Lessons learnt: starting out as a product manager

I came to Co-op Digital as an agile business analyst and relatively speaking, I’m pretty new to product management.

I wanted to take on a product manager (PM) role after working with some inspiring people – Anna Goss, Lawrence Kitson and Charlotte King to name a few. I saw each of these people lead teams to meet user and business needs with design and technical solutions. And I wanted to do the same.

Since then, I’ve had to learn a lot of stuff. And quickly.

The other week at Product Camp Manchester, I gave a talk at on the advice I’d give my less experienced self. This post is about what I know now with the power of hindsight.

1.Context is everything

Yes, it’s the dream to get something in the hands of your users within a couple of months – weeks even – and that might be possible if you’re a product manager in a start-up.

But Co-op isn’t a start-up. It’s a huge, traditional organisation and for the vast majority of stakeholders, the pace digital teams move at can be scary. I understand that worry. Of course, it can take longer to get digital products and services out there when you’re working in an organisation going through digital transformation. And I’ve learnt that that’s ok: you need to take into account the time it takes to communicate what you’re doing clearly, and convincingly, to the right people. That way, you get the credibility to continue.

2.What you work on affects your learning

Many new PMs choose to work on ‘safe’ products or services. I didn’t. Instead, I prioritised working on the most interesting product. I pushed for my first product to be one of Co-op’s new ventures because I was really interested in lean product techniques and working on something new felt like a good way to test them out.

However, there have been times when having more experience would have been useful with a product like this. With experience comes confidence and with that comes the willingness to make decisions more quickly (granted, not always better ones). With the power of hindsight I’d be in a better position to be able to weigh up working on something that has more structure because it already exists and the challenge of shaping and influencing the direction of a product from inception.

Although I’m glad I stuck with the product, having the right people in place (an excellent community of practice and a supportive team) has been essential.

3.Influence team morale

Part of a PM’s role is to be in tune with the team’s morale, and sometimes to influence it. I’ve found that keeping these 3 things in mind is helpful.

‘Failing’ is just part of the process

Occasionally, things won’t go to plan. That’s unavoidable. We’ll make the wrong assumptions; we’ll test the wrong thing; a user will interact with a prototype in a completely different way to how we expected, and there’ll be times when we don’t do everything we set out to in a sprint.

As a PM you need to make sure the team knows that all of those things are ok and that making mistakes is fine as long as we’re learning. Letting them know gives each person autonomy, it shows you support them to get on with their job and that you trust their expertise.

The best bad decision is better than no decision

Sometimes, you won’t have enough information to make an informed decision. In those instances, accepting a sensible amount of risk, taking a punt and learning is more beneficial for the team because it keeps things moving. It’s always a good idea to explain a ‘best bad’ decision and the options to the team.

Hand-drawn doodle. A man standing in front of a sign post choosing to go in the direction of 'bad decision' rather than 'badder decision'

Any compromise warrants a thank you

You’re undoubtedly working with some very skilled and knowledgeable people and sometimes you’ll be in a position where you need them to compromise in the name of progress. Nobody likes compromise so if someone does it, showing your gratitude is essential.

4.Learn from doing, not just reading about doing

So much of the role is about how you interact with people, how cooperative they are and how much confidence they have in you – a lot of this can only be learnt through experience, through doing the job. You can read as many PM books as you like but the only way to learn properly is practically, by being on a team. Applying theory to deliver something valuable is the hard part.

5.Empower the team by being clear on your mission

Teams always say they want autonomy. But, if a team has complete autonomy but no mission they might end up building something super impressive and, unfortunately, completely useless to the problem they’re trying to solve.

They might end up building a rocket and not know why.

Hand-drawn doodle of 3 people looking at a very impressive rocket. One says: We built a rocket! Another says: Why?

Autonomy only works if the team is aligned. Creating a mission and communicating it to the whole team will give a clear purpose and empower each person to get on with delivery.

I’ve learnt a lot in a really short time. And as long as there are problems to solve, the learning won’t stop. We’ll be hiring product managers again very soon. Keep an eye on our jobs page and follow Co-op Digital on Twitter to stay in the loop.

Anthony Wilson
Product manager

Illustrations by Maisie Platts

 

 

Co-op Membership after 2 weeks

It’s been over 2 weeks since we launched our new Co-op Membership. During this time over 2,000 members have given us feedback on how they’re finding Membership and in particular using the Membership website.

Picture of our new Co-op Membership card.

As a product manager working on Membership, feedback from our Members is really important. We’re using this, along with analytics. The analytics show us general user behaviour which we’re using to help to determine the areas to prioritise. As a direct result of this we’re making lots of changes to the service.

Derek Harvie
Derek Harvie – product manager – Membership

Some members said that they weren’t sure how to carry out some self-service tasks, such as updating their address or ordering a replacement card. So, we made the labels of the links clearer. This is important to get right because the majority of calls to our contact centre and questions on social media are about tasks just like these.

Some new members joining our Co-op for the first time said that it wasn’t clear what would happen after registration. Were they fully registered? Would they get a new card? So, we have updated the registration “flow” on the membership website to include a full welcome email that gives information about when their new card will be posted, and confirm their account has been fully registered.

Thank you to every member who’s taken the time to feedback already. Hopefully you’ll see that we are listening to this and you can see the changes we’re making to make Membership better for everyone.

Derek Harvie
Product Manager

 

Product management

Hello, I’m Andy Pipes and I’ve been working as a product manager here at the Co-op for nine months. During that time I’ve been helping Funeralcare rethink how we deliver our service to clients when a death has occurred.

Picture of Andy Pipes
Andy Pipes

I’m starting to take on some other responsibilities now and one is hiring more product managers to come and work with Co-op Digital on other amazing projects. This has given me chance to reflect on what kinds of product leaders might be required at a place like the Co-op.

Often, when I explain to people that I’m a digital product manager, I’m greeted with bewilderment (“Wow sounds complicated!”) or ignorance (“Oh, so you’re in IT then?”). It’s not surprising – the job title isn’t the clearest. Most people understand that products are designed, made, tested and used. But managed?

‘Product manager’ has gradually emerged in the past decade as the title to describe the person charged with fully understanding the problems that a product or service is meant to solve. But that’s not their only function.

As high-tech companies began to adopt Agile software development practices, the role of ‘product owner’ (the person responsible for making and prioritising the backlog of work in an agile team) started to be rolled into the product manager’s job profile. To complicate matters further, some organisations threw in design or technical skills into the “competencies” a typical product manager was asked to bring to the table.

It’s no wonder there are so many flavours of product manager these days. And also no surprise many of them describe themselves as “all rounders”.

The types of people who I think are perfect for product leadership roles come from all walks of life. Some might have been working as a “product manager” for some time but not have the job title to reflect it. Others may excel at an engineering, design or business positions and been asked to take on more general responsibilities. There is no one right “track” to becoming a product manager.

What’s most important is having the right mindset and attitude. (I’ve written about this before.)  When interviewing for a product manager role, I listen for people who just love to talk about real people, struggling with real problems that they want to solve. This is a good sign they’ve got a well of curiosity unlikely to run dry. And that they’ll have the energy to keep at it until the right solution is found.

These people tend to be straight talkers, too. They know business-speak or technical jargon gets in the way of understanding and empathising when explaining a user’s problems to a team whose job is to try and solve them.

The team often turns to the product manager for decisions, leadership and assurance. But it’s a fine balancing act. Keeping a multi-disciplinary team motivated and productive does not mean dictating answers. Nor does it mean an equal voice to every member of the team in every situation. Sometimes, you need to guide the discussion with a firm grasp of the “why”. Other times you’ll need to keep the team exploring new options until they get unblocked.

I’m not sure there’s a typical day in the life of a product manager. One morning you might be describing the problems a user has to a designer or developer. In the afternoon, you might be presenting a new opportunity to explore in your market to an executive. You could be called on to analyse some data that could provide evidence for a particular approach. Or sketch out for a stakeholder how you plan to tackle an upcoming theme of work. You try to keep your team energised, and motivated with clear, worthwhile goals. You talk a lot. You listen more.

Picture of Andy Pipes

What the product manager helps their team to achieve day-to-day will also depend on the type of project they’re tasked with leading. The Co-op has all sorts of projects – big and structured, all the way through to loose and lean. Large transformation programmes need product managers with strong communication skills and the ability to build solid stakeholder relationships. Service design projects like Online Wills need a clear product vision, and attention to detail and delivery. Experiments like Paperfree are in the earlier stages of development, and need its leaders to be more comfortable with some of the more nebulous problems they are trying to discover, and validate.

We need all these types of product managers for projects happening right now at the Co-op. Think you’ve got the mindset? Take a look here for all the details.

Andy Pipes
Head of product management

 

Co-op Finder Alpha Update

In my previous post I talked about the work we’re doing to improve our store and branch locator. We’ve continued to improve our new Co-op Finder Alpha and added a page for each store.

All the updates have come from:

  • user feedback from the form on the page
  • user research sessions
  • comments on the blog
  • messages on Twitter

So, if you gave us some feedback, thanks very much. You’ve helped to shape our service for colleagues, members and customers.

Design

Here’s a couple of the design changes we made.

We improved the text input box and how we show the ‘use my location’ option. This was because our users were confused when we tested it out:

image 1

We have reduced the space taken up by the list and map tabs. It was pushing the most important information too far down the screen:

image-2

Local pages

Users asked us to show facilities and services for each store. We’ve added a link to more information that goes to a page about each store. These pages are essential for helping people find stores more easily on search sites. They give us a great opportunity to test new features about a store and its local community.

Information accuracy

Most of the feedback we received was about:

  • opening hours
  • the accuracy of where the pin appears on the map 
  • the need to quickly update information about stores that have closed or changed ownership

The good news is that we’ve improved the accuracy of the location coordinates from 17% to around 88%. That’s around 3,500 stores now with an accurate pin on the map.

There are lots more improvements in the pipeline and we’ll keep you updated here.

Our show and tell is every Wednesday, 10th Floor, 1 Angel Square in Manchester at 10.15-10.45. All colleagues and Member Council members are welcome.

Ben Rieveley
Product Manager, Location Services

Co-op Finder Alpha

Co-op-Finder-Alpha
Co-op Finder Alpha – list results view

We’ve made live our Co-op Finder Alpha. Have a look https://alpha.coop.co.uk/finder.

If you’ve ever used our old store locator, you’ll see there are lots of things that aren’t in the new one. There’s a reason for that. We don’t know whether it was useful or not, in fact there’s a lot we don’t know. 

We’ll use our Co-op Finder Alpha to learn more.

We do know a lot of people choose to come to our website to use our store locator to see whether we are open, usually around those times when opening hours in general are not obvious, like Sunday evenings and national holidays.

We also know that the next most common thing customers need, is to know where the nearest Co-op is to a specific location. 

We’ve kept a few obvious elements, like telephone numbers and links to get directions, but other than that we’ve removed anything that we don’t have an evidenced user need for.

There are two opportunities for users to provide feedback on the experience itself and whether the information is correct, through this and further user research we will understand better what needs to be there.

We’ve already learnt a lot and have some solid improvements in the pipeline that we’ll make live shortly.

Our show & tell is part of the coop.co.uk session every Wednesday, 10th Floor, 10.15-10.45 – all colleagues and Council members welcome.

Please let us know what you think.

Ben Rieveley
Product Manager

coop.co.uk

You’ve probably already read about our re-brand – here’s a reminder just in case. As Mike said we’re committed to radical transparency, so in that spirit, I’m going to talk about the work we’ve done so far on the Co-op website.

You may have noticed the changes that we’ve made already to the website. We’ve changed the font, logo, plus have introduced a new url structure that matches our new name – coop.co.uk. But we aren’t going to stop there.

We’re going to deliver a new service on coop.co.uk. I’m the product manager on the team that’s tasked with delivery of the new service. We’ll deliver a distinctive new service, slowly retiring the existing one from view.

Mock up of mobile version of coop.co.uk

Our vision for coop.co.uk

“Coop.co.uk ruthlessly focusses on better meeting the needs of customers, members and colleagues.

It’s supported by a range of tools and ways of working that gives Co-op the ability to respond fast to changing user needs and opportunities.”

Our first deliverable, an Alpha version of the corporate site (that’s the bit of the website that has lots of information about who we are, where we are, what we do, careers, press information etc), is coming soon. We’ll write about it here, so keep an eye on the blog. We’ll then iterate to both improve the service and expand its capability.

Getting to this point is a significant achievement by the new team:

  • We’re focussing on user needs throughout the design and build process.
  • We’ve explored processes and introduced tools required to publish content from across the business.
  • We’ve built an environment that allows us to continually deploy new versions.

True to ‘lean’ principals, we’re also incorporating metrics, to help us gauge how the service is performing. This will give us the ability to react and make changes when necessary. We’re always after feedback, so do let us know what you think.

Nick Gallon

Transformation observations

We’re going for it. Shifting a massive chunk of our digital development programme to continuous delivery. That gives me butterflies!

Having run a team of ‘UXers’ that all ache to work in a proper Agile way has been a challenge. We often found ourselves reliant on a super-human delivery manager (namecheck: Victoria Mitchell) to hold back the mountains of Waterfall documentation and ‘sign-offs’ to enable us to work in our Agile bubble. It didn’t really work.

By bursting that bubble and working alongside the business, engineering and operations we are immediately… but I’m not going to espouse the virtues of that here, there’s plenty bigger brains that have done that.

I just want to share some early observations from a UX team perspective as we make that change:

1) We all do UX

We don’t call ourselves a UX team anymore, we are part of a design team. We are all responsible for the user experience: marketing, IT, designers, shop colleagues, call centre colleagues, CEOs… it’s how we work together that delivers the experience. I believe our artists-formerly-known-as-UXers have a key role in evangelising their ingrained user-centric principles across the business. Ensuring everybody is focused on delivering a service that meets people’s needs.

2) Lose the IT and Business/Marketing divide

Being in ‘Digital’ I have often been the buffer between Marketing and IT, the former feeling restricted and stifled, and the latter feeling criticised when all they want to do is keep the business safe. Not only does an understanding have to break out, but the boundaries need to be removed completely. Have multi-disciplined teams, delivering specific products not departments emailing huge documents over ‘the fence’ ensuring they are safe from blame of failure. We now have a team of Engineers, Delivery Managers, Business Analysts, Interaction Designers, Content Designers literally sat side by side delivering the ‘thing’.

IMAG0004
Our multi-disciplined team in post-it heaven

3) Find, empower and trust super-smart decision-makers

Another massive change is required to make this work. The multi-discipline team can’t do their thing if the business isn’t able to provide decisive direction at the same pace. This is where our next challenge is. We need rapid, smart decisions and for that, rapid, smart, decision-makers who are trusted and empowered to take responsibility for their product. Enter product managers, new roles to the Co-op, but very much needed to ensure that the transformation happens. It is these folk that will play a vital part in ensuring the Co-op can transform now, but continue to help a modern Co-op respond rapidly to members’ and customers’ changing needs.

Are you a product manager? Contact Polly Haslam to see if there’s an opportunity for you.