How Poor Product Design and Incentives Lead to Ineffective Tools
Two main reasons exist for this:
- Companies that build people manager tools care more about selling their product suite to Human Resources departments and less about providing managers actual utility.
- Because of the above, companies build these tools with a product design approach that emphasizes a "you can do X with our product" mentality versus a "our product will do X for you" mentality.
Managers need less things to do. We see this all of the time in our user interviews: they have task management tools, project management tools, performance management tools, feedback tools, 1-on-1 agenda tools, documentation tools, etc. The context switching between these tools alone is a huge mental overhead and time-sink.
Manager Tools Are Built and Sold for HR
I looked up 6 companies that provide tools for managers, wrote down each product they offer (using copy from their website), and plopped them into a simple table.
The most obvious takeaway is that they all offer the same products — it's almost hilarious how similar they are to each other. It's no problem that HR departments want the best software for their company (we all want that), but the issue here is that "best" often translates to "more features" or a "more complete product suite." As a result, vendors in competition with each other end up building the same exact product suite.
I even saw this first-hand at a startup called Peer — we were building a continuous feedback product and later expanded with a check-in module because that's what our prospects demanded.
Worst part, the incentive behind building a product that works well and the incentive behind building a product that sells well become misaligned because the manager isn’t the customer. These companies just need to impress the buyer who, in this case, is the Head of HR. The fact that all of them require you to request a demo without a free trial, suggests the idea that their products aren’t even sticky enough to lead to a purchase by the end-users in the first place.
"You Can Do X" Mentality Leads to Filing Cabinets
When companies design products with an emphasis on the "you can do X" mentality, they end up with what I like to call "filing cabinet" products. Their main purpose is just to store information, they don't actually help a user do anything. The best these products can do is make it slightly easier for you to input and retrieve information. It's the naïve way to translate what we do in real-life into product.
Here's an example of a line of thinking with the "you can do X" mentality:
People should give praise to each other in the company. Let’s create a new product where employees can select who they want to praise, then we can show all the praise publicly such that all employees can see!
This is poor design because this isn't the way people normally give praise to each other (and yes, this is actually how most of these products work). In contrast here's an example of a line of thinking where the process in taken into account:
How and when do people give praise to each other? When people describe what they’ve accomplished last week, they tend to give shout-outs to people who’ve helped them. Maybe we’ll make it easy for team members to mention each other when filling in their weekly updates?
Well-designed products focus on processes that people already do and either make them easier or fully automate them. The reason why managers still have to do a ton of administrative work is because all of their products are filing cabinets, it's just extra stuff they have to deal with and manage.
Taking a Different Approach
At Humble Dot, we focused on how managers get updates from teams, then extrapolate value from the content. We created a Monday morning kickoff that automatically sends to team members at 9am every week asking about priorities, blockers, and 1-on-1 topics. Priorities and blockers are seen by everyone on the team, allowing them to get on the same page, and 1-on-1 topics are only seen by the manager.
This is a process almost every manager does (or should do), and we’re making it easier for both the manager and team members by automating the process.
At the end of the week, we use the same product mechanics to allow team members to celebrate their accomplishments for the week. During the process, we make it easy for them to give other team members shout-outs for any help they received.
At the end of each month, we send team members a digest of the work they've completed or shout-outs they've received to include in a performance review. We automate the process of team members having to go back through emails, Google Docs, and other nonsense to advocate for themselves.
Our focus is to make the manager's (and the team's) life easier. This is what products for managers should be doing, not adding more work to their plate!
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