Think Like a Product Manager

Monday, July 23, 2012

I think it's okay to admit one of the things that attracts us to something like curriculum design and the world of knowledge management is the idea of achieving elusive goals. While we often profess to be striving towards something measurable, 'learning' is still a deliciously vague term for what we are trying to cause or create. I think part of becoming an instructional designer is loving (or learning to love) the craft of creating conditions and designing experiences. I could probably go on for a bit to talk about the virtues of pursuing systems excellence, but I want to spend a bit of time talking about the flip side of that interest - the part where what we create is rightfully situated in the corporate or academic contexts. The part where what you create is considered a component of a product.

Do you think of what you do - what you contribute - as a product? For a long time, I didn't. I thought of myself as exercising a honed skill, and it didn't really matter where I was doing it. I didn't think a lot about how things would be acquired, and the term 'product' seemed a little too crass for what I was trying to do. These days, one of the more challenging and clarifying parts of my job is to focus on the product aspect of what I do. I say product because my design is a functional piece within a larger unit that is sold. Today, I say that thinking about instructional design (in my case, e-learning instructional design) in product terms helps me to create more useful solutions. In a way, I am becoming a product manager. For me, this means three things:

Focusing on the context

In my experience, we instructional designers can at times to look at 'the business' as basically a set of limits on what we can do: not enough funding, not enough freedom, not enough appreciation for what we can really do. (If only I had that really good authoring tool, you all would see something...) There's a bit of comfort in that position, of course -- the best solutions can't be properly leveraged due to limits, so we are cleared to make do with a lesser design -- often a design pushed by those with business concerns but no instructional design experience. 


That is one option. Another is to look past the minor limits and focus on what your business is trying to do. (I learned the term business acumen while working for CEB. It should probably already have been in my vocabulary.) Using the desired business outcome as your north star -- continually asking what the stakeholders want the learner to do, not learn -- means that you can stay rooted in how valuable this whole endeavor (e.g., your project) really is. Maybe your approach will change. Maybe your stakeholders' resolve will founder. Either way, we shouldn't fear this kind of interaction -- we should embrace this kind of practical analysis and strive to be known for it. We are partners in creating, rather than agents of stakeholder notions, and we have to be OK with (advocate for!) destroying in order to create. Thinking about product means thinking about how we want something consumed; focusing on the context means focusing on why you are making something before getting caught up in the how.

Focusing on the positioning

I am not a marketing professional. I do not want to be a marketing professional. Additionally, brief summer jobs selling vacuum cleaners and steak knives taught me that I really, really hate selling things. I just want to help people do what they do better. Most of us are taught that the target audience -- the end user -- is the most important profile is the cavalcade of people who will lay hands on the end result of our work. I still believe that this is true, but thinking about the product as a whole - as something to be sold and consumed - means that sooner or later, I start thinking about who's doing the shopping. In other words: when all is said, done, developed, and set on the shelf, who or what is going to deliver your work to the end user? Maybe you sell your products externally - in this case, you should have marketing working on your behalf. But maybe the product is internally focused (i.e., for your co-workers); in this case, who or what is standing in the way of your target audience consuming your content? Think about that, and you'll open yourself to more than design and development by thinking about production and deployment - the entire system at play in a business solution, rather than simply the part that you directly control.


Focusing on the ecosystem

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the learning ecosystems in my company. This is something that I never expected to say, but here it is: by focusing on the product, I am more aware of other products that are vaguely or acutely related to what I have helped to produce. To make sure that I know how what I've helped to produce is interacting with other products, my business acumen has extended from my business unit to other parts of the company. If my product is to be a star in the night sky, I want it to be part of a guiding constellation of resources.

I don't know if thinking this way will work for everyone, but thinking about creating a consumable resource (i.e., thinking like a product manager) has made me closer to both the people who consume the fruits of my labor and the people who help me create them. I believe that doing so is leading us to create ever more helpful solutions - a goal that suddenly doesn't seem so elusive.

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About the Author

Craig Wiggins has been helping people create and manage learning experiences for the past 10 years. He is the community manager for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiatives. Craig holds a BA in anthropology and an MEd in curriculum development, and spends a lot of time thinking about how to sneak usability, accessibility, and proper task analysis into the mix. In his natural habitat, he is usually storyboarding on wall-sized whiteboards or pontificating on Twitter or Google+.

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