The Forrester Blog For Technology Marketing Professionals
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Earlier this month, the Silicon Valley Product Management Association kindly invited me to participate in a panel discussion about the state of PM as a profession. Since the role has wide responsibilities, the conversation ranged widely, but we did dwell a great deal on requirements. One participant asked, "If you could pick only one source of information for requirements, what would it be?" My response was a little tart: I hate that question, because there's no way to answer it.
First, no single type of information will be sufficient to answer a substantive question. Requirements are an exercise in triangulation. Is it worth pursuing a project? You could count the number of people who have asked for it, but that's hardly a reliable basis for making a potentially expensive investment. The next logical questions -- Why do they want it? How important is it? Do we really understand the request? -- require a conversation with at least a couple of potential consumers of this technology.
Second, the question determines the type of information needed to answer it. One type of market development question, such as, is there opportunity for us? requires market-level data. A different market development question, do people in this market need a different mix of functionality in our product? leads to an investigation of potential use cases.
The people responsible for requirements -- product managers, in the tech industry -- have no training in selecting the questions to ask, or the right way to ask them. Which is odd, because you might define the PM role as the questions person, delving into markets, users, competitors, stakeholders, business problems, and a towering pile of other topics.
One of the face palm moments I had while researching PM's role in SaaS was the timeline for platform and app development. The traditional path for on-premise products was platform first, then application. The cloud products flip this sequence, putting the applications first, then the platform. We're so used to seeing this pattern that it's easy to take it for granted, or mistake the reasons why it exists (hence the face palm).
There were two reasons for this evolution in the natural history of a tech vendor's portfolio. The first is distance from the customer. In an on-premise world, where there's a lot of geographic and organizational distance between the producers and consumers of technology, the collection mechanisms about customer adoption (infrequent "How ya doin'?" conference calls, cryptic bug reports, etc.) are labor-intensive. For however much effort you put into this research, the information returned is often incomplete, distorted, or just plain wrong. For example, the game of Telephone played among product teams, customers, and the salespeople in between often leaves PMs with more questions than answers about what a customer really wants.
Therefore, the product strategy for on-premise products have to accommodate a lot of uncertainty about how customers use the technology. While it's not the only reason for customization and custom application development, it's certainly an important one. Rather than guess wrong about customer adoption, on-premise vendors tend to say, "Here's a toolkit. Go build what you want."
[As promised, here's the first in the series about the tech industry's drive to reduce complexity.]
Remember the magic number? It's the one thing from Psych 101 that you should recall, since it pertains to memory. The brain has an upper limit on the number of chunks of new data it can stuff into working memory at one time. The number is around seven, plus or minus one or two depending on the person and the task. It's the limitation that makes the old game Simon challenging, and that bedevils us when we try to remember a phone number that someone just told us.
The magic number is one way in which the human brain tries to trim down complexity. Another more recent discovery is the brain's fuzzy boundary between literal and metaphorical statements. Attach a candidate's resume to a heavy clipboard instead of a light one, and the interviewer is more likely to treat the candidate seriously, because the resume seems somehow weightier.
Countless other examples exist where the brain takes shortcuts, filters information, and otherwise simplifies the constant, complex stream of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and actions that would otherwise turn into a "blooming, buzzing confusion." We're not stupid creatures, but the machine that grants us powerful mental capabilities also puts limits on them.
The Death Star Would Be Great If I Could Figure Out What All These Buttons Do
Scott is talking about the role of documentation in Agile development, but his points are relevant to any team, Agile or not. Agile creates greater sensitivity to the issue, since too much documentation can cripple the team's velocity. Of course, the lack of documentation can damage the team's success:
Some collaboration is transient – communication happens right now, and is only important right now. Other communications are persistent – the collaboration happens right now, but we need to remember later what we agreed upon and why.
Scott's post is a great illustration of what I was discussing yesterday about treating requirements as conversations, not dictionaries. Requirements are part of the conversation, but a lot of the same content that defines what to build, and why, gets recycled later when you need to describe what you built, and why. For example, personas get passed around quite a bit among groups. Perhaps the originate in the development team, but people in sales, marketing, support, and other downstream groups have a keen interest in that information.
During a briefing earlier this week, Jama Software's CEO Eric Winquist showed us a slide separating the repository of a requirements management system from the collaboration that happens around requirements. I really liked the slide because it nailed an important point about both the requirements process and the tools that try to support it.
Ever had one of those "So what?" conversations about requirements? The one in which someone looks at your carefully crafted bit of product requirement genius and says, "So what am I supposed to do with it?" If not, you probably haven't been a PM, so you should stop reading now. If so, you've experienced first-hand that requirements are not just a big Lego box full of information, from which people will easily construct something meaningful. Or, to use a different metaphor, the requirements repository serves the function of a dictionary, describing the things that matter in the universe of technology that we can build. No matter how big, precise, current, or clear the individual bits of information may be, they don't automatically add up to something that someone could use.
The first generation requirements tools were, in essence, dictionaries. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, an important measure of its success was completeness. Since the human brain couldn't retain and organize this information effectively, and Microsoft Office proved to be incapable of handling information complexity, then teams embraced tools like Borland (now Micro Focus) Caliber and MKS Integrity.
Ever since I got an iPad, I've been eager for the update to the upgrade to the iOS4 operating system that premiered on the iPhone months ago. The ease of use of the iPad erodes, grain by grain, with each app that you add to it, as long as you're forced to keep sweeping across page after page of apps. Organizing apps into functional groups across pages is a tedious process. After a while, you really feel the need for folders to organize your apps more effectively.
Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when iTunes froze as soon as I launched it. It was the start of yet another chapter in the story of my hate-hate relationship with iTunes, because of its unstoppable bloat and accompanying seizures. With every major update, iTunes grows another layer of fat, causing more frequent electronic coronaries when it needs to run (or waddle) through its paces. I can't say I was surprised that iTunes froze, forcing me to reinstall it (the software equivalent of sending someone to fat camp?) before I could get it working again.
Here, from a single company, on a single desktop, is the history of the tech industry's problems with complexity. A device that is consummately simple to use, the iPad, is handcuffed, like a slender Sidney Poitier to a morbidly obese Tony Curtis, to iTunes. As Apple keeps jamming more of its business plan, in the form of new features (Genius, Ping, etc.) and new content (anything that could be described as "released" or "published"), iTunes swells to ever-increasing levels of complexity.
Lately, I've been working on behalf of some Forrester clients to answer the question, "How do we build a community?" Frequently, the answer is, "You don't build a community. You expand it." Few communities appear ex nihilo at the behest of a technology vendor. More commonly, successful community sites identify an existing collection of like-minded people, then entice them to your site with something of value to them.
Developer communities are a good example. Megavendors like Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM have an easy time creating a community site, since there are already a lot of developers connected to these companies, and to each other. If SAP never created its own community site, somewhere in Social Media Land there would be a collection of technical professionals talking to each other about customizing and implementing SAP applications.
Smaller vendors, of course, don't have nearly as easy a time. If you're a sales force automation (SFA) vendor, for example, there are plenty of people out there interested in sales force effectiveness, but far fewer interested in your tool. Since developers have no direct stake in managing a sales force, you can't count on them to be interested in you in the same way that a sales VP might be. Therefore, it's hard to see why developers would participate in a SFA vendor's forums, except when they have an immediate question that needs answering. (Usually in the form of, "Why doesn't this work?")
A recent conversation with executives from Clarizen, a software company in the work/project/task management realm, shows how profoundly SaaS can change the innovation process in technology companies. However, you won't get the most beneficial changes unless you're willing to make an investment.
During our briefing, I asked the CEO of Clarizen, Avinoam Nowogrodski, and the VP of Marketing, Sharon Vardi, whether being a SaaS vendor made it any easier to resolve the sort of questions that vex technology vendors. Their response: "Of course it does."
Here's one of those vexing questions: Why don't more customers move from a pilot to full adoption? The usual first answers blame someone else's department for the disappointing conversion rate: Your product stinks. Your leads stink. Your salespeople stink.
Round-robin finger-pointing like this thrives in an informational vacuum. If the only hard fact available is the conversion rate, marketing can accuse sales of presumed incompetence; sales can claim that the current bug count might have an effect on customer satisfaction; development can claim that it's bogged down in too many special requests from strategic customers; and so on.
During last August's Agile 2010 conference, I attended a session that used a board game to simulate the collaboration between developers and UX professionals. The object of the game was to coordinate the schedules of these two groups, who normally follow the beats of different metronomes. On top of that basic timing challenge, unexpected events complicated this dance between development and UX.
While this session does show a novel application of serious gaming (one of my favorite topics, in case you hadn't noticed), the interesting aspect of this session is that it happened at all. Until recently, UX was not a major concern for Agilists – or most people developing software, for that matter. The phrase, "And then we'll throw a UI on top of it," summarized the indifference of all too many development teams to UX concerns.
In the last few years, many teams have learned a new attitude. Instead of treating UX as a tarpaulin, thrown over the application to clumsily hold it all together, UX is as much a part of the system as the technical architecture or the application logic.