Buzz as a PM failure

Google now has two recent examples of how not to launch a product. To be more specific, the launches of Wave and Buzz are unfortunate illustrations of product management and product marketing breakdowns.

The first, Wave, was clearly a product marketing failure. Whether or not Wave is a work of sublime genius is beside the point. The dominant reaction to Wave was confusion. Was Wave more an application or a platform? A replacement for e-mail, or a supplement to it? Something built for a general audience, or just techies? Google somehow fumbled the most basic product marketing: We built this product to address this specific problem, for this specific audience, in this specific way.

The Buzz launch also had its product marketing problems, but as discussed in this blog last week, it had at least one huge product management snafu: the privacy features. It wasn't clear whether the auto-generated list of followers was open to the general public or not, and whether you were helpless to deal with unwanted overtures from other users. If you wanted to check, or God help you, change the relevant settings, it took some grit and cleverness to figure it out. And then there were new revelations, such as, by default, Buzz exposed the list of your RSS subscriptions in Google Reader.

A Google PM announced on his blog that the company has implemented "some immediate improvements we are making today based on your feedback." . I would add the word somewhat to that previous sentence. Hunting down some of the options is still difficult. The Buzz UI doesn't clearly convey what the product is supposed to do, other than post updates to some group of people who already appear in my e-mail contact list. Am I supposed to continue e-mailing them, or use this tool instead? What are the pros and cons?

Google got itself into this mess because the Buzz team did no external testing. Once again, a team of very smart people are only smart about the world they know. I'm sure Buzz worked just great in the pocket universe of Google itself. Unfortunately, the domain of people who would be using Buzz was much larger.

I'm a bit worried that the mistakes may continue. Google is collecting feedback through the Gmail forum, an approach that poses two immediate obstacles: (1) knowing that the Gmail forum exists; (2) knowing that the Gmail forum is the right place for Buzz feedback. Plus, who's posting here, representative users, or a self-selected group of Google followers?

Google can get plenty of advice from social media mavens, but that may be exactly the wrong source of guidance. Anyone experienced (or jaded) enough to complain that Buzz commits all the same mistakes as Friendfeed is someone vastly more experienced with, and invested in, social media than the average Gmail user.

My unsolicited advice to the Buzz PMs? Get out of the office. Sit down with a few people who look like the archetypal user and watch them puzzle through Buzz. Then go back to the forums, the blog posts, and other sources of information for whatever good ideas they might provide. Ultimately, you also need to insist on control over the feature list.

That strategy might run against the grain of Google's engineering-centric corporate culture, but Google is also a company that prides itself on being open to new ideas. Here's the next experiment: give PM the opportunity to collect real requirements, and the power to enforce them. See what happens.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]

Comments

re: Buzz as a PM failure

The post implies that "the most basic product marketing" should craft messages around the template of "We built this product to address this specific problem, for this specific audience, in this specific way." For many product managers, plugging content into such a template may be considered a best practice. However in certain contexts, it is an inchoate template. Two years ago, I didn't use Twitter like I use it today. The same is true for my iPhone. In the Twitter case, hashtags were not included in the original product roadmap. In the case of the iPhone, the App Store didn't exist when I purchased the product. Five years ago, a product manager couldn't have documented how I would be using these products today. When a product manager asserts that they can accurately specify parameters (the audience, the problem a RADICALLY NEW product will solve for this audience, the required features, ...) such product managers may be characterized as dogmatic. For radically new products, new uses for products may emerge as customers find solutions to problems that they may have been unable to articulate. A dogmatic product manager, may continue to insist that the specifics in their template are valid even as the context continues to change. An adaptive product manager quickly mobilizes an appropriate product development team to capitalize on the emergent conditions. When it is recognized that a changes are needed, folks such as @ericries refer to this as a pivot.

re: Buzz as a PM failure

Tom,

While many in product management place value on the "inbound" aspects of discovering and defining what a product is or should be, organizations forget/omit or neglect the product marketing strategy or roadmap.

Experience (or fast fail) is a sad teacher that products that "escape, are soft launched, have a stealth launch or no defined positioning" are often doomed to languish in confusion and death by lack of understanding.

The two Google examples are lessons that ALL product management needs to learn from.

re: Buzz as a PM failure

Great post. In my opinion Google is doing some amazing things in product management and some really not so amazing things in product management. With Wave, I agree that the lack of use case scenarios was a glaring omission and continued to be, well after the launch and an avalanche of feedback that clearly told them it was a problem. The privacy issues with Buzz seem to be another rookie mistake but at least this time around they heard the feedback and are making quick changes (even though it may be too late to recover). It will be interesting to watch as they move forward to see what and how much they are learning as a company from these experiences.
April