to make it easy to reliably deliver time-sensitive messages to our customers’ users. Once you drill into that, our guiding principles for the product shape not just our product strategy, but our UX and marketing strategies as well:

  • Robust API
  • Easy setup
  • Reliable delivery
  • Detailed troubleshooting
  • Useful message insights
  • Great support

By linking all of this together we don’t have “departments” going in different directions. When we do planning we know what we should be working on, because all of it is clearly outlined in our strategy.

What kind of challenges and opportunities face Product Managers in a software development context?

I think the Product Management role is still incredibly misunderstood (and misused). I’ve never liked the “We’re like mini-CEOs of the Product” thing you often hear. Any metaphor you come up with that implies a hierarchy (such as air traffic controller, shepherd) gives Product Managers an incorrect view of themselves as The Boss™, and serves only to alienate teams.

We might be the final decider on some issues, but it’s not because we’re “above” the team. It’s because our jobs are to know about user needs, business goals, technical needs, and how all of it comes together in a successful product. Our jobs are to listen to our teams in their various roles and make sure that everyone knows what they need to know. And then our jobs are to walk with the team in a direction that everyone understands and agrees on. It’s not “here are your requirements, see you on the other side of design!” We still see way too much of that in the industry.

Until we change that perception, which will require a change in attitude from us as product managers, we’ll continue to be viewed as obstructionists in many companies. Maybe the best metaphor to use is that we’re servants. Servants to our customers, our teams, and the product. That’s the opportunity we have to bring value.

What would be your best advice for someone setting out on a career as a PM in software development?

Develop a love for products. Seriously, be that person who downloads every new app, signs up for every new service, ask people about their favorite software at dinner parties. I think the #1 characteristic of a good product manager is that they love good products that enrich people’s lives. If the idea of discussing the UX of Snapchat at a party sounds boring to you, this probably isn’t the job for you. Also, read. A lot. And not just product management books. Read about architecture, industrial design, read fiction. Engage with the world and try to understand it.

All of the day to day skills and tools of being a product manager can be taught. But there are a few things that can only be fostered — and the most important of those things are a love for products and empathy for the people who use them.

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Cassandra Naji

About the Author

Cassandra is Marketing Content Editor at Justinmind

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