Herry Lian

@herry

What Product Managers Don’t Do Enough

Remember when Apple announced that they’d remove the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone? Their passionate users were ready to revolt. Apple faced a similar response when they said that they would take out the home button from the iPhone X. I’m okay with most of Apple’s design decisions, but this one struck a nerve.

Touch ID is lighting fast and works great. I could unlock my phone while pulling it out of my jeans pockets. With Face ID, I’d have to pull it out my phone, look at it, wait for it to confirm that it’s indeed me (this step could screw up in so many ways, depending on whether I’m laying in bed, looking at it from the right angle, etc. ) and swipe up. This seems like a step backwards to me. I had a hard time believing Face ID was going to be anywhere close to being up to par in terms of unlocking my phone quickly and without problems.*

Apparently this concern was shared.

Big Gamble

I was talking to an Apple engineer recently, and he told me that Face ID had been in development for years. Prior to the iPhone X release, everyone at Apple was holding their breath. They really didn’t know how their user base would react to this change. This was a big gamble for them.

A few months later, the numbers speak for themselves. Demands for the iPhone X are off the charts this quarter. That trend looks to continue through 2018. According to KGI analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple is expected to sell between 22 million and 24 million iPhone Xs this holiday season (source).

With this, I’ve come to realize something about product management:

For product managers, knowing what users want is just as important as knowing what users don’t need. Building for the future may require product managers to make difficult decisions on cutting old, and sometimes beloved, features.

In talking to other product managers though, I found that not many product teams make it a priority to cut features. That got me to wondering why that is.

What does your typical feature usage look like?

I certainly didn’t have cutting features at the top of my mind until a few years ago when our chief product officer came to me one day and asked what features we should cut. Confused, I asked him what he meant. Our product was doing well, and there were no features that people complained about.

Of course, I was looking at it the wrong way.

What he wanted me to find out was what features were costly to maintain and used by few users.

Here’s what our usage chart looked like:

As you can see, our Facebook app was not being used very often. It also turns out that it’s very expensive to maintain.

Trimming the fat

We had built the Facebook app so that users to manage their YouTube video content and post them on Facebook. Over time, the app became somewhat obsolete when Facebook started allowing users to post videos natively. We never got around deleting the Facebook app because we were focused on our desktop and mobile apps. To our surprise, we still had a few hundred users using it every day.

After looking at the feature usage, I formed a plan to get rid of the Facebook app and build a feature within our desktop and mobile apps to allow users to convert their YouTube videos and post them natively to Facebook. Because native Facebook videos autoplayed in the newsfeed, using this feature could lead to increased engagement.

When we let our users know of our plans, we got many angry replies disapproving of our decision. As hard as it was, we decided to move forward with the plans. After 2 months, we saw that MAU was up 20%. The best part? Some of our users who vehemently protested our decision became active users of the new feature.

Why don’t more product managers cut?

Cutting old features is just as important of a skill as building new features, so why don’t more product managers think about it? I had a hard time doing it before, and in analyzing my own fear, I noticed these things:

1) Sometimes shipping a product ≠ building a new feature

A product manager’s primary role is to ship the right products for their users. You may start to get overzealous and and become too ecstatic about building new things that you forget about the maintenance and opportunity costs. Shipping the right product doesn’t always mean building new things. It could also mean cutting existing features.

2) Taking something away is hard

Although most product managers have no problem saying no, it’s an entirely different challenge to tell a user that something they love is going away. I still have to take a deep breath before reading all the past angry replies I’ve gotten from having to do this. Nevertheless, it’s important to follow through when necessary and inform your users as soon as you know that you will be cutting a feature.

3) It’s easy to become shortsighted

As a product manager, you may be involved in so many different projects at the same time, and it’s tempting to get lost in the weeds and be too tactical. As a result, there is little time to step back and look at the big picture. When this gets to be an issue, it’s time to ask your lead (could be the VP of Product or Director of Product) to step in and help.

4) Don’t get too attached

When you spend so much time building a feature, it’s hard not to get attached to it; after all, you did pour a lot of time and energy into it. In those moments, you have to remind yourself that you’re building for your users, not yourself. You have to view the feature as a sunk cost and make the best decision for your users going forward.

It’s all about tradeoffs

The first step to making good cuts is to be aware of the things that may hold you back. The next step then is to critically analyze your features regularly to see which ones are holding your product and business back. I recommend reviewing the usage of your features once a quarter, maybe even more frequently, and assess whether you need to trim the fat.

Product management is all about tradeoffs, and this is just another one of them. Get rid of the nice-to-haves in your product and double down on the must-haves.

People will initially be angry with you when you cut features. But in the long run, if you make good decisions on the behalf of your users and continue to deliver value to them, you will find that even the most outspoken critics will come around.

*For what it’s worth, I was a big complainer of the home button being gone, but after 2 months of using the iPhone X, I can’t say that I miss it now.

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