Welcome to our Age of Product Excellence series — a deep exploration of the Product Excellence Methodology, the product leaders who practice it, and the excellent products that result. Join us as we shine light on the strategies and thought processes behind an excellent product that customers use and love.

“Hi Linda, we met on UberPool this morning! If you’re open to the idea, I’d love to interview you about your current PM work at Zillow!”

So read my first LinkedIn message to Linda Chen, product manager at Zillow. Prior to my outreach, we had met on a shared ride to work in downtown San Francisco. I had recently started my job here at productboard and was eager to learn about all things product management. This led me to shamelessly seek out Linda online to continue our conversation.

Lucky for me, Linda was open to the idea.

Linda heads product for Zillow Rental Leases, a Zillow product that allows landlords to easily create standardized leases in select metros that include state and municipal legal requirements. Since the product’s official launch in select markets in May, it has been adopted at an exciting rate. “It’s the most rewarding feeling when you ship a product and people begin using it.

I wanted to learn more about Linda’s approach to product strategy, how she manages a complicated product in a highly regulated industry, and the challenges of aligning cross-functional teams behind a common vision. Turns out, there are numerous considerations that go into creating an excellent product that people use and love.

“Think about it as a self-checkout for lease agreements”

Zillow built Zillow Rental Leases to mitigate the inconveniences that landlords and tenants face during the rental process. The product aims to simplify what was (and often still is) a manual and tedious affair — the most complex part being the drafting and signing of lease agreements. Automating the creation of lease agreements is a huge component of Zillow Rental Leases and something that Linda puts a lot of thought into.

“When setting product strategy, I ask myself: What is our product vision and mission? Who are our target users? What real problems do these users face and how can we solve them?”

Traditionally, lease agreements were 30-40 pages long and chock full of legalese. Without a product like Zillow Rental Leases, a landlord may try to create a lease agreement on their own, not knowing if their stipulations are actually legally compliant. When it comes time for lease-signing, landlords and tenants often meet in person and make ad-hoc edits during negotiations. There’s nothing preventing mistakes or oversights of specific sections within the document that put both parties at legal risk.

Using Zillow Rental Leases, landlords create lease agreements by answering a series of simple questions. Linda says to “think about it as a self-checkout for lease agreements”. To provide insight into the process, key industry concepts and legal terminology are defined right within. Once a lease agreement is complete, it can be sent to tenants electronically for review and signing, eliminating the need for in-person meetings and negotiations.

Zillow Rental Leases empowers landlords with the tools and knowledge to better understand their obligations, and both parties can feel more assured that their lease agreements are standardized and understandable.

“We provide standardized, locally researched lease agreements that serve the interests of both landlords and tenants by providing a better understanding of what they’re signing. And we streamline the entire rental process so it is simple and efficient.”

Never stop iterating: Perfecting a highly complicated product

“We know our mission, we understand the problems that landlords and tenants face during the rental process, and we have a high level product vision. But how can we be sure that we’re building the right solution for our users?”

Linda approaches this challenge by doing the following:

Achieve a deep understanding of user problems

Linda works with researchers to map out exactly how landlords and tenants interact with lease agreements. Together, they conduct extensive user research to build personas from the ground up. By reaching this deep understanding of users and the difficulties they face, Linda and her team are able to come up with solutions that provide real value.

Integrate research directly into the shipping process

“Our product is complex, and we aimed to break it into digestible pieces that can be tested incrementally with users. My team and I came up with the initial designs to put in front of users and followed up with additional validation rounds. Gathering these learnings and iterating on our proposed solutions keeps us on the right track and helps us correctly address their pain points. In the end, we broke it down across three milestones to help us validate product/market fit and manage product scope.”

Testing is done via prototypes and other methods, and Linda works with her research and design team to interview users directly.

“Our product is complex, and we aim to break it into digestible pieces that can be tested incrementally with users.”

Carefully monitor success post-launch

After launch, Linda monitors both quantitative performance and qualitative user feedback. Surveys are sent out to measure engagement, retention, activation, customer satisfaction, and other metrics. The ultimate measure of success, however, is the conversion rate. In the case of Zillow Rental Leases, this is a lease agreement that has been created by a landlord, sent out, and signed by a tenant. It demonstrates that both landlords and tenants found a common ground using Zillow Rental Leases.

All of these insights inform new iterations and feature ideas. The ultimate goal is to cater to the needs of landlords and tenants in the best way possible.

Steering cross-functional teams in the same direction

“As product manager, it’s your responsibility to align everyone behind the goals you’re trying to accomplish. Getting to this point requires time, trust, and lots of collaboration. It’s a fun synthesis of differing perspectives, which is sometimes hard but also highly rewarding because it demonstrates the strength of your leadership.”

To steer everyone in the right direction, Linda and her team use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that align to the product vision and mission. OKRs establish clear objectives that will lead to business/product success and defines how that success will be measured. By following this framework, Linda and relevant stakeholders can more easily come to a consensus on what needs to be built next. Even if everybody doesn’t get the exact features that they want, they understand why and how it fits in with the greater mission of the company.

“We look to our OKRs as guiding principles to determine if we are making the right product decisions.”

Inspiring users to take a leap of faith

Being a product manager means that you get to identify real problems that people have and create the solutions to solve them. What you build can make a real impact in people’s lives. This is what drew Linda to product management, and she is already seeing the difference Zillow Rental Leases makes for landlords and tenants.

“When a landlord sends out a lease agreement that they created it is a huge win for us, because it means we have built a product that works for them and their tenants.”

With her clear product vision and strategy, laser-focus on users, and iterative approach to a highly complicated product, we are excited to see what Linda does next.

. . .

Linda currently heads product at Zillow, where she built Zillow Rental Leases. Previously, she launched games at Zynga and led product at various startups. In her spare time, she loves painting, running, and reading-up on behavioral economics. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

We hope you enjoyed this installment of our Age of Product Excellence Series. Hungry for more? Read our kickoff post on the defining characteristics of products considered truly excellent by their users and our interviews with Postmark App, Certify Inc./Chrome River, and You Need a Budget

Dottie Schrock Aug 20, 2019