Things We Learned (& loved) From ProductCon

Kelly Gebo

I had the pleasure of attending ProductCon last week, which is the largest online production management conference in the world. Produced by Product School, they host four large scale ProductCon sessions every year. Here are a few of my takeaways from this month’s event:

Keep Looking Ahead & Challenging The Norm

Many would describe Netflix as ground breaking. A disruptor in their industry who shifted how we interact with content. So how did they know where to go? Gibson Biddle, the former VP of Product at Netflix, gave us a behind the scenes look at just that. Their product vision made room to include conversations and an action plan for long-term strategy, outlining multiple stages for exploration, analysis, and investment. Their culture also fostered a place where individuals could ask questions and weren’t afraid to challenge how things have always been done.

Product teams know the importance of experiments - for better or for worse. Netflix experienced those same outcomes, times when their strategy felt messy, frustrating and sometimes resulted in low adoption. Just because an experiment is a failure, doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful. It also doesn’t mean that the same experiment might not work later. The first time Netflix experimented with original content it wasn’t received well, and now they’ve been awarded numerous times for their original TV shows and Movies.

He stressed the importance of keeping customer research as a guiding light in your experiments and strategy. They had what some would describe as ‘small findings’ but it helped them stay true to themselves in their evolution. Some of these ‘small findings’ that shaped their growth included the focus on keeping things simple and easy, user personalization, supporting important actions quickly and lastly meeting users where they wanted to interact, across devices or locations. As their teams, products and experiments scaled, these guiding principles kept all paths aligned.

How Teams and Products Adapted in 2020

Next up a panel of leaders hosted a discussion about their experience, as their teams shifted to remote, and the world went into crisis mode. It was interesting to see even these leaders with varying backgrounds, team sizes, and product types, all identified one element that was a tremendous prioritization tool.

In 2020, companies became concerned with stabilizing their business and retaining customers. They looked to analytics to share insights. If they saw a big spike in traffic, it helped them determine if a new persona was now using their service or if the product was being adopted in a new way. If they saw lower activity, they knew where to further research. User metrics also helped Product teams quickly and smartly adapt to customer needs.

Not only did it greatly inform the product team, but it helped the overall company and it’s leadership stay educated. Having sound metrics supplied quality information to answer the question ‘How are we doing?’. With all the uncertainty and fear of not knowing what would happen next, having confirmed qualitative data was a strong dependable input.

Finding Success At Every Stage

Next up Yu-Kuan Lin, the Head of Product at Facebook, shared lessons learned he experienced as a part of companies in different stages of growth. Product teams understand the importance of customer reearch but he clarified especially in the early days of starting a company or forming a product, it’s important to pay attention to how you prompt them. He shared a great perspective on focusing conversations to get the most out of the session. The conversation should be less about your product, and more about your customers. Asking “Who has hacked a workaround before your product came?” gives you insight into how the need is currently being solved, and if the need is a little different than your assumptions. Another question to think through would be “Who’d be disappointed if they can’t use your product anymore?” which helps you focus on your highest priority, and likely most profitable target users.

As his presentation moved onto describing companies in a period of rapid growth, one suggestion really resonated with me. Product teams will receive direction from a variety of groups; Sales, Customer Service, actual Customers, Leadership, etc. All these requests are shared as the most important next step. So how does a team pick?

Keep a clear sense of your most profitable customer. Ground your optimizations with what customers will pay for and drive the most value to your business. It will help you stay focused on things really moving the needle vs. every request that comes your way.

Leading Through Times of Crisis

At the end of 2020 the thoughtbot team spent time reflecting on how to best prepare for future volatility. Tatyana Mamut, the former CPO at Nextdoor, shared her learnings as their team navigated their own challenges. She shared that having a clear, consistent framework for iteration helped them work through challenges. They didn’t change their product team’s successful workflow because the world had changed. They used their existing Product Development process to evaluate and prioritize options to determine what mattered most. In this process, each phase and corresponding activities kept a customer focus.

This all starts with their leadership team defining OKRs with a customer lens. Another grading criteria that helped them determine the right path forward, was keeping in mind their company’s mission and values. Inclusivity is an important part of their culture, so they implemented a metric for measuring community vitality to keep a pulse on making sure all users felt safe and could rely on their platform.

In Summary

Here at thoughtbot, Our Values quickly summarize who we are and our continuous effort towards improvement. Being able to attend well organized, informative, and positive events like ProductCon is one of the ways we can continue to learn from others and apply those learnings to the work we do as a team and for our clients. We hope you’ve found some of these learnings helpful. We are always looking to meet others and support your team and/or product goals. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to chat!