Many of us in product roles find ourselves at the intersections of business, design, and technology. Because of our unique position at these crossroads, we become translators between stakeholders: We have to explain business needs to engineers, complicated concepts to non-technical clients, and the importance of product design and design thinking to, well, everyone.
As a hybrid digital economist and product manager, friends and acquaintances often approach me to ask for help choosing the best digital solution for a performance need, process optimization, or channel development. For a while, I could answer their questions simply: I’d identify the opportunity, research digital solutions, and then pick tools to adopt into the company’s short- to mid-run planning.
But that was when we had the luxury of time. Many organizations could plan for a digital transformation in a far-off way, anticipating changes that would occur sometime “in the future.”
When COVID-19 simultaneously paused and sped up our lives in early 2020, brick-and-mortar business owners, schools, universities, and other organizations had two choices: to “go digital” as quickly as possible, or to suspend their activities entirely.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, many business owners did not have time to acquaint with technological concepts, solutions, and possibilities. They found themselves in a critical situation and started to ask questions.
Who answered them? Often digital-savvy people (companies, consultants, or freelancers) did; people hailing from a world where these concepts are elementary knowledge. As a result, many business owners — savvy in their own ways — felt threatened and left out. (Many of my friends asked me to explain the solutions presented to them “in their language,” so they too could go digital.)
But to position yourself as a technology expert, you must meet your audience where they are.
Not only is an assumption that “everyone already understands this technology” bad for sales, but at its core, this attitude excludes many of the people who must now embrace digital transformation. As product managers, we regularly see executives jaded or oversold on technology solutions before they find us. Digital services practitioners must make technology approachable by people who don’t live and breathe the terms and concepts every day.
Especially during today’s mass digital migration, our role as technology leaders is to guide others through the process by breaking down complexity.
Explanation is the heart of product management
To build great products and help transform businesses, that ability to translate between people with different amounts of knowledge and skills is at the heart of our daily work. One of our greatest assets is our ability to break down complex problems; the best product will never be built by throwing a so-called “basic” roadmap to business owners and leaders without explanation. We need to realize, then act on, the truth that such concepts may not be “basic” to everyone.
We may find a design or marketing colleague in the room who isn’t privy to product engineering concepts. Or we may have a legacy IT stakeholder who is unfamiliar with the latest iterations of languages or tools. All use cases present a challenge, and an opportunity, for a product manager: to ensure every stakeholder in the room can join in and follow along.
On the Postlight Podcast, one of the remarkably consistent things that our hosts Paul Ford and Rich Ziade do is interrupt each other: “Paul/Rich, please define this concept for everyone.” It’s one of many ways we extend the conversation to more listeners.
Furthermore, we strive for accessibility in technology: to champion initiatives that advocate for people with disabilities in the use and enjoyment of products. Building, planning, and designing for accessibility is a critical step that must be baked into our understanding of — and process for — building usable products. At Postlight, we’ve petitioned for greater accessibility in UX design. Our product designers ship their work conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) and we’ve hosted events to teach design leaders about accessible-first thinking. Our work here continues.
Tech leaders and product teams must strive to make digital technologies and migrations accessible to all, as well as approachable by all, to include everyone in product planning and usage.
Don’t sell a black box
As a people-first agency, Postlight never sells technical “black boxes” — jargon-laded solutions that even experts would have trouble untangling. Instead, we take the time to explain, document, and share with our clients any relevant information that might provide additional clarity about the product and our work. We ship what are often referred to as “clear boxes,” or usable products that everyone can understand, appreciate, and build upon.
While we certainly conduct user interviews and research during our software-development process, the people in the room — the core client team — are our first focus. We need to ensure their maximal contribution. Thus, making concepts and decisions approachable by every single stakeholder is vital to optimizing the outcome.
Maturity, user-centricity, and compassion are the main components of both product management and availability. Since newcomers to the product management career hail from a broad spectrum of disciplines and specializations, let us benefit from this and use our different backgrounds in the service of available, usable product strategies — during this time of mass digital migration and always.
Pascal Watwat (@pascalwatwat) is a Senior Program Manager at Postlight and a digital economist. He continuously seeks excellence in operations, calligraphy, and squash. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.