Best Practices for Best Product Management
Here at YNAB, we’ve learned a lot about best product management practices by helping people gain total control of their money. We do that by going all-in on creating a product roadmap to create software that put you firmly in the driver’s seat of your financial life with the best budgeting tool out there.
The YNAB app is constantly evolving as we get customer feedback about wants and need. Have you ever wondered about our overall product strategy? What features get prioritized? Or how YNAB (the software product) gets built? How do we do research? And what’s our take on moving fast and breaking things?
We’ve had a lot of experiments over the years and we’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are five of the best product management tips that are essential to our success here at YNAB.
5 Best Practices for Best Product Management
- Research, then research some more
- Focus on problems, not features
- Have a clear company vision
- Keep roadmaps short
- Value craftsmanship over speed
1. Research, Then Research Some More
All good product teams start with research, but here at YNAB, we like to think we take that research particularly seriously. In fact, we try to stay longer than we might otherwise feel comfortable in this investigative phase.
As product specialists, we know that once we’ve captured a high-level overview of a particular problem space, we may be tempted to start addressing specific areas of concern. At YNAB, we push ourselves to resist that urge and instead work to develop a deep understanding of the problem. We take the time not only to identify what we know we don’t know, but also to uncover what we don’t know we don’t know.
Our product teams include a product manager, designers, and researchers—but also a customer support team, software developers, and teachers. All chime in and take part in the research phase to build a common understanding of the problem space and the jobs our users are hiring us to do for them.
In our research, we use everything from high-level usage metrics to in-depth interviews with users to gain more information. We try to understand each individual user’s context, and when we think we’ve got it, we dig deeper just in case.
The last step in our research phase is to develop a strong empathy for our users’ problems. We try to put it into words, and this gives our product team (and company) a shared understanding of what it is we’re setting out to solve on both a practical and emotional level in the real world.
2. Focus on Problems, Not Features
After trying out different models over the years, YNAB’s approach to product development has settled on problem-focused rather than feature-based teams. That means our teams are each focused on specific customer outcomes:
- “I need to get out of debt.”
- “I want to budget with my family.“
- “I want better visibility on my financial situation.“
Each team has its own mission and is designed with a high degree of autonomy. At YNAB, this means that once we know where we want to end up, teams are empowered to make any and all product decisions they believe will ultimately help our customers with that outcome.
We measure success with analytics and feature adoption. But most importantly, we measure success at the human level by hearing from customers how we helped them make a positive impact in their lives.
3. Have a Clear Company Vision
There are some drawbacks that come with scaling autonomous, cross-functional teams that don’t have clear product and feature boundaries. The main one is that multiple teams working on different customer outcomes can be working on the same components of the app. The more teams, the higher the likelihood of teams pulling the product in slightly different directions.
How are we able to sustain such a model? We believe that having a clear North Star, i.e. a clear company and product vision, is key to having constructive intersections between teams.
Here at YNAB, our vision is to promote the budget as the best tool for a fulfilling financial life. Our vision is a booklet—like an actual physical thing, it’s not just a pretty slide in an all-hands meeting—that is handed out to everyone and we can pull out and reference. Our holistic vision is infinitely more engaging than a more lackluster mission, such as “become the market leader in X industry” and helps us take a step back and recalibrate whenever we feel stuck or off track.
4. Keep Roadmaps Short
An interesting aspect of project management and product development at YNAB is our relationship to roadmaps. We intentionally communicate very little about the long term, resulting in a very short roadmap.
We try hard to never commit to what we’re going to work on six months from now. We tend to be much more granular and have high certainty in the short term. We strive to give visibility to everyone in the organization and intentionally over-communicate on what is being built and researched right now, but we don’t fool ourselves by providing a release date for a feature we think we might build one year from now.
Why is this a good thing? While it can be frustrating for users that want to know when we’re going to release this highly asked-for feature, we think it is more genuine to not provide that certainty when we know that new information can wildly shift our priorities in the short to medium term.
5. Move Fast and Break Things? Not Here
We create minimum viable products (MVPs) internally and try out ideas all the time in our own sandboxed environment. When we ship additional features to users, we make sure it is way past the MVP stage.
Our customers expect a level of polish and that goes beyond a proof of concept. This means that we’re comfortable shipping at a slow(er) pace. And when we do, we ramp the feature over time: first letting a small percentage of our users have the feature, and gradually increasing this to 100% of all users.
Along the way, we’re making sure what we created is actually solving the problem we set out to tackle. And sometimes we make mistakes, or we don’t achieve what we were aiming for. In that case we don’t shy away from reversing and pulling the feature back to give it another shot.
We value craftsmanship over speed. It actually matters.
We see this as the ultimate respect for our users. We try to be inclusive in a messy, heterogeneous financial world. In the process of designing, building, and releasing new value to our users, we value craftsmanship over speed. It actually matters.