Product Development / Product Innovation

Google’s Former Product Manager Shares Advice on How to Build Value

Imagine a product manager who has been responsible for products with a billion users.

Seven figure user count: isn’t that every entrepreneur’s and product designer’s ultimate end goal?

You might expect such people to believe that they know everything about their users, or that they don’t need to test ideas anymore, as the company has already discovered the holy grail of growth.

This is why it’s so great to meet people like Itamar Gilad, who has been responsible for Gmail at Google for more than 6 years.

6 years almost feel like a century when it comes to the tech world.

And yet, all the while, he and his peers at Google stayed focused on one thing that should matter to everyone in tech: the user.

ItamarGilad_Barcelona_ProductMeetup_Numa_2.JPG

Itamar has just relocated to Barcelona to do consulting and help other companies find the right path. On this occasion, he gave a thought-provoking talk about what the quest for value truly means for product teams.

He also raised an interesting question: is “value” is the only thing that matters?

Read on and you will see that it’s not the only thing that matters.

This article is a summary of his thoughts, adding some personal comments here and there.

What kind of value may your product offer to customers?

If you don’t fill it up with meaning, “value” may sound like an empty word. Things get a lot clearer once you divide value into 3 components.

Imagine it as a 3-dimensional axis: your ultimate value is based on how much you have of each specific ingredient: functional, social and emotional value.

Functional value

Functional value commonly refers to the utility factor a product gives to people, e.g. helping them complete specific tasks.

Google Maps is a good example. It helps people get from A to B in the shortest, easiest way possible.

It’s all pretty straightforward, practical and it caters to the bottom half of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. (For example, it allows you to make a pit stop for a quick snack if you get hungry on the road. It also gives you a comforting feeling, avoiding that you get lost.)

google-maps-product-value

Another good example of a product with a clear functional value is the humble toast maker. You stick the slice in the machine, push a button and get a nice, warm breakfast. Simple as that.

Of course, sometimes it comes to a toast maker like this:

product-management-value-darth-vader-toast-maker

Now you are about to enter a whole new territory of customer value.

A Darth Vader toast maker masterpiece subtly shows to your visitors —and to yourself— that you are no regular dude. It shows that you care about creativity and imagination.

It certainly beholds some ‘social’ (“You always find the coolest stuff”) and ‘emotional’ (“I feel much less grumpy in the morning when I look at it”) value, besides serving its good old functional purpose.

When you intend to build a product with a high functional value, you should find out whether it helps users solve a relevant problem, how easy it is to use and whether the gain is bigger than the pain.

Social value

There is a commonly accepted sociological theory which says that humans are social animals.

As Itamar mentioned in his talk, products and services often have socially-oriented benefits. For example, they may help us project an image, gain acceptance or feel that we belong to a group.

A $12,000 Rolex is a good example. You might assume that no one in their right mind would pay that much for a watch just for the sake of knowing what the time was.

However, a Rolex can “tell a thousand words”. It makes the wearer look good, according to the taste of upper-class society. It also sends a signal that the owner is a successful and affluent person.

An app like Tinder can also offer a high social value.

tinder-app-product-management-social-value

Why? Because it promises you recognition from peers (“Wow, these hot guys seem to like me”) and helps you connect with others, whether you look for romantic or physical benefits.

Serving the need for connectedness and social recognition can certainly be interesting when you are designing a product experience.

Emotional (Self) value

As Itamar put it:

“If it was up to us we’d spend a lot more time playing Candy Crush Saga, lying on the beach, reading a good thriller or watching TV.

There’s no real functional value in these activities, and while they may carry social value, the main purpose is to gratify ourselves, not others.”

Emotional benefits are not always related to having fun, though.

For instance, fitness and activity tracking apps make us feel disciplined and offer a sense of accomplishment.

When we get a badge, it certainly involves abstract social recognition, but it also makes us feel better about ourselves. (And makes us feel less guilty about eating a chocolate croissant after the workout.)

Fitbit-badge-product-value

Emotional needs can also be connected to a bigger cause. Many people consider themselves to be conscious citizens who care about the environment, try to help the less fortunate, and so on.

Products that claim that they are “vegan”, “fair trade” or “not tested on animals” may appeal to such consumers. In the tech world, micro-donation apps may facilitate our inner need to give back to society. In this sense, they are injected with social value, too, besides making you feel good.

Something we often forget about: the costs

Being conscious about what kind of value your product may provide to customers is important, but it is not enough.

You have to take the user’s “costs” into account as well.

There are all sorts of things that will eventually influence whether people use your product, or not. For example:

  • Money: depending on your target market and type of product, the perception of price and willingness to pay may vary a lot.
  • Time: an app like Tinder may promise a happy end, but it certainly takes some time to get there. For some users, the cost of finding a mate takes countless hours of swiping, swiping, swiping, and hoping. Whether they use a product that takes time depends on the perceived “return on investment”.

guy-with-mobile

  • Mental effort: as Itamar phrased it, “you should never make your users think”The more difficult it is for them to find out how to use your product, the more people may drop out before reaching an Aha! moment.
  • Existing behavior and past preferences: you know you have tapped into a real customer problem and a relevant solution when your users are willing to give up their existing habits to use your product.

Product teams tend to underestimate the cost and overestimate the value of a new product, while users often do the opposite.

In reality, your real customer value is measured by your functional, social and emotional benefits compared to the costs.

How can you figure out the right “recipe”?

There are countless ways to get more customer-centric and find the right path to product value.

  • Talk to customers and observe how they behave from the very beginning. Do interviews, field studies, usability tests, A/B tests, etc. As it is commonly summed up in the lean philosophy: “get out of the building”.
  • Launch a minimum viable product or a basic version of your feature and start tracking engagement and usage metrics. Don’t be scared of iterating until you hit the right spot.
  • Measure how the perception of your value changes over the user’s life cycle. You may want to promote certain features or propositions at a later stage.
  • Be humble. Don’t ask for (too much) data, money, information, social shares when it’s too early. Users often need to feel that you gave them enough value before giving back.

[You can read all of Itamar’s tips on how to build value in “Value — The Most Important Thing?”]

After this has been said, how do you know that you are on the right track as a product manager?

Itamar mentioned an interesting rule of thumb: if you are on the starting screen or “quick access” bar of a user’s phone, you can be pretty much sure that you are truly valuable to them.

super-user-favorite-phone-apps

Closing words: why it’s a big deal to see companies like Google believe in this, and why it should matter to You  

I personally think that it is deeply reassuring to get see that product managers working at the world’s biggest, most successful tech companies don’t put their feet up.

Instead, they strive to find out how they can improve their products day by day, applying customer research, UX and A/B tests, design thinking principles and so on.

Why would you lull yourself into thinking that your startup or product division should not do the same?

You should never take it for granted that you have “the next big thing” up your sleeves.

You should not believe that you just happen to be sure of what people want without doing a reality check.

One more thing: don’t think that testing and talking to customers is “expensive” or the “luxury” of the giants. There are several tricks and techniques that you can experiment with on a shoestring.

As someone who has worked with many tech teams, from their birth to more mature stages, I believe that the best product managers, the best business minds, the best design teams all share the belief that they need to better understand their customers and create real value.

Eventually, this is what brings sustainable growth and helps you become users’ faithful companion.

Disclaimer: this blog post is mostly inspired by Itamar Gilad’s recent talk at NUMA Barcelona and his quoted article. However, some of the thoughts are the brainchild of the blog post’s author and don’t necessarily reflect the opinion of neither Itamar Gilad nor his former employer, Google.

Image credits: Aunt Peaches, Fitbit, Google, Laurence Cruz / Unsplash, ThinkGeek, Tinder

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