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What makes a good product manager? 5 pro tips

What makes a good product manager? Much has been said and written about product management, and the plethora of books, articles, and tweets might seem overwhelming and confusing. It gets even more complicated in the mobile app world, where everything can change at a moment’s notice, and no workweek or even Monday morning will look like the last.

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. We looked at articles, opinion pieces, research, and interviews with industry-leading product managers. We included inspiring quotes from leading product managers of the industry, like Julie Zhuo, Marty Cagan, Roman Pichler, and Ken Norton. PMs at top mobile apps like Splitwise also gave us their words of wisdom. Here are several lessons on being a great product manager, collected and curated for new and experienced PMs. (Stick with us, because there’s a goodie bag for you at the end of this article!)

Choose your KPIs wisely.

Regularly tracking your mobile app’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) can give you data, but it can also give you a headache. The data you’re collecting need to provide you with value: action items, bug fixes, feature improvements, or design solutions. How do you separate the worthwhile KPIs from the ones that don’t bring you value? Andy Carvell proposes the concept of Minimum Viable Analytics: the data that you need in order to make effective decisions. This means you should avoid tracking too few metrics, too many metrics, outdated metrics, or just not the right ones. He also warns against “analysis paralysis”, when you have so much data you don’t know what to do with it.

“Teams would do well to consider what constitutes Minimum Viable Analytics: the data they need in order to make effective decisions.” — Andy Carvell

It might take a little tweaking, but you’ll want to optimize the metrics you’re tracking to answer your most pressing questions, and not get bogged down with redundant or misleading data. How do you know what metrics to track? Roman Pichler provides a list of 10 tips on how to choose the right product KPIs, which starts with stating your business goals so that you can see how your product affects revenue. Another tip is to avoid vanity metrics — KPIs that look good but bring no value. A perfect example is “number of app downloads”: a lot of users might be downloading your app, but this means nothing if they all have a bad user experience or fail to convert.

Pichler also recommends combining quantitative and qualitative metrics. This means looking at numerical metrics like DAU/MAU to answer the “what” and “how many”, as well as qualitative KPIs such as unresponsive gestures and last gestures, which answer the “why”: why a user ended the session abruptly, or why users are dropping out of certain funnels. To analyze these metrics, you’ll need to use a qualitative tool like touch heatmaps. This tool displays an aggregate of your users’ interactions on each screen and can be filtered by first, last, or unresponsive gestures.

Also, keep an eye out for often-forgotten mobile app metrics. A lot of product managers underestimate certain mobile app KPIs that can be very useful. For example, every PM knows to track conversion rates, but what about the average time it takes users to go from one step of the funnel to the next? This is a metric that could point to UX/UI issues that make your users not know where to tap, like misplaced buttons or unclear microcopy.

An example of Appsee’s conversion funnel tool showing average time between steps.

Know your users. Love your users. Be your users.

User-centered design is the yellow brick road to the land of happy users. To get there, you’ll need to step into your users’ ruby slippers and really know their thought process, intent, and needs associated with your mobile product, before they even know themselves. Yes, you probably have a good idea of what works in the product (Ken Norton calls this the “spidey-sense”) but at the end of the day, you are not your user.

“Assuming that you are your user is a fallacy that is ingrained in the human mind.” — Raluca Budiu

From personas and storyboards to surveys and user testing platforms, from interviews and focus groups to session recordings, there are a ton of established methods for understanding your users. What’s the best method? The answer is: all of them. Use all the tools in your arsenal, and don’t be afraid of going the old fashioned way: by “getting out of the building” and meeting them face to face.

Also, let yourself get creative with your user research ideas, because sometimes that’s where you’ll find your most valuable insights. One road-less-traveled is utilizing insights gleaned from customer support. Zoe Chaves, senior product manager at Splitwise, happened to do some customer support work when she was starting out. She says this helped her develop her instincts about the app’s userbase and needs while also giving her ideas for specs. If you haven’t had actual customer support experience, that’s fine — you can gain a lot of interesting product ideas by keeping channels of communication open with your company’s customer success team.

In any case, it’s important to keep an empathetic, user-centered approach if you want to create a product that users love. Take a look at the Interaction Design Foundation’s empathy quadrant, which provides four things to remember when it comes to empathy for your users.

Image Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Learn (how) to say no.

You probably have heard the PM bar joke: “A product manager walks into a bar. Pours drinks, waits tables, cleans toilets, and puts out fire in stockroom.” As a PM, you’ll be responsible for planning the product strategy and roadmap, maintaining cross-team communication, and making sure everyone is meeting their goals and deadlines, just to name a few. You’ll run between meetings with marketing, legal, finance, users, analysts, and the CEO. If there’s one art form you’ll have to master as a product manager, it’s the art of prioritization. Barron Caster, Director of Growth at Rev.com, says that one of the challenges of prioritization is figuring out what will have the highest ROI. Christos Iosifidis, VP of Product Management at Vivino, states simply: “If you’ve got too many balls in the air, put one down.” Candidly, in order to achieve that you will also need to master the art of how to say no.

“If you’ve got too many balls in the air, put one down.” — Christos Iosifidis

This blog post by Mountain Goat Software provides six guidelines for saying no to a stakeholder, and, yes, you guessed it — number 2 calls for empathy. Don’t just say “no” and leave it at that. Don’t say “not right now”. Offer one sound reason — just one — for saying no. Be transparent about your prioritization, and walk the person you’re speaking with through your considerations. Sebastien Phlix, product manager at Typeform, provides 4 tips on giving a “positive no”, and advises using a “we” mentality and not an “us vs. them” mentality.

Image Source: Giphy

(Don’t) be the CEO of your product

A lot has been written about whether or not the product manager is also the CEO of the product. Most thought leaders will answer with a vehement no. Martin Eriksson says, “You are not the CEO of anything”, and advises PMs to “lead, don’t command”. As a product manager, you’re not the boss, but you are the coach, teacher, and leader. “Never forget that as a product leader you are only as good as your team”, says Eriksson.

“Lead, don’t command.” — Martin Eriksson

Marty Cagan admits that there are similarities between the CEO and the product manager role, especially as companies scale. However, he warns against letting the “PM-as-CEO” mindset go to product managers’ heads, in a way that will lose them the respect of their team. He advises product managers to embrace a touch of humility in their management approach and earning the team’s trust.

Remember that even without actually filling the position of CEO, your PM position allows you to have a huge amount of influence on the product as well as the company. In the meantime, however, you can use some CEO leadership lessons in your role as PM without giving the wrong impression; for example, gaining a strong understanding of everything your company does and empathizing with the members of different teams.

Roman Pichler’s Product Management Framework. Look at all the things you can do!

Analyze this. And that. But do it smarter.

Peter Drucker famously said: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” You already know how important it is to have analytics for your app. No matter what industry you came from, analytical, data-driven decision making is part of everyday life. The difference in the mobile app space is that your users won’t stick around to tell you what needs improving. They’ll drop your app without as much of a second thought.

This means you’ll want to use a great — not just good — analytics tool. You’ll want to get in analytics early, way before your product goes live, to prevent any unnoticed bugs or usability problems from annoying your users and hurting your app’s chances of success. Also, since your time is precious, you’ll want to use an analytics tool that uses automatic event tagging — this saves you a lot of time and gives you insights right out of the box.

If one part of a good analytics strategy is tracking the right metrics, another part has to be using the best tools to track them. Any good mobile growth stack should include qualitative analytics tools. Qualitative analytics, as Roman Pichler says, help you avoid losing sight of “the most important success factor: the people behind the numbers”. These tools enable you to dive deep into the users’ experiences and figure out where they run into friction within your app. Session recordings, for example, allow you to experience your app the way your users do, so that any UX issues (and their solutions) become instantly clear.

“Qualitative indicators, such as user feedback, help you understand why something has happened.” — Roman Pichler
An example of user session recordings on Appsee’s qualitative analytics platform

Bonus tip: Remember that there’s no such thing as a final product.

Too busy to even read this article? Running from scrum to presentation? We’ll sum it up for you: first, be empathetic towards your users, your colleagues, and yourself, and second, make your analytics work for you.

“A product is never done, but only evolves.” — Nick Babich

Always remember, though, that your work never really ends. As a mobile product manager, you live in a reality that warrants continual optimization, additional rounds of user research, and product iterations. “A product is never done, but only evolves,” says Nick Babich in his Comprehensive Guide to Product Design. With this in mind, you can create a product strategy that will take you and your team all the way to the finish line.

Still with us? Great! Time for…

Since you’ve stuck with us so far, and because the first day of school/work is an exciting one, we’ve made you a little goodie bag full of great resources that will help you become a PM Jedi master.

The Essential Toolbox for Mobile Product Managers ← even more tools and resources here!

The Playbook of User Centered App-Making

7 Free eBooks for Mobile Professionals

Mind the Product

The Clever PM

Bringing the Donuts

Folding Burritos

Andrew Chen

Mind the Product

Mobile World Conference

Product Management Festival

Open Mobile Summit

INDUSTRY

The 5 Types of Mobile Product Managers We All Know

Product Manager Jokes Volume 1

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