I’m building the High Line, not the Golden Gate Bridge

Product managers build the High Line

This is a bit of a cliché, but last time I was in San Francisco, I realized something important about my work as a product manager.

I’m not building the Golden Gate Bridge.

Not to knock the Golden Gate. It’s very efficient for getting from A to B. And it’s pretty. Google “Golden Gate,” and you’ll find thousands of landscape shots. Blue skies, rolling hills, miles of orange steel.

golden gate bridge

Seeing the Golden Gate up close, I was reminded of how software used to be. It got you from A to B—and didn’t do much else. It was big. It was “impressive.” It imposed itself on the landscape of your day. What you saw was what you got.

Software used to be strictly business. But with the intertwining of B2B and B2C, the same user who needs a SaaS tool to manage complex business tasks probably Ubers home to watch Netflix. And she’s comparing her SaaS tools to Uber and Netflix. (At least, that’s what I do…)

Software is now one element in an ecosystem. It’s not the defining feature in the terrain of your day. And it does a whole lot more than simply take you from A to B. To succeed, software products must offer a delightful experience. Which is why I’m adopting a more relevant bridge-related metaphor for my approach to product management.

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I’m building the High Line.

For those of you who haven’t visited the High Line, it’s a 1.45-mile-long park built along an elevated section of an old New York City railway. Walking the High Line, you travel through gardens and art projects. The first time I was there, I forgot that I was moving from one place to another. It felt like I was part of the city’s nervous system. Google “High Line,” and you’ll find thousands of photographs taken from eye-level along the pathway. People document the experience of being there.

High Line Park, New York

Functional AND Simple AND Beautiful

Users now expect an experience that’s more like the High Line. Take Uber. It’s designed to literally take you from A to B. Efficiency and simplicity are its selling points. But Uber doesn’t just shuttle you from place to place—it offers a delightful experience of efficiency. (It’s also using some pretty sophisticated algorithms.)

That’s why Uber has been ingrained in our ecosystem. Products that require you to spend a perceived “least amount of time on them” while fulfilling your goal are absolute gold. The less time you perceive to be spending on a product, the more likely you are to use it. Just ask my Visa bill.

building bridges

The fact that these products become verbs—Slack me, Uber there, Google it—signals the degree to which they are ingrained in our ecosystem. They’re part of our language.

To achieve this status, products require more than utility. There are thousands of cereals out there. In the past, oatmeal was enough to get you full. Now we spend a small fortune on the healthiest, heartiest, goji berry, chia seed, beautifully-packaged-so-it-looks-good-in-my- hipster-kitchen cereal. (Again, myself included.) The fancy cereal offers the experience of simplicity—of not being processed. A back-to-the-earth integrity. But making and delivering that cereal is anything but simple. It’s the same for software.

Simple for users, not for PMs

As a product manager, I’m trying to create both the experience and illusion of simplicity. When I think about building the Golden Gate Bridge, I picture huge cranes, tons of steel and thousands of workers covered in dirt. When I think about building the High Line, I envision children planting trees. Is that how it happened? Hell, no. But an illusion of simplicity makes you and your product more accessible to your customer base—even if it’s nowhere close to reality of building a product.

As a product manager, I’m trying to create both the experience and illusion of simplicity.

Creating the illusion of simplicity is what I call the “last mile” in design. If our products, on the front-end, were as complicated as they are on the back-end, no average user would want to use them. On the other hand, if they were as simple, on the back-end, as they appear on the front-end, they would never impress or delight us.

I'm building the High Line, not the Brooklyn Bridge.

You’re not developing a calculator. You’re talking about masking a convoluted series of gets, puts and posts while providing a seamless series of interactions for your consumers (and hopefully inspiring awe in your design colleagues). Here’s where the 80/20 principle does not apply. That last 20% (more like 5%, if you ask me) takes the longest and will envelop you with decision fatigue. And it’s the only way to reach that elusive state of product excellence.

Like I’ve said, we want simplicity for our users. That’s why we offer customizable templates to kickstart your roadmap. Click here to try a template today!