I was thinking back over the last three decades in terms of product design and product management. There are certain people who made a significant impact on me. I thought it might be useful to list them down in a chronological order.
The year was 1991 and Microsoft Excel was being produced. The product manager was Joel Spolsky. Later, he told this amazing story about his experience building it and meeting with Bill Gates. I highly recommend reading it. It is the backbone of my own Rule #1.
Today, I would consider what Joel was doing as both product design and product management. Interestingly, at the time, they called it program management. He was working with different groups to decide how exactly the system would work.
Besides Excel, Joel’s other products, Trello, FogBugz, and Stack Exchange have been enormously influential on my design style.
This one sentence caused thousands of PMs to see themselves as dictators of the product. I heard it over and over. The problem was they both misinterpreted Ben’s meaning and also misunderstood what CEOs do. Unfortunately, the results were that designers got pushed to the side for many years. I wasn’t a fan, but it certainly was influential.
In 2003, the iPod rocked the world in terms of what was possible mixing hardware and software. Steve Jobs was the visionary. He made this amazing statement:
This was a big deal to me. This point of view changed designers from the “make it pretty” or “just do usability research” into creative dynamos who could create massive corporate value. I wanted to be someone like that. Steve Jobs had many demons, but he remains an inspiration to designers around the world.
The ideas in iTunes and the original IPod directly influenced how I designed SmartLists in Marketo in 2007.
Don Norman’s books Design of Everyday Things (1988) and Emotional Design (2003) were pivotal for me. The first book made me feel responsible for “how it worked” in terms of usability. Emotional Design changed my point of view that “how it works” means connecting to people’s emotions more than just making it usable. Norman understood that Steve Jobs did more at Apple in terms of emotional connection with people than Norman had done while he worked at Apple himself.
About Face is the best book written on product design that I have ever read. I didn’t know about it until 2006, but it changed the way I approach any design problem. He invented personas in this book and gave a framework for how to break down a design. I have bought dozens of copies for people over the years. When I mentor a designer, I often have them read this book and talk to me about each chapter.
I attended a conference for designers in the early 2000s and Kim Goodwin who was working for Alan Cooper (above) at the time. She was one of the early female pioneers in design. Her speech was about how the field was dominated by white males and that we should be mentoring women and minorities more. She challenged us to do better. That challenge stuck with me from that day. Since then, my teams have always been majority women and minorities. Many of my former hires have gone on to be design leaders in their own right. The journey is far from over. I think Kim’s insights are as valid today as they were 20 years ago.
In 2007, when I joined Marketo, I played the role of PM and Designer for the first 2 years. I blended the two functions. This was not the way most companies were organized, but it worked for us. I owned how the product worked from a user perspective for 9 years and the company grew quickly and had a successful IPO. I also led the development of the user community and documentation site. Both of which were part of how I conceived of how Marketo worked from a cradle-to-adulthood .
I list this experience because it was very influential on how I approached future work.
Marty once wrote “the product manager is explicitly responsible for ensuring value and viability; the designer is responsible for ensuring usability“. This was another unfortunate turn of phrase. Many companies started saying “User driven” or “Data driven” and basically it meant that designers were no longer asked to substantively deliver value, only data. I think Marty is an awefully smart guy, but his words sometimes get twisted around.
Three in a Box
I am having trouble finding who coined this term. Later, the concept of 3-in-a-box or three legged stool became a bit more popular. This is where the PM, Designer, and Engineer go into the project as peers, each with their own responsibilities. See previous posts:
The structure loosely is as follows:
In the past 10 years, different organizations give different weight and responsibilities to these groups. Some put design into the “make it pretty” camp. Some put them into the “just do usability and gather stats” camp. I feel that fewer and fewer companies are putting design into the “how it works” camp.
One of the problems may be that designers are not being educated in “how it works” method in HCI or bootcamp schools. They are being taught the “Usability” method instead. I think this leads to a generation of designers who are not delivering as much value as they could.
I certainly advocate for the equal peer strategy. I think it helps product managers, designers, and engineers deliver the most possible value.
These people listed above are obviously not comprehensive. I have been influenced by many other people. However, these ones have stuck with me and have affects millions of others. In my opinion, the technology industry is still the most exciting area to work.
I hope I have been able to influence others in positive way over the past 3 decades to build great products for their users and great teams that will grow into tomorrow’s leaders.