Build Products Like an Author

Recently, the Videology Product team has been cultivating a non-digital habit—reading. A great book can be worth a hundred times its price for that one special idea, that unique perspective, or an unforgettable feeling. A mediocre book can leave you cursing the money and time you spent on it. In this way, books are very much like technology products - the best make a huge impact and receive disproportionate rewards.


It turns out that authors and product managers face many of the same challenges: 

  • A diverse set of customers with different wants and needs
  • Incomplete information about what the market will respond to
  • Clinging to a personal, ego-driven opinion about what something should be.


As such, it’s instructive to analyze techniques that great authors use, and apply those as concrete steps in the product development process.  Use these three tips to make your products Pulitzer-prize worthy!


1. Pitch the Book Before You Start Writing

First-time authors are told repeatedly to focus on getting a book proposal bought by a publisher before writing 500 pages. Writing the book first puts in far too much (often wasted) effort up front when you don’t yet know if you have something that people are willing to buy. The number of would-be authors with a fully-written, unsold book who leave the craft forever is testament to this advice.


As product managers, it’s easy to fall into the same trap; dream up a “great” idea, pore over the details of a prototype design, and then show it to people only to find that nobody cares. Product managers are always told to interact with the market and with customers, but so many do it too late (after ideation, after design, and worst of all, after development).


Fix this by making it part of your process to get stakeholder/customer feedback before you’re allowed to develop anything beyond a simple prototype. By making this an explicit checkpoint, you remove the chance of your ego saying “of course people need this!”


2. Kill Your Darlings

One reason that following the above advice is so hard is because it’s very easy to grow attached to your ideas. Authors have the same issue, whether it’s a clever turn of phrase, an interesting plot point, or a beloved character. Sometimes the ideas we love most make for an ineffective overall story or product.


Of course, if we never seek feedback, we never have to face the possibility that we’ll have to cut out that cool new feature or user interaction we came up with in a flash of inspiration.  It’s hard to rationally assess your own work—that’s why great authors have great editors.


Make this part of your team’s workflow by requiring two things:

  • Always have another product manager review and edit at important milestones (mockup, prototype, detailed requirements), preferably only with a brief explanation from the ‘author’ PM.
  • Have the ‘editor’ PM collect the feedback from customers, rather than the ‘author’ PM.

This has the dual benefit of spreading out knowledge among team members and ensuring that feedback can be interpreted with less bias.


3. Write Drunk, Edit Sober

This quote, often misattributed to Ernest Hemingway (who did enjoy a drink, but not while writing), is not to be taken literally, but to serve as a reminder that the processes which create great new ideas are different from those which refine that idea into something that really works. Great writers get ideas down on paper and don’t interrupt that flow to fix a spelling mistake or a pacing issue. Writing is crystallized thought - but the thought and the crystallization don’t have to happen in your first draft.


Hand in hand with involving multiple team members in feedback and editing, give your team the space to generate ideas without editing. In the din of everyday operations or under the pressure of a deadline, it can be hard to find those great new concepts. To combat this distraction, build out dedicated time (even an hour a week can be enough) for unstructured brainstorming. Make it a party (I don’t officially endorse having a beer, but do what works for you) and in an environment where creativity can go unencumbered. The key is to then have the team sleep on those ideas and come back a day or two later and soberly assess them, stress them, and then begin the feedback process that will determine which darlings go on to be products.

Barry Wright III

VP, Product Management

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