How do product managers get new feature ideas for their product?

People have asked me about where new features come from and it is not what you expect so I thought I would write this article.  I have found many developers and customers who are curious about were features come from and in fact what a product manger is so I hope that this helps.

I should mention that I am a product manager now, but I don’t see myself as one.  I know too many that are different than me and are so good at the business side of it which is a bit different than me.  I do use a lot of virtualization products, and I have installed them for customers, and I have worked with many people around the world who use those products so I do know what works or doesn’t work for customers – in my area that is.  I see myself as a customer too in my Customer[0] role.  I have the experience to do that very effectively.  So I can be – and in fact am – a very good technical product manager but I am different than many I have met. So that means I do:

  • work with my product in a realistic customer way
  • understand the problems that customers have in and around our product
  • find ways to solve real customers problems using features in our product
  • Continuously, as we add customers, understand how they use our product
  • Help the developers and QE understand how customers use our product

At DataGravity there are two product managers, at least officially, and we do not get feature ideas by listening to customers asking for features. Sounds bad – right? We do get ideas when customers talk about their problems. There is a significant difference between these two comments. When customers ask for features they are often wrong. How do I know this? One of my previous employers had someone implement features that a big customer asked for. Later we  found out they never used those features. When customers ask for a feature they are often envisioning a solution to a problem they have and talking about it rather than the problem itself. Often they do not know they would be better off explaining the problem. At VMware, I had to often chit chat about VMware technology and how work was done with it before the customer could relax and think about the problem he had working with the products.  Than we could talk about the problems that they had and than we could really chat about solutions because now we could talk about the actual problems rather than features.

Even when we figure out the problems a customer has, we are not done. We look for themes – in the problems that is. Some customers – and I know as I have visited them – have problems that other customers don’t have. One very cool and exciting customer in NYC actually had a manager (or was it a VP) walk me out after a meeting and they told me they knew we should not do anything to our products they asked for as they knew they were the oddest customers that VMware had. They were very cool to know that, and to make sure I knew that. I got other ideas from them – often around API and scalability, but no features. Thanks goodness it was me with them, and that they were cool, as I think some product managers would have got a lot of features out of them because they did not take the time to learn what they were like.  Once we have a theme of a problem, we know if we have a feature to solve that problem, or maybe not a feature but a change that removes that problem, we have something that customers will appreciate.

So, if I ever visit you to talk about this new product I am working on, please don’t tell me about features you want – I will listen though if you want too – but talk to me about the problems working with the product or around the product and that will get you new features to solve those problems sooner.  BTW, I will be visiting most or all of our customers in the first while so I look forward to talking with you!!

BTW, after I got this done I thought to find a definition of product manager.

Have a great Sunday!


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