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Sooner or later, every developer out there gets sick of the long hours, the process, the verification and the deadlines. Even if we've naturally gravitated towards leadership, the clarion call of management is strong- it's perceived as advancement (potentially into a C* role), comes with the benefit of fewer long hours, you have people you can boss around... all in all good things when looked at in the right light. Yet most developers end up in Development Management, which ends up being more about estimates and balancing resources (aka beancounting), rather than Product Management, which continues apace with the thing I love most about being a Developer: Building Stuff.
When my User Groups' book shipment from O'Reilly came in with a complementary copy of Adaptive Path's "Subject to Change" I was intrigued. From the title, the book is about "Creating great products and services for an uncertain world". It claimed to be a book book that seemed to be all about how to create and manage a product in the everchanging world of the internet. Now, it turns out that my initial enthusiasm was a little naive, since the argument presented in the book was substantially different than what I was expecting. In fact, one of its chapters is titled `Stop Designing "Products"`, which made me more than a little concerned.
Yet having said that, and taking into account the often blatant plugs for Adaptive Path, it turns out the book was exactly what I needed, even though it wasn't exactly what I was looking for.
Chapter 1 lays out the foundation of the argument, which is that customers aren't attracted to features, they're attracted to an experience. Note that this does not mean bells and whistles - I can have an experience at a circus, but that's not what I'm looking for in a laptop. Instead, it is critical to look at what your customer is actually trying to accomplish, and to make the experience of accomplishing that task as positive as possible. Layering on feature after feature is good only if the original intended task experience is not compromised, otherwise it simply adds noise to what should be an all-signal experience. In other words, good products are well designed, by which they don't mean pretty, nor that they have an elegant software implementation. Design is instead used in the inclusive sense- all aspects of the product, experience and execution are carefully considered and integrated into one seamless whole.
This foundation is then built on in Chapter 2 by presenting the idea that the aforementioned experience is a strategic decision, and then clearly defining what that does and does not mean. Those of you who are trying to achieve some flavor of competitive advantage (aka differentiation aka edge etc etc) should definitely read this chapter, because it provides a long list of clarifications given the context. Quite frankly, the whole thing reads like a snopes article that slowly dismantles many lessons learned in academic marketing classes. My favorite one is the ideal of Parity - the misconception that a product can be competitive simply by matching features with the competition. See, a feature is simply that: An implemented piece of functionality on a product spec sheet. If accessing and using said feature requires an advanced degree in astrophysics doesn't matter; the mere fact that the feature exists makes the product competitive.
With the supporting framework of their argument is clearly established, and Chapter 3 puts in context of previously established marketing approaches. When your focus is on the experience and the user's motivations, habits such as market segmentation rapidly get turned upside down. You can no longer assume that the consumer is some faceless drone who exists to give you money, but instead have to give that person a face, a background a motivation, and an objective. A segment rapidly evolves into a persona, and eventually loses its distinction altogether- you're no longer sculpting your message for a particular group or persona, but are instead approaching individuals to discover how you can best meet their needs and improve their experience.
Yet none of this can be accomplished without information, which is usually garnered by research (Chapter 4). Interestingly enough, the book does not necessarily go into individual research methods, but focuses more on the importance of qualitative over quantitative research and the need to involve every team member. Research, as is stated, too often happens in a strategy or research group independent of the team that will actually implement their findings, and thus the opportunity for consumer or persona empathy is lost within minutes of the powerpoint presentation. It is only by keeping everyone involved up front (though perhaps not directly contributive) that information gained is relevant, actionable, and provides durable insight.
Chapter 5 then takes us full circle back to the beginning, and really drives the idea that success is not driven by features, capabilities or marketing, but by the experience of the customer. It's not just the experience of completing a specific task that is meant here, but the entire support system ancillary to that task. You might have an iPod, but without an iTunes all you have is a pretty piece of plastic. Find out what the customer wants to accomplish, figure out what it'll take to perform all steps of that, and build a system to do so simply and elegantly.
At this point, the book could have ended and been a pretty effective piece on product design theory based on experience. It has taken us from the initial presentation of the idea all the way through the strategic advantage and full circle back to the beginning. Instead, it continues on and picks apart the actual implementation strategies, beginning with Design in Chapter 6. This is a beast of a chapter and not for the faint of heart, but is nevertheless utterly critical for understanding the depth of the argument. Design is picked apart by discipline, target, competency, strategic importance and implementation, and the chapter itself does a remarkable job breaking down common misconceptions. Design is necessary, strategic, and is presented as a mindset rather than a discipline, one that everyone must implement to properly contribute to the delivery.
Chapter 7 then goes into the nitty gritty of implementation by speaking about agile development methods. This is where the developer in me went squee, because for the first time I saw Agile presented within a strategic context rather than a reactive context. Too often when management hears "Agile Development" the first thing that comes to mind is "Development will be faster", or more responsive, and in many cases this is true. Even so, the book presents it as an integral part of experience based design, and discusses how its rapid iterative nature can be used to convert a design or motion prototype iteratively into a fully functioning application, while allowing user research and experience evaluation (and revision) at every step of the way. If you've ever had to say "That's what's written in the requirements, we can't change it now" this chapter is for you. Lets face it- issues and problems will arise during development no matter what happens, but if you keep everyone on deck (and not siloed into different expertise groups) you'll be able to confront it much faster.
And with that, Chapter 8 closes the book. I'd copy the two pages that compose it here verbatim if I didn't think there'd be conflict of interest issues, but safe it to say that it is the conclusion and summary of the entire book. The only thing certain is change, and here's how you deal with it.
Overall, a very good book, but I do have a few pointed comments. First of all, the cases presented within the book too often follow the pattern of "Here's company X, known as a genius at Y, and here's their process/methodology/etc." The academic in me chokes at statements like that, because they imply causality - that their process is the reason why they are so well known and respected, when in reality it could be something completely different. The book itself warns of making surface level assumptions like that, so I'm fairly irritated that they do so themselves.
The other one is the mixture of authoring tones. At times casual, at times formal, it's clear that more than one person wrote this book. When I'm reading a structured section about research and am suddenly approached in a conversational tone, my brain kicks me out of the narrative (and thus my experience with the book is diminished). Even so, I'd recommend this book to any marketer, strategist, developer... or, well, anyone who plays a role in a product production process. At 165 pages it's a light read, the ideas are straightforward and well explained, and though they aren't often supported as rigorously as I would prefer, the book itself make an excuse for that: If you spend too much time backing up your argument, you lose the time you'd spend on determining where your argument should take you.