An example of good product management

I’ve spoken a lot in the last few articles about the work of good product managers, and how they deliver more than just features—things such as security, reliability, performance, and so on. In this article I want to give one historical example of this, to take it out of the abstract realm and make it more concrete. It is also the time when the penny dropped for me about what really good product management looks like.

A long time ago I worked for The Guardian, and we were asked, confidentially, to create an app for Apple’s forthcoming iPad. There was no constraint on what we might produce, but time was limited and immovable (the deadline was governed by the device’s launch date), and the app needed to be of the highest quality to justify being one of the first in the App Store.

Our product manager was Jon Moore, who today is a partner at Silicon Valley Product Group. He needed to bring our team together, define the product, and get it to a state where Apple would be happy to put it in the App Store.

The result was Eyewitness, which showcased the Guardian’s big “picture of the day” on the iPad’s glossy screen.

Tellingly, it had almost no features. You could see today’s picture, see its caption, see a related photograpy tip, scroll back to previous pictures, and then, if you enjoyed that, you could… do it again.

I’m being slightly facetious, of course, but that is all the app did, and the point is that “features” was not a defining success factor.

Most of all it was a fantastic user experience. The user got to admire a beautiful picture (and I suspect the lack of features encouraged the user to take time to appreciate it, as there was little ability to do anything else) and enjoy the iPad’s smooth scrolling capability as they swiped to the previous one. It showcased the hardware, and was no doubt a great way for a new iPad owner to seek admiration from their friends.

It was also incredibly reliable. All apps should be, of course, but it was particularly important here, not just because Apple was scrutinising these first apps especially carefully, but also because it was the chance for the Guardian’s name to go in front of an entirely new audience. This influenced certain design decisions, and fewer features means less complexity, which in turn means more chance of a predictable user experience.

Behind the scenes Jon inspired the whole development team. I had never before seen such a mutually supportive relationship between a product manager and the rest of the team. He looked to them genuinely for big and small ideas, and respect ran equally in all directions.

Finally, Jon seemed to have a really good relationship with Apple—an organisation that was famously incredibly secretive, especially then. We were able to get useful steering on small but important things which helped us produce a better product in the time available.

I think it was a surprise to everyone in the team when, as part of the live launch event, Steve Jobs chose to demo the iPad’s screen using our app.

And this early experience is what I often think about when I think of really good product management. Someone who thinks about how the product fits into users’ lives, how it contributes to its sponsors, how the user experiences it not just in terms of buttons and functions, but in terms of trust and satisfaction, how the development team can become so involved that they become more than the sum of their parts, and much, much more. And somewhere in there, there are also some features.

Photo by Pasi Mämmelä