Successful teams execute best when they understand the product they are building, selling, and marketing. Understanding a product comes from having a specific worldview—a way of interpreting and synthesizing information about how people behave and what they care about. At Prizma, that worldview basically says, "show people what they're interested in and get out of the way." It's not complex, but building a video engagement platform with industry-leading engagement metrics isn't possible without having some simple ideals to work from.
One of the main ways we get our entire team thinking about the philosophy that guides the product, besides our designed-in-house product training, is to regularly engage everyone in an interactive lecture series called "Product Chats." The idea is simple: everyone comes with something to share about a topic (provided about one week before the chat), and a moderator helps synthesize everyone's commentary.
The basic idea is to get everyone to think critically about other products, to encourage a mode of thought that can then be applied to discussions about our own work. We use other people's products for these chats as a way of removing the endemic startup blinders and seeing what else is going on the world of software (or sometimes, not even software). Sometimes, the topic seems orthogonal to our product—like mechanisms for accepting user feedback—while others are much more clearly tied to what we do: "Gimme More," an exploration of interfaces that encourage you to watch another, listen again, or read more touched on what is pretty much Prizma's bread and butter.
What's nice about the Product Chat format is that it encourages everyone to think like a user, even if it's just once every couple of weeks. It means they take the time to determine when a behavior feels frustrating or seamless, and we work as a group to determine why. The "Product Chat," crucially, does not ask someone for a specific solution to a problem they identify, but rather asks them to cultivate a mindset where they can cogently speak about problems and work in a group to solve them. Additionally, by having these chats about other companies' products, weary product managers can sidestep being told what to implement in their own product, or what specific problem to solve, while still getting vaguely real-world feedback. The result is an organization that thinks about product in a valuable way for the product and development teams, but that doesn't produce a laundry list of feature requests.
Here are some steps for producing a product chat for your startup:
Identify an area of interest
Don't stress about picking the perfect thing for your first chat, just think about a problem you've been pondering over recently. Maybe it's forgotten-password experiences that have been bugging you recently as you keep forgetting your Squarespace password (or perhaps I'm projecting), or maybe you really dig how Square Cash is a pretty relentlessly single-purpose app. The connection to the product you're actually building doesn't have to be obvious—the beauty of having an hourlong discussion about an interesting topic is that a lot of useful things can emerge from places you don't expect.
Email your team the topic & a request for materials
About a week before your chat, send out a message to the group you intend to chat with. Depending on the size of your organization, you might even want to run some separate chats, eventually, but for now, just see if you can get a nice cross section of participants—business development, marketing, software development, and data science make for a nice mix.
Provide them with a fairly vague topic and request some screenshots
Here's the email from the aforementioned "Gimme More":
"We'll be chatting about situations where you are: prompted to read another article, answer another question, watch another video, and so on. Let's examine interfaces where you can explore content (or anything else you might binge on a screen)—which apps or websites make it really easy or addictive? Who doesn't do it as well?
Please send me your screenshots by 11am on Tuesday, May 19."
Assemble your presentation
Take those screenshots and put them each on a slide. See if you can identify any themes that are already emerging. For "Gimme More," maybe some submissions show products with feeds that autoplay, others illustrate interfaces that require user interaction, and so on. Start thinking about these ideas and be prepared to speak on them.
Run the product chat!
Here's how I like to run the product chat:
- Share my presentation with everyone via screenshare (we're a team split into two geographies—LA and San Francisco)
- Do a loose outline of the presentation, touching lightly on some themes I've already pre-identified
- Pull up the first product (not my own example), and just have the person who provided that one talk about what they liked or didn't like about it
- Invite feedback from other members of the group—what surprised them about that, whether they've used it, etc. You'll spend a bit more time on this first example to get everyone involved and thinking critically about it. You won't necessarily solicit feedback from everyone in future slides, but this is a great way to get folks involved from the beginning.
- About halfway through, present your own slide. The reason I don't go first is that I'm already leading the discussion and doing some brief framing at the beginning, so I want to avoid providing an exact template for how someone else should go about presenting theirs. By waiting until partway through the Product Chat, I can avoid that and have my portion seem like it's just another example—which it is.
- After everyone's presented, have them run through some themes themselves. What surprised them? What products are they eager to try? Do they see any connection to the product they're working on? Furiously take notes during this part.
- Thank everyone for participating and encouraging them to have an A-okay day.
Share the deck and your notes
Spend some time poring over the notes you took and making a bit more sense of them. This is maybe the most important part of the Product Chat, for you, the person leading it. Reorganize the slides, insert new ones providing new context for what follows ("as pointed out during the chat, the next few slides are all examples of products that ask you to rate your experience before moving on—something no one was particularly fond of because it required mode-switching"). Or even add other example products that weren't part of the original chat ("other examples of websites that have converted to the feed model embraced by social media sites are theonion.com, seeker.net").
This will help you, the product person, think more about what it all means and really see what lessons you can draw from it. And if there's nothing directly applicable at that time, it doesn't matter—you now have a complete deck with solid notes you can refer to later. We did our first product chat last year on user feedback, as a low-stakes way to get into product chats as a team. Initially, all it accomplished was to prove the format: everyone enjoyed the discussion, even as nothing in it would be directly applicable anytime soon. Now, however, we're drawing on those findings significantly to launch a new in-video survey product, one that helps viewers get what they're interested in and then gets out of the way.
Have you tried product chats? Do you have something similar at your company? We're always eager to tweak the format and try new things, so comment below with your experience!