Eye-opening insights from 700+ product managers & leaders.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Product Coalition.
How many times in the past week have you scowled at your smartphone for making you wait longer than five seconds to send a Slack message, hail a cab, order a meal delivered to your doorstep, or refresh your Instagram feed?
Sure, your phone is hundreds of times more powerful than a mainframe computer that accepted paper punchcards, exceeded the footprint of your apartment, and cost several million dollars — but you’re running five minutes late to an important meeting and if Google Maps would PLEASE JUST LOAD then maybe you’ll just be cheeky-late — not embarrassing-late or rude-late.
Stepping back, we feel absurd… even a bit bashful.
Who are we to criticize this remarkable technology that gives us superpowers yesterday’s emperors couldn’t have imagined?
Yet there are few qualities more human than rapid adaptation to everything good that befalls us — new possessions, promotions, capabilities, and status. They all feel normal, unexciting, and unfulfilling days or weeks later. It’s the hedonic treadmill that keeps us striving for more. It’s the frustration with the status quo upon which all technological progress is made. And it’s been observed across so many cultures and such broad swaths of time, it’s fair to assume such adaptation is a product of our very evolution.
Here’s Marcel Proust writing one hundred years ago:
“The telephone, a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice cream.”
And this comes from a man who was a telephone power user! As an early subscriber to the théâtrophone, Proust listened to live operas and plays via telephone from his bed in exchange for a subscription fee. If Netflix-by-phone in 1910 felt outdated, surely all us modern product makers are done for. And as the pace of innovation accelerates, technological adaptation will only get more extreme.
What’s a product maker to do?
If it’s only a matter of time before excitement cools over the most earth-shattering innovations, what does that mean for our work on the products of tomorrow?
Product managers, designers, developers… let’s not despair.
“If you give a mouse a cookie, they’re going to ask for some milk.”
I recently cited this line in the middle of our team’s weekly product team call. (I still have a job, and a fraction of the esteem my colleagues once had for me.)
It’s from a children’s book I had in my library in the late 1980s, right between Goodnight Moon and Proust’s In Search for Lost Time. If you just bear with me for a moment, I bet you’ll soon be quoting it to your team too.
Here’s the first half of the book, unabridged:
“If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk.
When you give him the milk, he’s probably going to ask for a straw.
When he’s finished, he’ll asked for a napkin.
Then he’ll want to look in the mirror to make sure he doesn’t have a milk mustache.
When he looks in the mirror, he might notice his hair needs a trim, so he’ll probably ask for a pair of scissors…”
Apart from teaching us that rodents are cute, but despotic, the book speaks to the same cycle of ever-evolving consumer expectations we’ve been discussing.
If you work on a product, chances are you’ve got feature requests… a lot of feature requests. And you’ve got some passionate customers and stakeholders who are very eager to see you follow through on them. It doesn’t matter whether you shipped a remarkable new interface just last month. In fact, that probably made things worse! Users might be happy to see a brand new interface at first, but will also be happy to inform you of all its shortcomings. In effect, you’ve succeeded in unlocking a whole new class of requests — proposed enhancements to your new functionality.
This can be especially problematic when you’re addressing an entirely new user need, or the need of a new user segment. If you’re already spread thin working on other initiatives, or have no immediate plans to further invest in improving your v1 of a major new feature, it won’t be long until you’re swamped with requests and increasingly vocal customers. This is the dark side of the just-get-an-mvp-out-the-door ethos of running lean. It can leave the customers you’ve teased with new features feeling frustrated, and can be disheartening for your team… all for launching something new!
So when tackling a new user need…
It should be now clear that there are steps you can take to avoid opening a pandora’s box of new requests from your users. But what about the inevitable adaptation all users will go through using your product over the long run?
There’s a deeper painful truth we’ve been tiptoeing around here…
No matter how innovative your product’s new features are, someday they’ll inevitably be considered table stakes. Your product and every competing solution will simply be expected to have them.
So what’s the point of all the hard work building something new?
Everyone will need to arrive at their own answer on this one.
The rewards of building an excellent product are far more than the fleeting praise you receive when it’s shipped.
We work on Productboard for the love of the greater mission: to help product managers across the globe make products that matter.
The buzz over individual features may come and go, but that doesn’t detract from their importance in addressing our users’ needs.
We love to delight, but ultimately we draw meaning from our work in knowing that what we ship has a real impact on the work/life of our users.
What’s your product vision? What kind of better future will your product help bring about?
What’s your strategy for getting there? And what objectives are you setting to act as guideposts on the way?
By answering these questions, not just on paper but in the way we channel our teams’ efforts on a daily and weekly basis, product managers can rise above the fray. Our jobs become less about managing feature requests, and the low-level “product janitor” tasks that drive some out of the profession.
When focused on a compelling product vision, we become less reactive and caught up in the day-to-day sentiments of our users. We manage less, lead more, and give ourselves a shot at delivering something truly excellent.
These days, I’m still in love with my new iPhone X. But I know that someday, perhaps even someday soon, its capacity to teleport me across San Francisco in minutes will falter, if only for a moment. And in that moment, no number of camera megapixels will matter, and I will curse… loudly. What is no doubt a glorious innovation will soon just be a cookie that I look straight past while commencing my hunt for milk, a straw, and napkin.
I can’t say for sure whether Steve Jobs has been rolling in his grave over mounting criticism of Apple’s struggles to ship earth-shattering innovations on a consistent 12 month cycle, but I think we can trust that the growing din would have been murmurs compared to the bellowing roar within Jobs — that inner voice that compelled him to make a dent in the universe.
Even if Apple went under tomorrow, you’d have to say he succeeded.