Great product management is about what you manage to keep out of your product.
I’ve certainly been there and I’ve watched most PMs do this – pack as many features as possible into a product or a release. More features = better, right? That provides the perception that we are capable of producing tons of stuff. Of course, the better PMs will enforce quality bars on those features. There will simply be a large number of reasonably good features that work reasonably well.
Except it’s all wrong. The best PMs are constantly thinking about how to keep the product minimal. It is what we keep out of the product that really defines good program management. It is extremely hard to do and even harder to keep doing on an ongoing basis. But, the best ones know that even at the cost of taking a gamble at going after the wrong feature set, that is the right thing to do.
I learnt this the hard way. By trying to explain why there is nothing specific about Bluetooth or WiFi in application level peer-to-peer in a company that doesn’t quite understand applications. And that sharing photos using peer-to-peer to one device in front of you and sharing it with 10 or 10,000 users across the globe requires the same fundamental underlying technology. Sure, the techno geeks who lived in the same world as me got it. But, I was unsuccessful in getting too many others around me to see that reality. Instead, a minimalistic product needed to have been built, albeit with the grander vision influencing the architecture and design, to have created interest and momentum and avoided overwhelming the people who needed to fund the effort. Luckily, this is an area where I’ve learnt from mistakes.
Recently, I’ve had a plethora of phone problems (minor digression and rant – my Galaxy Nexus has more or less died, I’m desperately waiting for Verizon to carry the HTC One and in the meantime, I have a completely unstable phone that drives me insane!). In this state, the one application that has been a source of problem is Whatsapp. Every time I move my SIM to another phone, it wants the phone number to be reverified and the setup to start all over again. While it migrates the groups I have created to the new phone, the messages do not migrate. And, on the phone with no service, it constantly pops up the message that Whatsapp can only be installed on a phone with cellular service. In fact, a few months ago, I realized that I couldn’t download Whatsapp on my iPod Touch.
Whatsapp is an application that works over data (ala IP). There is nothing that technically prevents it from working just over WiFi (and hence, on any connected device). However, it is not supported in Whatsapp. In fact, there is a short and sweet message on their FAQs that states simply this – “We currently do not support tablets, computers, or Wi-Fi only devices, and do not plan to do so in the foreseeable future.“
So, here is a case, where extra engineering effort was potentially spent to ensure that an app that otherwise would just seamlessly work on all devices only works on phones with service. Of course, people have bypassed this limitation. But, that is for the geeks and not for regular people.
This limitation in Whatsapp strikes me as an extremely thought through product management decision. They were after the SMS market. They modeled it as close to the SMS functionality as possible, only sending messages was free. So, they tied it to the only id that SMS is tied to – the phone number. If you changed devices, your SMS messages did not carry over – they modeled after this too, with an exception only for groups. Groups, by itself is almost the only enhancement beyond SMS (and is solving an important pain point).
While this artificial limitation is annoying to people like me, it made the app ultra simple and allowed them to market this to vast parts of the population with no further explanation than
Real Time Messaging.”
“WhatsApp is working on building a better SMS alternative.” as they say on LinkedIn.
It is really important to connect with the users at a level they can understand and this is what they did. Of course, I think it is terrible UX to keep throwing messages at you when you are not even trying to use the app (on a phone where you have previously installed Whatsapp and removed service). But, that’s such a rare use case that is not worth their time solving at this stage.
Bottomline is that they went for the minimal feature set that aligned with their goals and got users on board. That’s brilliant product management. One that is extremely difficult to do – all of us want “backup” features, things that we can fall back to, if our primary plan does not go well. Worse still, most of us have a hard time picking the single most important feature – there’s always a list of important features. But, being able to figure out that minimal set is what makes a difference between brilliant products and good products.
We should always be thinking of Minimum Viable Product from the “Minimum” perspective. “Viable” is also important, but that generally doesn’t require special efforts to think about. Hopefully, you have already understood how your product is viable or you would not be working on it. Staying minimal requires special efforts. And it makes all the difference in building a great product!