And the podcast for / by product people is on a roll, with episode four of Product to Product‘s second season!
Listen to the episode below:
As we continue to explore the human side of product this season, we have not one, but two awesome product people on this episode sharing their real-world stories of navigating the human-related aspects of the product space. This episodes features two members of Intercom‘s product team: Director of Product Management, Brian Donohue, and Senior Product Manager, Michelle Fitzpatrick.
Having both joined Intercom back when it was ~30 employees, Brian and Michelle both have plenty of experience making tough, yet successful, product decisions for their users. However, they know that sometimes the data says one thing, while your gut says something else.
So our CEO Latif Nanji interviews the two product veterans about what to do in these ambiguous situations. Can you trust your gut that much to make the right decision for your user? Brian and Michelle explain how a PM can “build their own gut“—or what they refer to as product conviction—so that they can make confident gut-based decisions in unclear scenarios.
The episode can be listened to above, and we’ve also included a transcript below. You can subscribe to Product to Product on iTunes (here) and Google Play (here), or get the latest episodes delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.
Latif: Michelle and Brian, thank you for coming on the podcast.
Michelle: Thank you for having us.
Brian: Yeah, great to be here.
Latif: Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and what you do at Intercom?
Michelle: I’ll go first. I’m Michelle Fitzpatrick. I’m a product manager here at Intercom. I joined around the same time as Brian, just a little over four years ago. And over my time, I’ve worked across a bunch of different product teams at Intercom. I started on a more back-end team, working on our API and integrations with different products and services that our customers use alongside Intercom. And then over the years I started working more on the inbox part of Intercom, which is the place where teams see and reply to conversations with our customers. So I worked on that for a couple years, alongside with our mobile apps. And right now I’m working on building out the features that we need for sales teams using Intercom to talk to leads, and to convert them on their website.
Brian: And I’m Brian, so Michelle and I probably started two weeks or a month apart, four years ago. So in Intercom terms, we’re old-timers. I’ve worked, actually mostly across the messenger, and then more recently across multiple teams. But the messenger always seems to be where I go back to.
Latif: Yeah, we’re big users of Intercom over at Roadmunk, so very familiar with those product lines. Today’s conversation is around product conviction. So I wanted to start with you Brian. If you could talk a little bit about what you mean by product conviction?
Brian: Yeah, I think this is a theme that Michelle and I had been chatting about on and off over the last couple months. When there’s ambiguity is when you most need product conviction. Product conviction is the courage to fight for something when things are harder to justify; having that belief to actually see it through. Sometimes it’s really easy to have product conviction. There’s a clear problem. It’s your top customer request. It’s very straightforward what this thing is. And product conviction comes quite easily, the whole team gets it. Where it gets interesting, is when ambiguity creeps in.
And then you can say, “Geez, there are 15 different things we could do here.” They all seem valuable. How do they choose? Or when you go into spaces that are a little more speculative. This feels like an opportunity. This feels like something that could be really impactful. But there’s lots of ambiguity there. And I think that’s where it gets more interesting and harder. You have to say, “How do you get that product conviction to drive through that ambiguity?”
Michelle: Yeah, there’s actually a few different levels that you can have your product conviction at. One is a very high level of, “Where are we taking this product in the next year, two years, five years.” You need to have this conviction that you’re bringing the product in a direction that you think is valuable, and it’s the right direction to go on. But then that goes all the way down into, as you’re planning out your roadmap, your next set of things that you’re going to tackle. And then all the way down into individual decisions that you have to make day-to-day when you have to make trade-offs, and to have the confidence and conviction in knowing that we should do X and Y.
Latif: Definitely agree with that. It sounds like you guys have a lot of conviction, based on how long you guys have been at Intercom. Did you guys start with that kind of conviction, and how did it evolve throughout your experiences and roles as a product manager at Intercom?
Brian: It’s very definitely no. I did not start with that conviction. It would be really worrisome if someone came into a job and had a really strong conviction. Because you’d say, “What the fuck? How do you have this strong of an opinion yet?” Because it’s so hard to get a framework and get a sense. I think you can have speculative conviction on things, and you can have opinions that you can casually throw around. But conviction is where you actually think this thing is right, not just like, “Hey, now here’s my quick reaction to it.”
I think one concept that Michelle and I talk about a lot is building your gut. And that’s why you can’t start a new job, start with a new product, and immediately come in with conviction, because you’ve got to build your gut. You’ve got to build this product sense. And eventually it turns into intuition. But it’s really based on a whole bunch of experience there.
Michelle: Totally. And I think that’s where Intercom came from. So the idea for having this messenger in the product, it wasn’t just a spark of an idea that came to the founders of Intercom. It came from a real need that they had. They had another product they were using, and they just kept running into this problem over and over. They couldn’t see or talk to the people using the product. And this idea for building this whole company, this product, this whole product category, that came from a real problem that they had. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It came from a real need that built up over time, and they had this gut feeling that, “Now this is what we need to do.” They closed up their other company, and then they focused on building Intercom. And they have the conviction.
Brian: And I think what’s interesting there, is the easiest conviction is when it’s your problem. Because then you know it, and then of course you’ve got conviction. “I’m feeling the pain of this. I’m feeling the absence of this.” And often that’s where most new ideas come from, is when someone feels that pain firsthand. Like Basecamp, back when they were 37signals, they talk about continuing to want to be building based on what they knew, so they could rely on that. Most reliable product conviction is when you’re solving your own problem. And then it gets continually harder the further out you go from where, is this actually your problem or how removed you are from that actual problem.
Latif: I have to agree as a founder myself, our problem of roadmapping was borne out of me trying to do it for two years in Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint. One thing I wanted to touch on is how do you get your product management teams or new PMs that may not be fully exposed to this problem, to start building their gut? Are there exercises you put them through to help accelerate their ability to build their gut?
Michelle: So we have a lot of internal processes and ways of working that. We have a whole doc for how we build and set roadmaps. And a lot of things in that talks about all the different sources for defining your roadmap, such as the most common request that your customers in your product area have. Looking at the data and usage of the features of the product area that you own. Talking to the sales team about what’s blocking customers from using that part of the product, looking at competitors, and looking at industry trends. And because they’re all the sources of our roadmap that we all look to to influence and decide what we should build, new folks who join the team start looking to all these sources as well.
So they’ll look at, what we call our customer voice report, and this is the most common things that our customers are asking us for in a product area. So we’ll get them to look at that. We’ll get them to talk with our sales team. We get people to do a customer day. So they join our customer support team for a day and they understand what our customers are asking for. And all of those things are just really important to help them build an insight into the different lenses that you need to look at our product through.
Brian: Michelle, you recently switched from one product area to a new part, serving a new use case. And the first thing you did, because you didn’t know that use case, was, you just sat in on customer interviews. It builds up the logic and the rationale. But conviction rarely comes from those, unless there’s a narrative that’s very clear. And you can look at this analysis, and it’s very clear and everyone gets onboard. But so much of this I think needs that very human interaction of talking to people, of seeing them demonstrate this thing here.
Which basically comes down to empathy I think. You can’t fake product conviction for something. You need to connect the dot to some specific anecdote. And even though in some ways that is terrible, because then it’s like, “It’s just an anecdote, how do we know it’s real?” But you have other ways to validate it. But that anecdote gives that taste in your mouth of this thing matters.
Michelle: Yeah, sometimes a customer will describe a problem in a certain way that you’re like, “Got it.” Now I really get it in the way that will just carry you through. And then you’ll hear other customers talk about the same sort of problem in different ways. And you’re like, “No, no, no, I know what you mean. Don’t worry, because I talked to this customer who explained it to me very clearly, and it clicked with me.” And then you’ll use other sources to make sure to ask, “Is this representative? Do other customers feel this, and is this something worth solving?” But a lot of times you’ll get those little spark moments when you talk with customers, and things will just click. And you’re like, “Okay, I really understand this now.”
Brian: It’s the same from a researcher’s perspective of sharing a user test report with people, and even sharing video clips, is nothing like being closer to human interaction, and experiencing it. If you watch a couple of user tests, you walk out saying, “Oh shit, we got to fix this thing,” right? Whereas if you read about it you say, “Yeah. but there are these other things.” But if you felt it, if you experienced it, that’s what gives you the drive.
Sometimes you don’t need it, because things are more straightforward. But there are certain times when there’s ambiguity and it’s harder than you expected to build this thing. Then it’s so critical to have that conviction to motivate the team, and actually motivate yourself. We need to fight for this; this thing matters.
Latif: Has there been an example where your gut has been really successful? And possibly one where it has not been successful and you’ve had to readjust it and perhaps use data to get back on track?
Brian: Let’s start with the more successful one which was emoji. And this will give a sense of how quickly things move on. So emojis were a thing three years ago and started to get pretty widespread in consumer messaging apps, but in the business world were still a new thing (maybe Slack had just started with them). It was right at that transition where it still was broadly, “Oh no, businesses don’t talk to customers with emoji.” Our VP of product, Paul Adams came and said, “Hey, we’ve got to bring emojis in. We’ve got to do this.”
I distinctly remember at the time, as a PM thinking, “Well I’ve got all these important problems we’re trying to work through and you want me to frickin’ bring in emojis here?” Because it felt like, it wasn’t solving any problems. No, there’s no customer who wrote in and said, “Guys, you know if you did emojis, I’d pay you loads more money. You know that’s what’s stopping me from giving you more money.” No one said this. And Paul, he actually had a really good articulation for it. He talked about, this is actually making making internet business personal.
So much of communication is non-verbal, and emoji actually enables some of this non-verbal communication, and they’re what actually enables better communication. He actually had a quite a strong rationale for it, which I think is important. But most importantly he had the product conviction that this matters. This thing matters in what we’re trying to do. And so he basically stopped a lot of work that was going on because it wasn’t on there.
And he also had conviction that the timing was now. We needed to do it now to get ahead of the curve here, rather than behind it. So that was like one that stood out, that in retrospect is like, that’s in all our marketing material everywhere.
Michelle: That’s one that even still afterwards is so hard to measure the success of. You could go measure, and we have, how many times people use an emoji, and what are the most common emojis that people use. But it’s not about counting the usage of this. Using those emojis transforms the way people are communicating.
We sense that in gifts in Intercom. So businesses and customers can send gifts to each other. And you look through, and you read some conversations, and they start with a very simple, “I have a question,” or, “I have problem.” And then as you read through, by the end the customer and the support rep are sending each other back and forth, emojis and gifts, and they’re having this great relationship.
By the end of it, the customer is left feeling with a really great feeling at the end that this person understands them, they helped them solve the problem. And that’s a really hard thing to measure. You can’t quantify that better feeling that you can have with that intangible improved communication.
Brian: Small start ups, they’d be thinking the same way we would. They’re like, “Oh yeah this is great, we’ll use these right away.” But for a lot of companies this is like, “Whoa, whoa, this isn’t part of how we’re talking to our customers. This is not how we do it.” And so it needs conviction in light of that resistance of saying, “This isn’t solving an immediate problem you’re telling us to have, but we think this is actually a better product that you’ll actually evolve to start using.” The hardest and riskiest product conviction is in the face of resistance.
Let’s see, so what’s a negative one? Something that we’ve come close a couple times and never gotten fully over is video messaging. And this is in a similar vein of something that we believe will happen. We believe in the power of this. It’s not no one is asking for it. But it’s still speculative.
I think this is one where, there’s lots of internal belief in this. We’ve had projects there, but we’ve lacked strong enough conviction given the effort to really push this through over the line, and be willing to fight a long road for adoption there. So I think that’s one where we haven’t quite had enough conviction to really prioritize that among the other things.
Michelle: Yeah, we’ve had a couple false starts on this. I think we’ve tried it twice fully; put effort into it. And both times we learned a ton doing it, about what video is good for, and what it’s not. I think we know where we want to go with video at some point, but this is one that the effort to do it, I don’t think we have enough conviction that now is the right time on this one for us.
Brian: We’ll change our minds next week.
Michelle: We will get there! But yeah, video is along the lines of emoji and gifts. Like we know it’s another format that people can communicate in, and that’s our wheelhouse. That’s what we think about and work on all the time. And we know it’s definitely going to happen much more in business communication. We’re looking at ways to incorporate it in setting up video calls, and we have a new meeting scheduler. But having video through the messenger in Intercom, it’s something that we want to do and will do at some point.
Brian: But if you think of it, no one’s had strong enough conviction to really fight for it. Because it’s needed it. Because there are so many reasons not to do it, and it’s hard to do. In the face of lots of resistance, do you have conviction to push something through.
Michelle: Yeah, and we’ve tried this before. I think one of the tough things is for video, the bar is so high. People expect a perfect seamless video call. Like Google Hangouts can barely do it. Even Skype, if there’s a blip, people get really frustrated. You can’t sort of do it,—like an 80/20 rule in video. You need to really put the engineering horse fire behind it to make sure that this actually works. And that’s something we haven’t been able to push through yet.
Latif: One of the things that product conviction led product organization sometimes have trouble with, is a lot of people in the rest of the organization don’t necessarily have all of that information locked up in their gut. So how have you guys found a way to communicate this organizationally, so that people understand a bit better how you are making decisions and prioritizing what’s important to be built in the product?
Brian: When you’re smaller you can get away with less rationale and more quick chats that actually convince people of it. As you get bigger, it’s more of a burden to bring other people around the company onboard. So as you get bigger, product conviction is not enough. You have to have a rationale for it. And you have to be able to back it up. Usually, like Michelle was talking about this earlier, your product conviction should come from somewhere. Frequently you actually forget where it came from, you can’t remember the signals, and you have to go back and retrace your steps, to almost recreate that narrative again.
But I do think, you need product conviction alongside the rationale. But sometimes you can also just have a superficial rationale that sounds good, but you don’t really believe in it. And that can easily happen. I think you really need both.
Michelle: Yeah, and I think there are two levels. Around the company it’s become more important to be more structured and a little more formalized in how we’re communicating these things. Especially as we work across multiple offices. But then also with your team that are building things. So with the engineers and designers that you work with each day, lots of times they won’t be in all the conversations or the interviews that I might be sitting in on. And it’s my job to make sure that I convey enough information to them so that they also have some product conviction in what they’re building.
Because both the designers and engineers on the team, they’ll be making a lot of decisions, they’ll be inputting into things, they’ll be making trade-offs themselves without me making a decision for them. And giving them this kind of broader information around the problem, just informs them enough. It equips them to make the decisions themselves in really smart ways.
Brian: As a PM you need to get enough product conviction so you can make sure the rest of the team shares it as well. There’s nothing worse that a team not believing in what they’re building and the importance of what they’re building.
Michelle: Totally, yeah.
Latif: Do you sometimes think that may lead to group think around new product managers joining the team? How have you combated that, if that’s an issue at all?
Michelle: I was thinking much more around the engineers and designers on the team. We don’t go into a group think or necessarily make decisions by consensus, but we do all discuss a lot of the decisions amongst the team. Like at Intercom, we have quite strong team units that are responsible for certain areas of the product. And it’s that team’s job to identify and solve a problem.
The PM is one part of that, but so is the designer, and so are the engineers. Everybody has a role to play in that. Sometimes it’s the PM’s job to try and paint the picture of what we need to do and why, and why this is valuable. But then it’s also on everybody else to also contribute to that, to challenge that, to input their ideas. And then we figure out how we’re going to solve this problem and ship it to our customers.
Brian: Yeah, it’s also recognizing there are certain times for debate, and then certain times for that disagree and commit. If leadership is fully behind something, there’s a good track record here. Once there’s conviction, that gets shared downwards. Like if Des and Paul had all hands, saying here’s the rationale, here’s the context, here’s the why.
So I think so much of this is at all levels of the company, you’ve got to share that context, and you’ve got to share that narrative. No one in the company gets away with, “Oh now, I’m confident this is right.” At no level in the company does that work. So I think at all levels you need that narrative, and it’s so critical to have that narrative to bring everyone in. So they’re like, “Oh yes, now I’m excited by this too.”
Michelle: Yeah, and to not be questioning what they’re working on is valuable. You need to make sure that everybody on your team knows what they’re working on matters, and why it matters. And some things are up for a debate, and some things everyone can have input on. But what you’re doing and why—that problem that you’re solving—everybody needs to be onboard that that’s a valuable thing worth solving. And that’s on the PM to convey that to the team.
Latif: I noticed you mentioned a couple of times the concept of disagree and commit. Can you just talk a little bit about how you guys have introduced that? I think that’s a popular saying from Jeff Bezos if I’m not mistaken.
Brian: I don’t know where it originated from; I think it’s a pretty widely accepted concept at this point. I mean we literally bring it up sometimes in meetings. So if there’s a contentious debate, and there are heated feelings about it, you need to have the space to air those thoughts, to contribute to the debate. And then you need to have a clear and hopefully quick point, where that debate concludes. And this is where there’s clarity of who owns this decision, and that person says, “Okay, we’ve heard the points here, this is what we’re going to do. I know this is a hard decision. I need everyone to get behind me on here.” And we’ll literally say, “We need everyone to disagree and commit.”
It’s not that often that it happens, because usually there are not many that are contentious. So how we’ve done it, is sometimes we’ve been very explicit about this is the thing we’re asking people to do. And I think other times it can be implicit.
Michelle: I think it’s also to be explicit when a decision is made and communicating that, “The decision’s made, let’s move on,” and not just leave it ambiguous. Because then it just comes up again later. So I think it’s also about, when you do make this decision that’s hard, just be really clear about it. Unless we get new information or some big reason to go back and reconsider it, we need to move on, because there’s something else to do.
Brian: Yeah, the power of decisiveness. Having conviction in it’s more important to make a decision and get everyone moving forward, than it is to make the absolute right decision. There’s nothing worse than being in that paralysis of going in circles, of not feeling like you’re making progress. The most important thing is making progress. You hope you’re oriented in the right direction, so you don’t have to re-steer too broadly. But that’s way more important than making the absolute right decision.
People feel that sense of momentum that comes from constant fast decisions,; that’s one of the magic things on a team. When the team feels like, “Oh yeah, each day, each week, we’re making progress towards this thing. We’re making hard decisions.” Then it’s way easier for people to get behind things so they see the power of just fast decisions.
Michelle: And the worst is when those decisions aren’t happening, and you find yourself like two and three weeks later having the same conversation again. The same debate, arguing all the same sides and nobody is just deciding and moving on. You’re just circling. And that just feels frustrating and draining.
Brian: It zaps all the energy and momentum out, yeah.
Latif: Absolutely. It reminds me of this expression I heard once, seven out of ten is better than five out of five. Trying to perfect every detail over this long period of time versus just moving forward in progress, and showing that people are learning, has such a great impact on everyone’s minds and motivation. So I can totally echo that sentiment.
Michelle: Yeah, one other point that we were talking about the other day, it was about the difference in decisions you have to make sometimes, and recognizing them. Some decisions are cheap, and some decisions are expensive. Some you can just make later on, we can change this, we can iterate on it. This isn’t like an everlasting change in our system that’s going to be really hard to back out of. And to recognize those quick decisions; just make a call and move on.
And then recognizing that there are other ones that are more fundamental. This may impact our system in large ways. This may result in a huge amount of engineering effort, let’s make sure we select the details on this. And recognizing the difference of which are worth having a lot of people contribute to, and really thinking about and weighing which ones you just need to make a call and move on. Because sometimes it can be easy to start debating very small decisions in big ways, and that’s a big time sink.
Brian: As a PM, remove the burden of being right, and just feel the burden of being better. Our goal here is just being better than where we were; making this product better, not right. Because once you feel that burden of being right, you’re screwed basically.
Latif: For people that may be in organizations that are very fundamentally data-driven and have some conviction, or trying to build up their conviction, what is some advice that you would share that would help foster more product conviction?
Brian: I just talked to someone last week. She was saying her company only—a new start up of two years—just let the product team start talking to customers.
Michelle: Really? What?
Brian: I know. And you just forget how companies come from very different places. So I think, for companies coming from this very data-centric world, some of this is really hard to change. It’s almost like researchers needing to bring the color of customers. You need to bring customers more to the forefront, however that’s happening. Through having people sit down in interviews. That’s why I think with the researcher’s tool kit of getting people closer to customers and getting that empathy away from numbers. You can hear people talk and you can just see that customers are a mile away from where they’re thinking.
Maybe there’s not a right or wrong, but from our perspective that’s unforgivable. The most unforgivable sin of a PM is to be far from your customer. So I think that’s the first thing, is figuring out how to inject the human customer into that conversation.
Michelle: I think the companies that are very data-driven, they’re just using data as the rationale for decisions. I think then it’s on the PM to start bringing in other rationale. Maybe it’s gradually. People just want to understand why a decision is being made, and data is their go-to source for making a decision and for believing that it’s right, and then being able to measure very concretely afterwards. So I think it’s on PMs to bring in more sources. Yes you might have some data, but maybe we can color this with what customers are saying, or what competitors are doing, or something that you’re seeing in the industry. And then broadening out, you’re making your business case, or making your internal case for why you should do something.
Data is one part of it, but you can add a lot more color. And then people will start to see that. Product conviction is not like a light bulb going off that is totally independent from the data. You can add to the data with other sources.
Brian: But you know, if the emphasis is exclusively on data, data becomes a proxy for conviction, or actually replaces it. It’s like, “We have no product conviction, we just follow where the data tells us,” under the belief that somehow data is agnostic to a huge amount of subjectivity itself.
Michelle: Totally. A lot of data is backwardsb looking as well. You’re only looking at past indicators of what people have done and where the gaps are. And a lot of product decisions are about identifying opportunities, making a bet, taking a leap of faith that if we do this, we’ll see something happen. And you can’t always see that by looking backwards into the data.
Latif: Sometimes product strategies do include a little more data-driven focus, sometimes they’re more qualitative. How have you guys looked at product strategy in the context of having an organization that does seem to have a lot more product conviction?
Michelle: I think one thing that’s definitely changed a lot to influence our strategy is getting more input from our sales team, which we didn’t have before. A lot of times we were turning to our current customers and talking to them about the problems that they were having with the product. So our sales team, bringing them in a lot more into the discussion is starting to shape some of the future problems that we can solve. So current customers are paying for our product and they want more from it. But finding out the needs of prospective customers that can’t even buy your product because you’re missing something so big, that’s been a really, really enlightening thing.
Lots of the time, there’s overlap between what your current customers are asking for and what these prospective customers need. But that’s one that we started leaning into a lot more. Our sales team that’s talking to these people, that are understanding their unique business problems that we’re not meeting, and sharing that insight with us to start shaping some of the things that we should be looking at, that we’re currently not.
Brian: We want our product strategy to be stable, but we also want it to be willing to adapt quickly. We’ve only actually written a product strategy across products. I think that only started the end of last year. So we’re only just getting to the point of articulating a strategy across all of our products. It’s taken us a while to get to that level of formality, and we have adjusted a lot. But I think in writing it down, of course you could just say no. Like this is a cliché of course, right? PMs have to say no.
I think we all forget that amazing Apple video from like four years ago, where they said no to a million things. That still is worth playing again—that was genius. And we felt the power at a strategic level of saying no to certain things. Our product is broad, there are so many opportunities for it. It’s hard not to get excited about those. And we’ve done that, and prematurely pseudo-invested in something.
Here’s an anecdote. We actually renamed a team I was on three years ago to a new area that we wanted to push for, and then we eventually like three months later had to say, “We haven’t don’t any work in that at all. We’re still doing this other thing. Our team name is wrong, we need to change it.” That was an earlier version of us not being able to say no to things, and being too ambitious in what we were doing.
Michelle: I think another thing we’ve started doing is having broader themes of work across multiple teams. I think in the past, each team used to own a piece of the product and set their own roadmap, and they were totally independent from what the other teams were doing, and no teams were really working together. Over the last year we set broader programs of work or themes of work. And having that influence, the work of multiple teams, and by doing that we start building this great momentum that multiple teams are all working and pointing in the same direction.
So our customers start really feeling this momentum. They start seeing things coming at them in different directions, and it’s from multiple teams working on stuff to solve the same problem. And that’s what we’re doing again this year. We have some broader themes that we’re trying to get a number of different teams to point towards and work on.
Brian: The challenge of when your R&D teams scale, it’s actually hard to get basically R&D working on the things that’s most important to the company. Because fundamentally teams will be more locally optimizing things. So that’s a surprisingly hard org challenge.
Latif: Awesome guys, this has been an incredible conversation. Where can our audience find you online?
Michelle: You can message us on the Intercom messenger. Just ask for Brian and Michelle.
Latif: Do you guys have Twitter handle you want to share?
Michelle: I think mine is @shelliefitz.
Brian: Yeah, mine’s @brian_donohue.
Latif: Michelle and Brian, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Michelle: Thanks for having us!
Brian: Yeah, thanks. It’s been a pleasure!