The Secret of Product Management: Decide What You Care About, Set Goals, Measure, Repeat

I recently tweeted the following advice for Twitter’s leadership and thought it was worth expanding on in a blog post.

Two things that separate successful products from the rest of the pack is the ability of the product team to set the right goals and flexibility in the face of changes in the environment. These changes could include new competitive pressure, changing user expectations or new technology being deployed across the industry such as the shift from desktop computing to smartphones.

A good way for product managers to build this habit is by using objectives and key results within their product team and hopefully broader organization. The practice of being clear about what your goals for the product are and then tying that tangible measurable results that are reviewed every quarter is a powerful combination.

Defining an objective is basically deciding what you care about. This is important because it’s very easy to build products and processes which are ineffective because your goals are not clear which makes positive outcomes are. This creates focus.

Once you have your objectives, you then need to tie these to tangible metrics you can measure. After all if you can’t measure it then you can’t improve on it. I’ve heard people claim that you can’t measure certain objectives which is often just a sign that they haven’t thought about the problem hard enough.

A good set of objectives and key results can be found in this medium article which uses Uber as an example

Objective: Increase Drivers in System

Increase driver base in each region by 20%

Increase driver average session to 26 hours / weekly in all active regions

Objective: Increase Geographic Coverage of Drivers

Increase coverage of SF to 100%

Increase coverage for all active cities to 75%

Decrease pickup time to < 10 mins in any coverage area during peak hours of usage

Objective: Increase Driver Happiness

Define and measure driver happiness score

Increase driver happiness score to 75th percentile

It’s key to note that even something as seemingly intangible as “make drivers happier with our service” can be quantified and measured. You can run surveys, collect some an NSAT score or equivalent then work to improve that score.

The importance of reviewing and modifying your OKRs over time cannot be overstated. A great example of this is Facebook which at one point was primarily a desktop social networking tool with a business model based on revenue for Flash-based games and ads for those games with Zynga (makers of Farmville) generating 12% of their revenue in a single year. However Facebook had an overall objective of connecting everyone on the planet and with the shift the mobile, it eventually became clear the desktop would no longer be the primary computing platform of choice.

At the time Facebook admitted it’s weakness in mobile and admitted as much in SEC filings which was much derided in the tech press in articles like Facebook admits not knowing how mobile works. However Mark Zuckerberg refocused the company’s goals around mobile apps which led to a turnaround within 18 months of the declarations that they were clueless at mobile and also effectively killed Zynga along the way. This excerpt from a 2013 Mashable article captures the spirit of the revamped focus

When Facebook decided to revamp its mobile approach last summer, Zuckerberg refocused the company, giving each team mobile engineers and developers so that updates and new features could be built with the mobile experience in mind. “[Mark] said, ‘You know, we need to think about maybe putting mobile first and being a mobile-first company,’” Facebook Vice President of Business and Marketing Partnerships David Fischer told Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky in February. “We realigned the company around, so everybody was responsible for mobile.”

Facebook has since put hundreds of engineers through week-long iOS and Android classes on campus, Ondrejka said, and updates to the native apps come each month instead of three to four times a year.

Going back to Twitter, one challenge that the company has is that it has tied its narrative to user growth as long as its been public. This has meant the stock price has plunged when monthly active users wasn’t growing as fast as Facebook. This inordinate focus on growing MAUs meant that the company turned a blind eye to any features that would turn reduce user numbers including limiting trolls and bots. Former employees like Leslie Miley have mentioned this such as in this Buzzfeed story Twitter, A Honeypot for Assholes: Inside Twitter’s 10-year failure to Stop Harassment which sates

Sources inside the company in the years after Twitter’s IPO also said that product decisions were often scrapped or never advanced out of initial tests if they were thought to inhibit user growth. “I did see a lot of decisions being made in terms of growth when it came to how to handle abuse, which I get,” former engineering manager Leslie Miley told BuzzFeed News. “But on the other side, if there’s a trash fire burning in your front yard, saying you don’t want to call the fire department because you don’t want to get the house wet is not really a sensical thing.”

Twitter’s contradictory approach to dealing with Infowars where the company claimed the account didn’t violate their policies around abusive behavior only to suspend the account when caught out in that untruth by a CNN reporter is an example of the company having not decided what it wants.

The company can’t both say it cares about healthy conversation and turn a blind eye to a popular account that regularly conducts online & offline harassment because it will impact user engagement & growth without confusing both its users and itself.

A similar situation exists when it comes to verified accounts on Twitter, the company can’t decide if the feature is a way to prove the authenticity of an account (in which case it should be available to all users who want to be verified) or a perk for celebrity users they want to reward (in which case it is super questionable to be verifying white supremacists). This indecision causes confusion and angst for users and the company alike.

If Twitter truly cared about improving the interactions on the service while limiting abuse and harassment on its service, there are many tried and well understood changes they could make to how they run the service. There’s a reason why Jimmy Kimmel has a mean tweets segment but not a mean Facebook posts, mean Instagram pics, mean Pinterest pins or mean Snapchat snaps segment.

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"Everything you touch you change. Everything you change, changes you" - Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower