As a product manager working for a retailer that’s been around for more than 95 years, I face a daunting but intriguing task. Popular opinion says that retailers like mine are going to fall to Amazon. But, hope is not lost. These five themes are evolutionary ways that can help us compete, and even thrive against Amazon.
I just read a great article that dives into a fairly pedestrian kind of product: the automated baggage tag (a.k.a. the “ABT”) that almost anyone who’s travelled has probably gotten one wrapped around the handle of their luggage. Through the perspective of a product manger, I found it to be a great example of product design that touches upon so many areas. There’s plenty of good stuff about human factors, systems design/resilience, and iterating upon requirements. And despite the thought and design that’s gone into it, it’s such a simple product at first sight.
As a quick synopsis of the requirements that the teams developed for (eventually!):
- The tag label itself has to have the right, individualized information to guide the bag handlers and systems appropriately.
- The label has to hold up to temperature, moisture, oil, and light, to name a few elements.
- The label has to be useful in both modern and modest airports alike.
- The tag has to resist tearing, yet be easily removable by a traveller.
- The tag has to be cheap to produce, and disposable too.
- The tag adhesive needs to be weather and moisture resistant too.
That’s no easy order to fill. And the interesting thing is that the article notes early snafus such as “Old[er] tags were fastened with a string through a hole, but mechanized baggage systems eat these for breakfast.” and “early adhesives couldn’t cope with extreme cold, so snowy tarmacs would end up littered with detached tags”. Iteration and thoughtful design are illustrated very well here.
Coming up with a simple product is an extraordinarily difficult undertaking given the consideration and compromises that must be made in the process. However, even simple products are not guaranteed to be great products. That said, it’s far easier to read off a checklist and say “I want it to do everything.” The allure of incorporating more ideas, features, etc. only increases the likelihood that the finished result will just be crap.
Francisco Inchauste prompted me to think about this point with his post on getfinch.com where he writes:
Simple products can be more powerful than so called “easy to use”, shortcut, gimmicky products. Simple products are not overdesigned, and many might find them to appear limited or underdesigned.
I completely agree.
An article on TUAW about the history of the MacBook Air prompted me to think back in early 2010, when I was comparison shopping for a lightweight laptop. My search had come down to four choices:
- the Toshiba Portégé M800,
- the Panasonic Y5,
- the Lenovo ThinkPad X301, and
- the MacBook Air.
At the time, these light-weight machines were premium-priced products that were selling between $2000 and $3000. So only after painfully extended deliberation did I order the Lenovo X301 because of its inclusion of the DVD drive. However, Lenovo cancelled my order in the spring of 2010. And that has made all the difference.
If you pay for a product, you’re a customer. If you don’t, you’re the product. On Facebook, you are the product.
It’s applicable to just about any product or service you do not pay for. From a product management standpoint, every feature introduced is intended to maximize the value of the product. If the relationship is such that you’re paying, then the product is attempting to improve its value to you.
Conversely, if you are the product, then value is being squeezed from you. Incidentally, the advertisers are the consumer in this model. If you think that’s nefarious or shady, try an alternative. And if you find that hard to swallow, remember that the juice presser that’s squeezing you is deliberately very hard to leave.
This year has been a sad one for technology. First, it was Ken Olsen in February, the founder of DEC. Then just today, it was Steve Jobs. Both men played their role in pioneering advances in technology, but the thing I take away from these two is that they sought to make things both simpler and better. Thank you both, Ken and Steve, for having made this world a better place through your vision.
The newest offering from Amazon, the Amazon Kindle Fire, is a genius stroke to expand its core business of being the world’s marketplace! The key is in the fact that the device’s sole purpose is to minimize the friction of acquiring and consuming electronic media of many stripes (i.e. ebooks, video, music). And by doing so via its impressive computing infrastructure, Amazon is able to also tap into its customers’ browsing and consumption behavior to feed its omnivores even faster.
It is particularly telling that Jeff Bezos is honest enough to state:
We don’t think of the Kindle Fire as a tablet. We think of it as a service.
At this point, Amazon’s not competing with Apple; Kindle Fire to iPad comparisons are oranges and apples (pun intended!). Amazon is instead pursuing its original intention all along, by taking on the entire digital media industry and making Amazon an indispensible, frictionless, and fast service provider to consumers everywhere.
I’ve gone to ProductCampNYC for the past few years, and it’s always a great experience! This year was the first year that I submitted some ideas for speaking, and I was fortunate that folks were interested in HTML5 (or at least, as much as I am!). But my bigger takeaway this year was from the keynote speaker, Brian Fitzgerald of Knewton, and his very keen comments on a “Product Culture.” In short, I think of the culture as the thing that gets everyone pointed in the right direction, while his point about focus gets everyone moving quickly in that direction. I’ve seen situations where Product folks resist investing the time to contribute to the culture, and that’s a real shame. If anything, I believe that Product folks are responsible for motivating customers to engage with the product, as well as motivating the team to build, iterate, and innovate.
Over the last few months, there’s been so much turmoil in the touchscreen tablet space! Consider:
- HP’s newest foray into tablet computing, not with a Windows OS but instead with WebOS, subsequently gets beheaded in under 2 months after the TouchPad’s launch.
- Android’s Honeycomb and Gingerbread tablets are growing in number, but not so much in market share.
- RIM’s launch of the Playbook is widely acknowledged as a flop.
- Apple’s iPad 2 launch in March is one of the most successful product launches in recent history.
- And last but not least (by a slim margin), Microsoft continues to plug away with its Windows 7 stopgap strategy while working on Windows 8.
As a product person who’s been working on a HTML5-based offline web application, it’s been an exciting ride! So far, the recent events underscore several key ideas that product folks should take into account: platform flexibility, platform longevity, and control over the platform. Continue reading