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Product Hero: Thor Ernstsson, CEO of Alpha

Author

Thor Ernstsson

Product Hero is our bi-weekly series that highlights outstanding members of the product management community. These industry leaders share tips on processes, team building, how to be a better product manager, and who they are outside of their careers. This week our product hero is Thor Ernstsson, CEO of Alpha, the simple platform that the world’s leading product teams use to experiment and generate user insights.

In this episode, C. Todd Lombardo and Thor discuss:

  • how the value people assign to virtual farm equipment (think FarmVille) is not too dissimilar from the value they would assign to their own healthcare information – and how to get them to change their behavior based on this information.
  • testing small incremental changes in design, user experience, and user engagement to inform smarter product decisions
  • understanding behavior change, how people make certain decisions, and what makes them tick.

The desire for answers to questions like these is partly what lead Thor to start Alpha – the realization that companies were trying to solve the same problem over-and-over again manually – debating what users want or don’t want and what drives their behavior – without the benefit of real data to inform that product conversation.

Listen to the Show:

Show notes:

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Podcast Transcript:

Todd: Can you just give me the correct pronunciation of your name so I don’t mess it up?

Thor: There basically isn’t one in english. Basically a good way to understand it is my dad’s name is Ernst, so I am Ernstsson.

C. Todd: Okay. I wasn’t sure.

Thor: So as close as you can say that without your tongue spasming is good.

C. Todd: Today’s edition we have the CEO of Alpha and he’s going to talk to us about testing, learning, and iterating. Thanks for joining us, Thor.

Thor: No problem. Good to be here.

C. Todd: Tell us a little bit about you. Tell us, our audience is mostly product and design folks. What is it about you and how did you get into product and design.

Thor: We basically live and breath product here at Alpha. What we do is work with product teams and large organizations to help them make better informed decisions through doing a lot of the stuff they would have to do manually with automating it really at scale. This comes out of having had to solve this problem over and over and over. About 15 plus years of experience in product and tech across various organizations and industries and I keep running into the same kinds of problems. They really all stem from a familiar setting of people sitting around a conference room table, debating what users want or what they don’t want but not having any real data to inform that conversation.

Previously I was in gaming and there we had the benefit of about 400 million users. We could just launch stuff and see how it would go and literally just see what works and what doesn’t based on just putting it out there. Afterwards, started a healthcare company thinking we could do some of the same things there. I learned very quickly that healthcare and any regulated industry works quite differently.

C. Todd: Yeah.

Thor: You can’t just get people’s healthcare information and post it online and see what happens.

C. Todd: That’s really interesting. Gaming and healthcare, they seem fairly disparate. Talk about how did you go from that? That seems like a pretty interesting jump.

Thor: Yeah. As an industry it’s a switch but as what I was doing and my focus it’s actually the same thing and even the same thing we’re doing now. Which is that my passion really lies in behavior change and understanding how people make certain decisions, what makes them tick and how to impact them on a massive scale.

The gaming company was called Zynga and we were making games like Farmville and Frontierville and Cityville and things like that. All the Villes. We were selling virtual farm equipment. There’s no real value in that.  No matter what, you can have the best virtual farm out there and it truly in an objective sense, does not matter.

The question is, how do you get people to care about it? How do you get people to assign value to virtual goods that have no innate inherent value to themselves? There’s all kinds of things that you do. It’s about social pressure. It’s about getting your peers and your new friends involved and things like that. So that if they have a farm and you have a farm and they have a better farm than you do, that that somehow matters to you. It’s actually not real value, it’s the perception of value. Which is interesting in and of itself but then you apply that to healthcare.

Value of healthcare information. For example, if you’re diabetic and you’re stuffing your face with a donut, you know you shouldn’t do that. You know you’re gonna die. You know that for a fact and you still do it. How do you create the right environment for people to make the right kinds of decisions that impact their lives, based on what we learned in getting people to care about virtual farm equipment.

C. Todd: Interesting. What were some of the things that you were able to transfer from the gaming industry into the healthcare world?

Thor: The biggest is this notion of perception of value as opposed to real value. It’s like understanding and of course and also we do this all day is understanding by putting different things in front of people, what they’ll actually do. Because they say they’re gonna do something and then they do something completely different. By putting products in front of them, putting prototypes in front of them, different incentive. Different whatever and actually observing what they do.

Getting as close to A/B testing products in the market as you possibly can by creating a simulated environment. What you can actually do is observe what people do, change your product, change your stimulus. Do it again, do it again, do it again, do it again. The more iteration cycles you have, it basically translates to more shots at goal.

C. Todd: Right. Essentially you’re doing lots and lots of experiments.

Thor: Exactly. That’s exactly right. It doesn’t matter if in gaming, if it’s in healthcare, it’s an enterprise tech, it’s all the same thing.

C. Todd: That’s part of the reason what led you to start Alpha was that you kept saying, All right, we’ve gotta keep doing these experiments and running these experiments, and running into the same issues with running those experiments and getting the right data to inform a product decision. So you decided to start Alpha.

Thor: You got it and it’s exactly the same across almost any industry. Wherever you have users, that matters.

C. Todd: Talk to me about where you are now. How long has Alpha been around?

Thor: We incorporated in 2014.

C. Todd: Where are you on that growth curve? What stage of business are you in now and what are some of the top things that you’re focusing on?

Thor: We work with almost a third of the Fortune 100. We’re fairly mature when it comes to the offering, the market, how we engage our clients and how we help them. Everything we do is on a subscription basis, so they buy a subscription to our platform and then they add this as a capability. We’re really fortunate in that we’re solving a real problem that they care about and see a lot of value in.

But because we’re only three years old, we’re not mature on the how do we help them do this more side of it. How do we help drive across an entire company that’s hugely complex, highly regulated, Fortune 100 multinational company? We didn’t really know how to do that. Now we’re applying an inwards lens of our own client methodology and our own client testing but to us saying how do we help the company actually move faster and be data driven when it comes to not just product management but really any decision across the board involving products or users. Where they can be a lot more diligent and a lot more structured.

We run experiments on a monthly basis and sometimes on a weekly basis to figure out how to best engage our customers. To help them not just use our platform which is now pretty straightforward but really how to change how people work. How to really impact how people work by making them data driven and giving them this capability that otherwise they know about, they’ve all gone through lead of some sort or agile workshops. They might even be listening right now. They consume information to try to figure out how to do this better. But when it comes to their day job, you look at a back to back schedule full of meetings, you can’t just get out of the building. All the things you’ve learned, they don’t quite translate so we gotta bridge the gap there somewhere.

C. Todd: Yeah. You talked about behavior change in these folks. What are some of the specific types of behavior you’re looking for in those customers, in your clients, and how are you measuring that kind of behavior change?

Thor: That’s a good question. The most important is just doing something. The most important is not deferring to a committee to decide what to test. Because the information really is already there in the organization. Now there’s 10 smart people around the table. They don’t need to all come to the same page on what they should be testing, because you can test what all 10 people think independently and then look at the data.  Creating a sense of really a bias towards action as opposed to planning is the biggest behavior change that we’re trying to affect. Where it’s actually helping them understand that they can just ask a question and look at data faster than they can schedule another meeting.

C. Todd: That’s great if you’re able to get that kind of information that quickly. Is that assumed that there’s a fair amount of user data that’s available? I would assume that there’s probably a lot of data available for companies that are of that kind of scale but what about the other end? Let’s say a startup and maybe they don’t have hundreds of thousands of millions of customers. How does that work?

Thor: We actually don’t rely on them to give us users because of the red tape involved. For Aetna to tell us who their patients are is literally illegal. We actually do all the recruiting ourselves. We have 100 million users that we test against and then we do effectively on demand prototyping that’s very, very lightweight. The input is a simple description of a concept.

Let’s say it’s a job finding app and you want to do … somebody has an idea of Tinder for jobs. That’s enough. That is literally a self contained experiment where nothing else is needed. Then somebody else would say, Well, how do millennials find jobs today? Then okay, you enter that as a question. Then you’re asked another question like, How does my concept compare to the top three or four choices of … I don’t know what they are but Indeed and something else. Then you say, all right, let’s actually do a split test. The segment being millennial job seekers and the success criteria being how trustworthy they find the concept and likely to use the product.

Then that’s the kind of test we would be able to turn around in day because we have the user base, because we have the prototype and because we have the ability to run and analyze the experiment using tools that we built. As opposed to having to design the study, recruit the users, field the tests, analyze the results. Each one of those takes a few days or even a few weeks and often very expensive consultants. Driving the whole thing with technology instead of manual process is really the … makes it all work.

C. Todd: Right. So I’m curious, one of the questions when we do work like that for any client is often times they get the, Well, how do you get the right clients? Because B2B, thin slice, I need a unique kind of vertical. I need a buyers agent for this kind of vertical.

Thor: You got it.

C. Todd: How do you address that?

Thor: That is our, call it our secret sauce, this is how we do it in targeting because we don’t rely on third parties for that because they mostly are wrong and very low quality. Because we have enough volume and we have the infrastructure to do recruiting, we can guarantee that it’s the right person. It’s the surgeon that only operates on kids with cancer. Very, very specific segments.

Then for those kinds of audiences, you’re generally doing highly qualitative discovery work. You’re trying to figure out what the workload is, what the process is and what their pain points are. You’ll know immediately if they’re the right audience or not based on their answers. You can hear in their voice, like this person has done it before or they don’t know what they’re talking about. We have a lot of tools to filter out what are automated things to filter out.

C. Todd: We’re talking about your service. Your customer’s customers, so to speak. Let’s reflect that mirror back to you. How does Alpha work with it’s customers? How do you do your own user testing and research? I’m hoping you drink your own Kool-aid. What does that look like at Alpha?

Thor: It’s almost every part of our business. We have a standing user base, if you will, of companies that come through that we let run a few tests effectively for free or heavily discounted rate in exchange for feedback. Every week, two or three new companies that we do our own testing on that we all call our guinea pigs. They love it because they get access to customer development and data they otherwise wouldn’t be able to and we get very high quality feedback. Then we take little things that might be like, What do you call a salesperson? What should the title of an account manager be? We run tests on those kinds of things.

It’s an enterprise audience. Who’s the person you would actually want to talk to? Between account manager, product specialist and a few other things. Every question that we have internally, there’s always … the conversation ends if nobody has any data and then we just figure out how to get some data and then we look at it and try to look forward. Even if we disagree, it’s always about making a decision and moving forward.

C. Todd: It’s interesting. With a heavy focus on data and evidence, have there ever been cases where the data has been biased or the data has led you wrong?

Thor: Always. It’s always wrong, it’s always biased, it’s always a problem.

C. Todd: What do you do, how do you manage that?

Thor: We don’t rely on any single data point being correct. Everything is a signal. Everything is an indicator. If you ever talk to somebody from Alpha what you’ll hear over and over and over is a focus on iteration cycles. A focus on rapid iterative product testing. Iteration is always in there somewhere because that’s what makes the whole thing work. It’s not that you talk to 500 people and they tell you that blue is their favorite color. It doesn’t actually matter. It’s the fact that how many different times and different ways you test something, you start seeing the same kind of pattern.

You might see an underlying problem that is that people have a real issue I don’t know … they have a problem getting to work but in reality they have a problem being entertained while they’re getting to work. You’ll need a few iterations to uncover a deeper thing like that because the surface level issue was gonna come up over and over and over. If you start by doing traditional research, even when you do a design sprint and things like that, what you’re gonna get is the surface problem.

You’re never gonna get to the deeper problem because you need to then reconvene and discuss what you learned and discuss the next steps and the next steps and the next steps. Only then do you realize what you’re actually talking about. What we rely on is a steady stream of data, if you will. A steady stream of testing, a steady stream of experimentation. It’s really about always being in an experimental mindset. We are always looking at what are the key assumptions and hypothesis’ here that must be true, otherwise the business is flawed.

C. Todd: You’re talking my language. One of the things about design sprints that I like is at least the way I, the flavor that we advocate is identify your risk use assumptions and test them and that’s where you want to put your energy and effort. It’s not about designing the coolest form or button or widget. Who has the quote on quote coolest idea. It’s what is the riskiest thing that we need an answer to and let’s get an answer to that before we go any further.

Talk to us about how you guys ship product? How does it work? Obviously lots of iteration is the theme here. Let’s just talk about that feedback you get. You got some feedback, you distill that you see a pattern. How does that go from that initial idea and feedback into some sort of product that gets shipped or some product feature that gets shipped?

Thor: Yeah, we have a fairly unique structure because we focus exclusively on Fortune 100 companies. We actually assign an account manager to that company and they might have 10,15 companies they work with. Then we treat that account manager internally as a client. The account manager is effectively the advocate of the client 100%. We almost look at them … I mean they’re employees were obviously but in reality we’re trying to serve them as much as possible. We know when we’ve solved their problem because we literally are sitting next to them and we have solved their problem.

C. Todd: In terms of translating those ideas into even just the mechanics of all right, a design and development, how does that all work? How does the team work together? Are you guys running continuous deployment? Are you doing sprints? Things like that. How are you structured to deliver that kind of value to your clients?

Thor: When we do do continuous deployment, we don’t do formal design spreads, we don’t do formal dev sprints. We have planning that is annual, quarterly, monthly and weekly. Different scope in each time horizon but the weekly one is sort of what matters.  It where the work comes in. For monthly, quarterly goals are more like higher level. Maybe they’re business metrics that matter or maybe they’re just launch this new thing that needs to be launched. But the weekly ones have a product owner and a primary developer and then that product owner and developer will work together.

They’re responsible for getting all the data they need, making all the decisions and then bulldozing their way to shipping something that week. That’s it. If they don’t do it, it’s on them individually.  It’s individual accountability split between those two people in this space. Even if it’s a team effort. Even if 10 people need to contribute to something, it doesn’t matter. There’s two people whose jobs are getting it done. Then we set that every week, make sure it aligns to our monthly objectives which are then aligned with our quarterly objectives. Which obviously fit into our longer term roadmap.

C. Todd: Yeah so talk to me about roadmapping. That something I clearly have an interest in. How does that work at Alpha?

Thor: There’s a strategic direction which is pretty straightforward and pretty clear. Which is to give product teams all the tools they need to be able to generate and manage a ton of data. That almost writes itself, it’s pretty straightforward. The priorities come in when you’re looking at immediate needs that are maybe a little minor annoyances with UX or something like that. Versus long term needs where the minor stuff goes away, if that makes sense. You’re balancing fixing stuff today versus obviating the need for it all together through building a workflow that automates the whole thing, if that makes sense.

That’s why we do it in different time horizons so that the long term things go onto a long term roadmap and we make sure we chip away at it little by little. But we still hold ourselves to launching those things. Whereas anybody can go in and make a better data processing tool or a text filtering or reporting tool, things like that. Those just happen every day on their own. Question types, all kinds of things like that. We have some really cool things like, we literally take a picture of a napkin and ask a couple of key questions. What happens automatically is that gets turned into an interactive mock up and we run it against a few hundred people in your target audience and just ask them questions you have.

You start thinking in terms of different units. That becomes an autonomic activity. Now you’re not doing this full team level thing, you’re just literally sitting at a bar, kind of talking and you have an idea. Hopefully PM. By morning, you get real data on how that idea went. Then you iterate on it, iterate on it and that’s the first time you’re really bringing to the team. There’s a few metaphors like that where the team internally has to think about, what are the highest value use cases?  We’re just fortunate enough that because we’re a product focused organization with a product focused culture, we’re sort of all are in the mix. We’re talking mostly about what are people like us that just happen to work in different companies, what are the pain points they have that we can solve?

C. Todd: One of the things you mentioned about the weeklies or shipping something that week, that talks a lot about having outputs. There’s that constant question is, outputs versus outcomes. How do you balance that for desire to like okay we gotta put stuff out there. We also need to be managing towards an outcome. How do you balance those two things. One of the things I get a lot of questions around when I either do workshops or talks is that people they sort of nod their head when you say outcomes. Yeah, yeah, great, totally. We totally want to be doing outcomes.

Then you start to ask them to create the same or tell you their metrics and outcomes and they start telling you about outputs. Like, Oh, we shipped these things on last Friday. They start telling you what they output. I say, Well, that’s great but that’s an output, not an outcome. How does that work with you guys? You mentioned both and quarterly objectives and outcomes but also weekly things that are outputs. How do those line up?

Thor: That’s a really good distinction and good question. We treat them as different units of management. If you can manage by outcomes, the whole organization is driven that way. We do OKRs  that are public all hands meetings three times a week so it’s a very unique culture around that too. That’s for the whole company, not just development and product. It’s for sales, it’s for marketing, it’s for everybody. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody knows what everybody else is doing, documents are shared publicly. Planning happens at a team level but the artifacts of that planning are shared company wide.  If you can deliver outcomes, the rest doesn’t matter. If your team is delivering on certain KPIs, whatever they might be, or you as an individual contributor are delivering on certain outcomes, then great.

Now that’s a really hard thing to do for various reasons. Often what you have to do is manage the outputs and the activities that you know go into those outcomes. For example, if your outcome is a certain revenue goal as a salesperson, you can’t really have a junior person come in and be on the hook to deliver that. There’s too many steps in between, but they can schedule 10 demos.  You start managing what they’re doing that builds up into this thing, you give them these basic building blocks, these basic communication tools.

Do that on a team level, have managers that understand how to communicate that and how to sort of build that out. Then over time you can start working at this higher level abstraction almost of outcomes. Because ideally the whole organization is driven based on outcomes but in practice, it doesn’t matter if it’s developers or sales people or anybody else. In practice you often do have to manage activity and that translates to output.  For developers it’s very easy. If nothing shipped, there’s a problem. It’s very, very straightforward.

If something shipped, we can talk about it but if nothing shipped and no matter what, there’s an issue.

C. Todd: And there should be a reason why nothing was shipped. It’s the whole, if that actually lines up to getting us our outcome because it takes actually much longer to develop this thing than one week, it takes five weeks. We need to think about that. Cool. An example would be like the salesperson there also has to be some assumption or knowledge that those 10 demos will lead to an outcome of increased revenue or higher acquisition because there’s some correlation there between we do 10 demos a day, that leads to this kind of percentage conversion and we have some assumptions baked in there that we believe are true unless otherwise proven wrong.

Thor: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly right. It’s like, how do you at least build up the muscle so that you can … If we strongly believe that demos lead to business or to revenue which that’s a pretty straightforward innovation. Then you can start managing in that way. If you believe that code releases lead to higher quality which may or may not be true, then it really becomes a judgment call of our, in this case our engineering has to say, You know what, this isn’t ready yet and here are the reasons why. That’s okay too. That will happen sometimes but it can’t happen at the end of the week.

C. Todd: Right. That conversation should be happening far earlier in the week before you get to the end and say, Oh, sorry. We don’t have anything. That goes back to managing expectations and managing communication across the team. I’m curious, you’re now three or four ish years old. How has your team and your culture and the way you work evolved over the last few years?

Thor: It’s been pretty straightforward for us. We do have the benefit that I’ve built for a few companies before. We set up the right structure in the beginning. We can scale this to about 150 to 250 people in the same sort of model we have right now. But what has actually changed and this is hopefully helpful for any early stage people here listening is in the beginning, the first 10 hires or so were generalists.

They were really good, really smart people that can wear a lot of hats. All came through personal referrals, recommendations or people I’ve worked with before. We just looked at it as a team like, here’s a problem we can’t solve what do we do now? I said, Okay, congratulations, you’re now in sales. Even though the persons not sold anything in his life. Or You’re now a data expert and a project manager, or whatever and they’ll learn how to be a researcher. That’s it and then everybody just figures it out.

Then the next 10-15 people or so now start being more specialized. Now the generalists see all right, this is what our sales process kind of should be. Here are the segments it resonates with and why. Here’s the messaging to work into it. Here’s the inbound channels to work into it. Here’s a product mix that meets these specific needs. This is what we need to work on automating. This is what we can streamline and get away with at least to a certain level. We need to build strategic partnerships and relationships here.  We need to get our audience from 10,000 people to in this case 100 million people, how do we do that?

The problems get a lot clearer. The second phase, the second wave of people, if you will, are now people that are hired to solve a specific problem. The first group, figure out what the problems are. Second group, solve those problems. It sort of oscillates between that. As a company, as you grow a company from … There’s different milestones based on the type of company but this is still in almost every case I’ve seen this. You go from generalists to specialists then back to generalists then back to specialists because at a certain point you start getting silos.

Let’s say you’re at 100 people. You have marketing, you have product, you have dev, you have whatever. They start operating almost as their own entities. You have very strong leadership within those. Then what you start losing is sight of something across the business. We need almost like GMs or COOs that can sit across multiple business units and integrate how they work and all the other things related to that. That person isn’t the specialist. That person needs to be able to speak to developers, to designers, to marketers, to all these folks. They need to be senior enough, experienced enough manager where they can make decisions about outcomes and teams and hiring plans and budgets. That’s not most likely anybody in the organization.

As the company matures, we sort of oscillate between those two modes. Figuring out what we should be doing and doing it and figuring out what we should be doing next and doing it. Then I will have a playbook on how to get into large organizations, make them happy, make the product managers heroes. They look fucking amazing because they have now a secret tool, an ability to generate data out of thin air, which is interesting and fun. But now we need to make that an enterprise wide capability and that’s just a different thing. We need to figure that out.

C. Todd: That was sort of how the culture in Alpha is but how about you as a leader and a product leader? How have you evolved over the last few years? What are the changes you’ve noticed in yourself and things you need to work on as you continue to grow and scale?

Thor: The biggest is continually pushing myself to be okay with all the uncertainty around experimentation. It’s perfectly fine to have things that fail and everybody talks about that. Everybody says, Fail fast and learn and break things, all that stuff. In reality, it really sucks to be in a board meeting and say, You know, we tried this and it failed. Meaning I failed, meaning we as a company failed within our numbers, or whatever. That’s just a shitty feeling.

Having the right team around us, which extends to investors and partners and everybody else that are also okay with this experiment driven mindset.  That’s been a new learning for me because before it was either raise a bunch of money and that automatically assumes we have room to fail or be in a company that’s making so much money that you can do whatever the hell you want.

C. Todd: Experimentation can be expensive and I think investors look at that and say, Well, I don’t want to fund experimentation, I want to fund growth.

Thor: Exactly.

C. Todd: Everyone wants, especially investors, they want permanence and certainty in an impermanent and uncertain world. How do you manage that personally yourself and how do you manage that actually in others that are demanding a level of certainty? We talked a little bit about that with roadmapping in that you know, road maps not a release plan. It’s your strategic document. Your release plan is what’s gonna give you the dates and the details and the features. That’s what your project plan, release plan does. Your roadmap can’t demand those kinds of things because it’s not set up for that. It’s a much more strategic level document. I think a lot of teams struggle with that when they first get into it they conflate the two.  Even executives struggle with that too.  They think roadmap means I’m gonna get this thing on this date so I have certainty on what I can tell my investors and team and blah blah. That just human thing, right? It’s a very human thing of wanting certainty.

Thor: And even to your point earlier about outcomes versus outputs. Launching something is an output.

C. Todd: Correct.

Thor: The outcome is whatever happens after you launch it. If you’re trying to generate whatever it is, business or engagement or retention or whatever it is. Launching it is the first step.

C. Todd: Right. Exactly and then you gotta measure, okay, we want this outcome but … I talk about this a lot in workshops. The first level of product person is like alright, let’s get this feature to market. More advanced product person says, Okay, we can get that feature to market. What problem is that feature solving. Why is that the solution we need to build and ship? Then an even more advanced one says, Well, hang on. If we solve that problem what’s the outcome we intend to see? And let’s drive to that outcome.

There’s like three levels there if you can identify where people are and how they think, you can start to correct that mindset and say, Okay, this is the outcome we’re driving towards and yes we can ship these things that might help drive this outcome but we’re not gonna know immediately based on the output. We’re gonna have to figure out what the things to measure are and what are those, as you said, signals that we can measure along the way?

Let’s change the conversation a little bit. Tell me, based on your experience and the number of companies you work with. You’ve obviously got quite a broad view into how teams build, develop and ship and experiment with their products. What’s missing in the conversation about product and design? I think also you guys have a podcast too that’s pretty well attended, so you obviously have a lot of knowledge in your sphere and your ecosystem. What’s missing that’s not being talked about enough these days?

Thor: I mean I really go back to this whole notion of iteration.  Most people think and act as if there is a single answer to their question. What will make this work that has some sort of objective truth to it? And there is, people change, products changes, markets change. Apple launches something and then everything all the rules are different. Whatever the industry report said from two weeks ago about. We literally did and actually we should do this again and see what happens now but literally did tests on using selfies for authentication for your bank account. That sounded really silly and didn’t test very well. Of course nobody wanted to take a picture of their face to identify themselves. I guarantee you after yesterdays announcement from Apple that that’s how you can unlock your phone? It’s gonna be completely different.

The data that you’re making your decisions on, unless you have the ability to run it and run it again and actually validate it and even interrogate the data itself. Not just specific users. Then that’s a mindset shift that’s very difficult for companies to adopt because they’re used to waterfall processes and not just on development but on strategic planning and execution. That’s a huge missing part of the conversation that I’m looking forward to having but it’s not. It hasn’t really come up much with our clients or really anybody else because they have a specific thing they’re trying to hit. A release date or some metric or something like that.

C. Todd: Right. Sometimes they’re managing the outputs, right? Like, We gotta get to this release date. We gotta get this thing here because my boss said. We’ve been just so conditioned as a culture to be focused on the outputs sometimes we’re missing the forest and the trees.

Where do you think with all these evolutions in technology and ways of doing things and speed of doing things, even as you referenced yesterday’s Apple iPhone X launch, where do you think we’re gonna see design go in the future?

Thor: Design I think will be a lot more integrated in other parts of the business. I don’t think design should be a siloed endeavor where designers sit in an ivory tower with paint brushes and come down and tell everybody what things are supposed to be. It’s not gonna be that. Design is to inform user interfaces, drive user experiences which at the end of the day is just one component of how you interact with something.

You can look a lot of designers, they say that this has to be a certain way because that’s their design language and aesthetic and all this other stuff. In reality, if you’re trying to get cash to transfer cash from one account to the other, you’re not really marveling over the pixel placement of somebodies design. You just need cash from one account to the other. The fact that you just had to deal with a teller made you angry and now you as a designer aren’t considering the actual use case that you’re supposed to be designing for. Which extends way beyond just the digital product.

Becoming more holistic in terms of user experiences that are in a cross between digital and offline, a cross between one product and another is really around solving problems. Really it’s about being properly user centric. Design is critical and hugely important in being able to rapidly iterate and prototype your way there and figure out really how do you solve the problem. How do you even understand the problem that you’re trying to solve. But you can’t do it in isolation from all these other factors.

C. Todd: One of the questions we often like to ask when we get towards the end is, what advice would you give to somebody? You kind of started to hint around to it with your comments but if somebody is just getting into product and or design, what kind of advice would you offer them? Given the state of the world today and where you think it’s going.

Thor: If they’re just starting to get in, and there’s a lot of really great content. You mentioned our podcast which is This Is Product Management is one of probably 10, this one being another one, 10 expert level information sources. What you don’t have in other industries that you do have in product management because it’s so new, are people that are genuinely trying to help.  People that genuinely want to share what they learned. Be it battle scars or success stories. Because it’s new, because we’re all figuring it out together there’s an active community. There’s all this information out there.

The most important thing I would recommend is to plug into all that. Just start drinking from the fire hose and then be a part of the community. Go to the meetups, go to the different things. Find the product focused organization and learn from them. Maybe take a job there, just try to learn and really focus on that because nobody has all the answers. We all have our own perspective and our own lessons and even though people are often built to be experts, there’s not a lot of expertise in product management yet. I’m sure there will be but today it’s just individual stories.

If you’re new to it just learn as much as you can and then eventually you’ll be the one giving the lessons because you’ll put it into practice. This would be another second key thing is to do something with it. Pick something, do something even as a hobby. It doesn’t really matter, just do anything and then you start talking about what you’ve learned in that process and that sort of helps everybody.

C. Todd: Yeah, great advice. Even for somebody that’s more seasoned I think the whole idea of never stop learning, continue to learn, is still a great piece of advice with regards to where you are in your career. Because even if you are very seasoned, things change fast enough that what you were good at today may not be as relevant five years from now. There may be still things you need to learn-

Thor:  Five days from now.

C. Todd: Exactly, you’re right. Fantastic, that’s great advice.  Let’s end the interview on something a little bit lighter like what’s fun for you outside of all this product and design and CEO world? What’s life like on the outside for you of things that you like to do for fun?

Really? That’s fantastic. Have you ever heard of the Ass in Space Sauce?

Thor: I have not but I’ll check it out.

C. Todd: It is pretty hot sauce and the label just cracks me up. It’s got a guy, well, I’ll let you figure it out. Thor, thank you so much for spending some time with us. You are indeed a product hero. Thanks for sharing your experience and your wisdom with us today. Really appreciate it.

Thor: All right. Happy to be here. If anybody has any follow up questions too, happy to go into that. Feel free to drop me a note at thor@alphahq.com.

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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