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November 21, 2017

The Secret Weapon Product Teams Can Use to Make Tough Decisions

Ryan Walsh

I love a good debate. You know that saying “playing devil’s advocate?” I’m pretty sure it applies to me. The instant I’m presented with a product, design or strategy, my instinct is to question it, parse it and challenge it. As a dimension of truth-seeking, I feel this style of inquiry is a critical asset to success in product design (and investing).

Yet, every asset can be a liability to its extreme. I’m guilty of occasionally twisting inquiry in a way that blocks progress, diverts attention or shifts focus away from our shared vision. When I’m under pressure and uncertain about which path to take, I tend to fall back on strategies I’ve seen work in the past. My creativity plummets. I lose openness, optimism. The worst part: it feels almost exactly the same when I’m helpfully questioning as to when I’m being a huge liability.

I can’t speak for others, but I don’t think I’m alone. When you place passionate, intelligent people all in a room with a challenging problem, they will seek the truth and serve their shared vision. As the problems get harder and more complex, individuals fall back on what they know and have experienced. As we all know we are not the audience (user) we serve, empathy can slip away quickly.  

I’ve seen the culture of data-driven product development exacerbate this condition. With data — which we all know can be manipulated — we have a weapon to make arguments and question strategy. And just like inquiry, data can lead us forward or set us back. Its apparent objectivity can blind us. When we lean on data to solve our most challenging problems, our products can develop a clearly perceptible, awkward hyper-rationality.

In my last post on Products That Count, I presented the use of a narrative storytelling framework as an alternative way to examine and build our product. The best, most impactful, and most successful products use storytelling to speak to a wide swath of humanity at an emotional level.

From the moment an audience discovers our product to the moment they make an emotional decision about it, we can guide them to believing that our product promises to do a certain thing in a remarkably better way, and to trust it.

One of the qualities I love most about this framework is its ability to transcend both data and the work styles/experience of the team to find the truth in a product design debate. I’ve found that many of our ‘product’ or ‘growth’ metrics are lagging indicators of ‘built trust.’ Trust is a leading indicator.

Try asking the following simple question:

Are we building or breaking trust?

This “either-or” question will force teams to respond in a way that inspires debate. This is good. However, when used correctly, this simple question becomes a secret weapon that yields three valuable results:

  • Orients the team with our product’s promise to our audience
  • Assesses the impact of our decisions on audience trust in that promise
  • Reduces cognitive load on our audience

Every great product communicates a promise to its audience, and over each interaction builds trust that the product will deliver. This promise is emotional and unstated.

Snap’s original promise demonstrates this beautifully. The product interactions centered around ‘self-destructing photos,’ but the promise was a refuge from the rest of the searchable, over-edited and lacquered digital identity that other expression platforms provided en masse. The ease of low-fidelity combined with this felt promise led them to rapid cultural significance. 

I have not found a successful product that does not have a promise at its core. In the debate and negotiation of everyday design work, we can lose our connection to this promise. We can use this question initially to re-orient ourselves toward our shared vision.

Re-aligned, we are able to debate the product or design question through the lens of trust. Though the conversations vary wildly, I find that a clearer path forward emerges.

That path does not always lead to ‘built trust.’ Sometimes it is perfectly reasonable to reduce trust — ad monetization is a classic trust-reducing mechanic. Limitations on resources can force a sub-optimal solution. However – we create clear, invaluable awareness and intention through the discussion. The team will strengthen, the insights they have about the product and audience will deepen.

Finally, I use every design debate to reduce cognitive load on our audience. The most significant (and most common) block to an audience feeling the value and promise of a product is inserted complexity. It is also the easiest block to remove, if identified.

I hope this simple framework helps you in your design and product work. Feel free to reach out and ask questions — @localbyproxy on Twitter.

Thank you to SC Moatti, Sarah Imbert, and Marissa Gemma for their kind edits.


About the Author

Ryan WalshRyan Walsh is a Partner at Floodgate, where he leads early stage investments in technology companies. A student of great products and how they impact culture, his focus areas include media, AR, marketplaces, subscription businesses, and products that include unique network effects and social psychology.

Prior to Floodgate, Ryan directed product management for media at Apple, including Apple Music and the iTunes stores for movies, music, and television. He joined Apple as part of the Beats by Dre acquisition, where he was Vice President of Product, managing design, product development, analytics, and growth. Prior to working with Beats, Ryan spent 15 years starting ventures, creating community or helping others do the same.

Ryan actively performs improvisational theater and is a noted storyteller. He has produced and deejayed electronic music for over 15 years, under an alias.

Products That Count is one of the largest communities of product managers, leaders and entrepreneurs in the world. It provides insider access to founders and C-level execs such as Netflix Product VP, Crossing the Chasm legendary author, Trulia Founder, or Lyft CMO, via speaker series, podcasts, and invite-only executive retreats. Partners include WeChat, Yelp, LeanPlum, Pragmatic Marketing, and StartupDigest. Its venture arm, Mighty Capital, invests in companies building products that count once they have demonstrated product/market fit.

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