Jarlath O'Carroll – lean product management & technology product innovation
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  • Turbo wireframes for Lean Product Management

    Posted on July 18th, 2009 jarlath 2 comments

    You are working with your team to define how your product will work or looking for mockups from the designers and you need to show them what you are looking for. Until a few years ago there were few choices and a lot of people ended up picking one of their favorite wireframe tools or used more basic tools to design the product. Tools like Visio or perhaps Omnigraffle were preferred for those with a more technical background and tools like Photoshop, Illustrator were favorites of those with a more design aesthetic. Others preferred using PowerPoint or other presentation tools to get their point across.

    However, none of these are especially good at building a prototype that will help explain the product in detail and even help test/sell it with potential clients/customers. Now, with the advent of Lean practices and Agile development being applied to the software world it is the product manager that has to stay on top of what the customer wants and what engineering needs to deliver. This is a difficult task, no doubt but it is one that can be made much more efficient by using some of the latest tools for wireframing and prototyping.

    This discussion is mainly for the product managers out there that are looking for a tool that they can use to quickly demonstrate the existing or new features of their product. Designers might want to use these products too but I’ve found designers much prefer the Adobe suite (or similar) in order to build out a prototype. So for those of you stuck in the middle between Sales, Designers, Engineering and other stakeholders that want to communicate quickly to all parties here are some choices:

    They are listed in order of least complicated to most complicated or less functionality to most functionality. My personal favorite is Axure – a tool that provides me a means of writing a detailed product specification and a fully functional prototyping tool in one. For the purposes of this article I’ve investigated iRise as well – it looks like a great tool but I believe it to be out of reach for most people due to its price.

    Pencil is amazing in what it offers in a Firefox plug-in and I love the interface for Balsamiq, both of which are free or very cheap wire framing tools. So, I’m biased as I see Axure as being the winner by far – yes the $599 price tag is a little steep for some folks and a MAC version is still not available but the pros outweigh the cons IMHO.

    Abstracting this a little, let me explain what this tool and perhaps others that I haven’t seen need to do in order to add real value to a product manager. In no particular order:

    – Produce functional prototypes easily and without additional software
    – Produce specification documents that if followed should define how that product/feature or service is to be delivered (a requirement in some organizations)
    – Enable Customer Development professionals (product managers or sales perhaps) to have hands-on conversations with clients/customers without engineering involvement (probably the biggest win of all)
    – Allow rapid testing with end users of A/B scenarios without engineering involvement
    – Provide the means whereby learnings can be documented, reviewed and approved quickly
    – Facilitate engaged conversation on a feature/set of features or roadmap within your teams

    It may seem from the list above that I’m trying to avoid the use of engineering resources. That is not the case, but engineering resources (like everything else) should be used efficiently. So, I just want to make sure that when you employ engineering resources you have learned as much as possible before you need a full working version to learn more. Building something that isn’t what the customer wants is one of the biggest wastes in software projects and one that in lots of cases can be avoided.

    So, find a tool that you are comfortable with that helps you solve these problems and your life will be so much better ;-)

  • Adopting Lean Startup practices – 4 principles

    Posted on July 9th, 2009 jarlath 3 comments

    I’ve been an avid reader of Eric Ries’s and Steve Blank’s book/blogs for quite some time now. Their approaches for startup development are closely aligned and IMHO offer entrepreneurs great tips and tools to make their startup a resounding success. BTW, I was also privileged to attend Eric’s Lean Startup workshop recently and so I’m a very keen supporter of the changes he and others are looking to bring to the industry.

    I have during this period (18 months) tried to adopt these approaches within the companies I’ve been advising to varying degrees of success. I’ve particularly tried to focus my efforts on how a product manager or the product management function within an organization can use some of these lessons to adapt their internal development and external sales processes. Within a small startup this is relatively easy once you have the buy-in of the main stakeholders which will probably be the founders. But, within a startup where you don’t necessarily have the support of the founding team or within a larger organization this change may be more difficult.

    However, despite these challenges, I think it’s a worthwhile avenue to pursue. Let’s face it – we all want to be involved in a successful organization and perhaps be the next facebook or twitter. So if your initiative can help your company be more successful then you have the obligation to try. Either way you’ll learn a lot along the way.

    To help you along here are the 4 basic principles that I’ve learned/relied on in pursuing my Lean goals:

    1. Be patient: it may take time but if you take a slowly but surely approach the powers that be will see the light
    2. Engagement is key: don’t ram it down peoples throats, prove the case for small changes first by showing within your own remit how it works
    3. Keep it simple: a lot of the changes that are recommended in these approaches are not that different from what you do today but have a different feel so start by making some small adjustments to your current processes
    4. Product Management Hub: holds the company together and it’s where the crucial decisions about product, pricing, etc. are made – you can potentially have a lot of impact within your organization (albeit gradual)

    Like some of you perhaps, when I had read Steve’s book and listened to some of what he and Eric had to say I tried to rush in head first to adopt everything asap. Needless to day this did not work. So, after some months of frustration, one of my previous companies needed to take a different approach. That’s when things began to gel a little bit better – my conversations started to become more like the Problem and Solution Teams that the Lean Startup methodology promotes. (More about this in later posts.) Therefore, I’d caution you to look for that opportunity in your companies and use the “hub” like status of product management to become the instigator of change.

    You don’t have to call it what it is for it to be what it is – does that make sense? Perhaps not – for example, if you want to convene a Solution team meeting to discuss what you have found out from the Problem team, don’t call it such if those monikers are not understood or accepted. Call your standard product meeting with the Design/Engineering/QA/Product group (the Solution team) but use it to highlight the issues that Sales/Biz Dev/Marketing/Product (the Problem team) have raised.

    Remember – don’t give up on trying to convince the founding team of the benefits on these methods! But in the meantime you can still make some progress yourself and demonstrate some of the benefits.

  • Web2.0 in review …

    Posted on April 9th, 2009 jarlath 1 comment

    Some of you I’m sure went to the Web2.0 conference last week. As usual it was hosted in the Moscone center downtown San Francisco and as usual it was a very well run, organized event (except for some problems with the wireless but isn’t that always the way – hopefully someone will actually solve the problem with spikes in wireless traffic at these types of events). Anyways back to the topic at hand – Web2.0, was it a success?

    Well for me it was – your mileage may vary. However, it was very obvious that things have changed and certainly there was much less buzz at this year’s event than the last few years. I have heard some people say that we’ve have moved on from Web2.0 so perhaps the conference needs to be re-named? It seemed like there were far less crowds than in previous years – perhaps a sign of the times. It also seemed like there were far fewer companies in the Expo hall demoing there latest Web2.0 wares – far different than the TechCrunch conference only 6 months earlier.

    But like I said I enjoyed the conference, not only for the overview of what is going on in the market but also the networking that I did there and the learning that I came away with. I met some great people and had some fun – isn’t that the point! There were a few topics of particular interest to me this year and they were: building vibrant lasting online communities; how to run a lean startup, and startonomics or a metrics driven way to build and monitor your startup product. I am relatively new to the latter two but they seem like they are gaining momentum as ways to efficiently build your startup and they work nicely with the Customer Development Methodology as defined by Steve Blank in his book: Four Steps to the Epiphany. Here is my summary and a link to the slides for each:

    – Tara Hunt and her Making Whuffie presentation was an extremely well presented, well positioned hour on how to build your business by building social capital
    – Eric Ries and his presentation on Lean Startups was very popular and very enlightening on how to build the systems and philosophy in the development side on your startup to constantly iterate and measure product features or enhancements.
    – Dave McClure, Dan Olsen & Ted Rheingold talk about being a Web2.0 Jedi how to build your startup efficiently by concentrating on a limited number of metrics that help you understand your business and where it’s going.

    The learning that I have so far picked up from these presentations and others can be encapsulated into 3 words:

    1. Authentic
    – Be real in your conversations, no spin – your users will respect you for it
    2. Iterate
    – Quickly, efficiently turn around changes based on input you get from users and usage
    3. Reciprocity
    – In a positive way, what goes around comes around – help enough people out, it will come back to you

    Based on my experience at the conference – love to hear your thoughts!