Pragmatic Product Strategy - Presented at XConf 2014

This talk explores new ways of framing the work we do in order to create effective software products. A super-pragmatic model of thinking and doing that promises to bring together technologists, designers and business folks alike, across the entire software delivery lifecycle. Watch the video at

An alternative to features and showcases. Introducing Hills and Playbacks

Recently, I attended an Adaptive Path conference called Managing Experience.It was brilliant, and here's a writeup if you want to know more about that.

I was lucky to spend a bunch of time with Todd Wilkins in a workshop about IBM's Design Thinking Framework.

There's lots to like, but in particular, two out of three principles resonated strongly.

  • Hills (instead of epics/features/stories)
  • Playbacks (instead of showcases)

They're similar to epics/features and showcases, but different, in important ways.

Here are two provocative generalisation:

  • Teams often get blinded by features to build instead of problems to solve.
  • Stakeholders get bored at showcases because giving a demo of a completed feature is largely not very exciting.

Hills and Playbacks try to solve those two problems, with an added side-benefit of helping to focus and empower teams to solve problems (instead of build features).

Sounds pretty good, right?

So what's a Hill? and, what's a Playback?

First, read the short version of the IBM Design Thinking Framework. Here's that link again.

A Hill is simply a way of framing the intended outcome of the work being carried out, from the point-of-view of the user and/or business stakeholder.

Experience designers would recognise these as design challenges, where the phrase "how might we..." is often used to start exploring ways of solving the challenge.

A Playback is a demonstration of the outcome, generally told as narrative, from the point-of-view of the person who's problem is being solved (which is typically the 'customer' and 'the business' simultaneously)

How doe's this empower teams, exactly?

Well, alone, Hills and Playbacks won't do that - after all, it's only slightly different language and metaphor to what we're used to from agile development practices.

But with the right team culture, and some other guidelines (e.g. what number of hills for a given project?), framing the work this way allows freedom to act, because teams are empowered to create an outcome, not just build the next feature in the list. It's inherently more collaborative too, because challenges are less likely to be 'pre-solved' by another team (analysts, designers... whomever) .

In essence, Hills describe The Commander's Intent*

For the purposes of this discussion, that basically means, setting a shared direction/vision, then leaving capable, well trained professionals to execute the solution.

*I like the Harvard Business Review description from the article above:

"The key to successful Commander’s/CEO Intent is trained, confident, and engaged military personnel/employees. Employees must understand the plan and when they have to deviate to ensure the Commander’s Intent is accomplished. Military personnel have to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they execute Commander’s Intent."

A final note

Yes. I know the differences here are pretty nuanced. I can hear your inner monologue too: 'We already do that'... (If so, then great!) Reflecting upon my entire professional experience, it's not something I've seen often, if ever.

I think there's lots of potential, and I'm looking forward to road-testing it on a project soon.


Managing Experience 2014 by Adaptive Path

Managing Experience is a 2 day conference hosted by Adaptive Path. Here’s the emergent themes from the last four years of the conference: 2011: Business 2012: Strategy 2013: Change 2014: Leadership & The Organization

The big draw-card for me this year was Todd Wilkens, Design Principal at IBM. He delivered a talk ‘Scaling Design Beyond Designers’ with a corresponding 1/2 day workshop on IBM Design Thinking approach.

As with any conference, some talks were better than others. Here's a summary of all the talks, including links to slides and videos.

Bill Scott | PayPal

Keynote: Bringing Change to Life

Bill spoke with gravitas and directness about what is required to influence change from inside-out with large organisations. Two themes were Persistence and Improvisation. The crux of the talk was a playbook of sorts, describing his battle-proven approach to bringing change. Ostensibly, it’s expressed a little plainly - as a ‘7 steps’ guide, but the stories that Bill delivered with it were brilliant.

His 7 steps include:

  • Believe something deeply
  • Understand the culture
  • Fix the pain points
  • Rally the troops
  • Prototype the change
  • Tell a story
  • Keep iterating

Livia Labate | Marriott International Digital Governance: Getting Your Act Together & Keeping It That Way

Digital Governance didn’t sound like something interesting, until it is defined like this: 'Governance is a way to distribute decision-making authority for strategy, policy and standards throughout an organisation’. What does that mean for ‘digital’? Well, it’s inevitably way broader than just digital, and that’s really what this talk is about. Making the complex clear, and figuring out how best to work across silos to make life better for customers and the people behind the scenes responsible for those experiences.

Leah Buley | Intuit The Marriage of Corporate & UX Strategy: A Case Study

Gold. Leah explored the intersection of UX strategy and corporate strategy and most importantly, how to work together complimentarily to achieve great outcomes for business and customers. She talked about explicit strengths/weaknesses from each camp, and the mutual benefit of working together. For years, experience design has begged for a seat at ‘the big table’. Leah gives us a guide of how to approach the task once we get there.

Michael Kim | Habit Design by Kairos Labs Designing Sustainable Behavior-Change with Habit Design

This was a nice adjacent (to design/product) talk. Referenced some pop psychology like operant conditioning, reward loops, and neuroscience and talked at a fairly high level about how these ideas can be applied to design.

Lesley Mottla | Zipcar The “How” & “Why” of Building Customer Experience-Focused Teams & Organizations

A very eye-opening walk through on how customer experience happens at Zipcar. All the way from team structure and configuration, approaches to design, to how experience is measured and organisational maturity models for being customer focussed. A very dense and rich talk from an absolute powerhouse woman. This will be my go-to deck next time I need to articulate what an ‘experience strategy’ might look and feel like for a larger enterprise client.

Kerry Bodine | Author Brand, Marketing, & Customer Experience

This was a terrific talk, mostly about the difference between promising great experiences and delivering great experiences. Promises are easy, delivering on the promise is not. As with any great talk, after framing the problem, Kerry walks through a variety of approaches and tools for making better of the situation. One tool in particular caught my attention. It’s a derivative of Dave Gray’s culture mapping technique called CX/brand mapping  but specifically explores the implicit and explicit brand promises and contrasts this with 'brand reality’ and/or evidence of the promise in the true customer journey. Potent stuff, particularly if done in conjunction with experience mapping. Kerry is a formidable communicator. Keep eyes out for the video, there’s some great stories and narrative in her delivery that really help make it stick.

Todd Wilkens | IBM Scaling Design Beyond Designers

There is so much to love about this talk, and the companion workshop was relevant and inspiring too. Todd’s mission is to bake in UX strategy into product management. At IBM. Who have 400,000 employees and 3,000 active product teams. Todd speaks convincingly about what design is, ways to do it well, and how to scale it to very-very-large organisations. Much of what he presented seems incredibly familiar, easy to think ‘we already do that’, but there are important nuances in the approach that I think can enable empowered teams to solve problems instead of merely build features.

Peter Merholz | Adaptive Path Organisation models for design (slides coming...)

This talk overlapped a little with Todd Wilkens (IBM Design) on common organisational models for design teams. Peter contrasts the pros and cons of Internal Services Firm vs. Decentralised & Embedded teams and then introduces a hybrid model called Centralised Partnership Model which aims to deliver the best of both worlds. The main takeaway being about how to use this team structure with the double-diamond methodology (originally from British Design Council) to become proactive and ‘push good things into an organisation’ as opposed to being reactive where you merely respond to the immediate needs of an organisation.

Wendy Lea | Get Satisfaction The Customer Experience Obsession

'Customer experience is the last bastion of competitive advantage’.

Nice stats on overall profitability of leaders and laggards and some pretty compelling discussion on how to be leader, not a laggard.

Brandon Schauer | Adaptive Path The MX Outlook: Becoming & Leading

A look to the recent past and future ahead for the discipline of experience design. Neatly summarised in this playbook for managing and leading experiences.

I can highly recommend the conference. Very well run, great speakers and content, terrific attendees too. Adaptive Path have an iPad App too, where the videos from the event will eventually get uploaded. Seems like a great - and free! - way to consume the fantastic content.