Problem Space and Solution Space

A valuable reminder was posted by Martin at Mind the Product today about focusing product management attention on the problem space, rather than the solution space:

At a ProductTank last year one question from the audience made me want to jump up on stage and answer it myself – “where’s the innovation and creativity go if product managers are defining all the products?”. Stop, I wanted to shout, you’re doing it wrong….Product managers should not focus on designing solutions – they should focus on defining and prioritising problems.

Product managers generate value for their companies by finding market problems that potential customers will pay to solve, and then leading the process of finding a feasible and compelling solution.  They spend time out in the market talking to clients and prospects to accomplish this.

Product Managers aren’t Designers

This does not mean the product manager designs the solution, in fact, many are not trained to do so.  That distinction is drawn clearly in a post from 2005 by one of my favorite product management writers, Roger Cauvin:

A product manager determines the requirements for a product, but not its design. Thus a product manager specifies what a product should do (functional requirements). She also places constraints on the product’s behavior (nonfunctional requirements), such as how easy to use it should be. But placing constraints on a product’s behavior does not mean specifying the product’s design.

A product manager is uniquely qualified to learn what the market demands and translate this knowledge into product requirements. But only an ergonomist or user interface expert is qualified to design a product that satisfies these requirements.  How many product managers are trained in user interface design?

It is far different to find–and then define–a market problem than it is to figure out the best way to solve it.  Many are guilty of confusing the two.  In truth, the discipline of User Experience should be at least a contributor–if not leading the effort–to the final design.

Product Discovery

Where it concerns product design, I subscribe to the Marty Cagan “Product Discovery” model for designing winning products.  In Marty’s model, the product manager brings an understanding of market problems to the table, and collaborates with the other two key members of the product discovery team–the user experience designer and the lead developer–to discover the right solution.  That solution is discovered by brainstorming, generating a high fidelity prototype, getting real user feedback and then brainstorming again to iterate on the prototype, repeatedly until an optimal solution is “discovered.”

The key point relevant to Martin’s article is that the product manager isn’t designing the solution–the product manager leads a team of three to design the best solution.  Marty explains in an insightful post on designing winning products in a large organization:

The key for every product discovery effort is to identify the three key people – the product manager, the user experience lead, and the product development lead. These are the three minds that must collaborate closely to solve problems in new and useful ways.

I’ve seen teams repeatedly in which user experience and product management collaborate on their own to create a design, and then find out too late that the design either (1) just won’t work, or (2) will be too costly to deliver to market in an acceptable time frame.  The design isn’t the purview of the product manager individually, nor is it that of the lead developer.  Product design is a collaborative effort.

Cagan on the Discovery Team

Here’s Marty discussing, as he calls it, the Product Discovery Team:

Image source: Flickr