Growing your product sense as a non-product manager: Part 1

How to grow your product sense? A good product has its own mission.

Working in the marketing department of a tech company, I’m surrounded by designers, developers and product managers. So I hear words like ‘release’, ‘iteration’, ‘QA’, or ‘API’ on an hourly basis. Occasionally I join product related discussion with my coworkers, so gradually I have built some product sense. Starting to call ‘Website’, ‘Mini-Program’ and ‘App’ digital products is only the first step.

In the recent WeChat Open Class of 2019, Allen Zhang, the founder of WeChat revealed a lot about his experience while building and developing WeChat. His remark, ‘A good product has its own mission (一个好的产品是有自己的使命的)’ has inspired me to share a few things I learned.

Due to the length of Allen’s talk, I will break the content into 2 posts. This one dives into a few ideas on product building that can be applied to most products out there.

Listen to your users, one by one?

Your first reaction to that question is yes, right? Why shouldn’t you listen to your users? They are the engine for you to build a better product. Advice, reviews and comments from users are valuable, but only to a certain degree.

Let’s think about this way. If your product has 10 users, their opinions are valuable as they are the only ones using it - they alone can give you direction on what your product should do. However, if your product has 10 million users, you’ll have millions of opinions to take into account. That’s the case for WeChat, and that’s transferrable for other products as well.

Going over that amount of comments is not really realistic, nor practical. Not only due to the scarcity of time, but also because you simply should not do it. Here’s why:

  • Your users don’t understand the mission of your product, but you do
  • Your product has it’s own development cycle and set priorities along with those
  • Users lack long-term view. You need to think ahead, not just for the next release; iterations are important, but your product should do more than adapting the status quo, i.e not just adding a feature because everyone else does it

User-oriented or traffic-oriented?

Traffic is king, and often times it is critical to a product’s success. However, traffic should not be the center of your attention, all the time. Product managers are under pressure to get more users and hit KPI targets, and focusing on this may distract them from more important things.

For instance, here in China, it’s common for an app to display a full screen ad on entry, with these forced 3-5 seconds of wait-time so common that most users see it as an inevitable ritual when using an app. Yet WeChat does not follow this practice, even though doing so would make them a fortune based on its user base.

This is a user-oriented approach. It‘s not rocket science to figure out why WeChat would take this angle. Fundamentally speaking, we all know that displaying full screen ads is not a good user experience. Demonstrating the saying that ‘common sense is not common’, as a product person means that we have to go the extra mile on a lot of things, which includes not taking common sense for granted.

Test your product in the market in a natural way

This may not work for most product owners or business owners out there, but it provides a different perspective that may challenge your own assumptions: reviewing your product performance by users’ reaction immediately after launch. Start by asking the questions: are they using it? Are they telling their friends about it? Reading your user’s reactions to your product is an efficient way to understand how your product can provide value to them.

WeChat had very few users in the first 6 months after its launch. As a new product in the market, it’s not easy for users to accept it in such a short time period. Allen’s team insisted on following a simple principle: if there is not a natural growth curve, they would not promote it. They wanted the original feedback a market has for WeChat.

That means they were willing to take the risk. The risk that the product might fail, the market would not accept it. It sounds counterintuitive, because we all want our product to succeed and no one sets out to fail. Building a product is like launching a startup, it’s promising but a lot of them don’t work out.

In the second part of this series, I’ll write about WeChat’s product line and the ecosystem they create together. Stay tuned.

Posted on March 05, 2019 in Strategy

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