Prabu listened as his CEO and COO listed out all the things that were wrong with his company's home page. They were frustrated, to put it mildly. The company had lost ground against key competitors. Customer surveys showed that the company felt remote, inaccessible, fragmented and difficult to engage with. The huge investments they had made in an online store had yet to reverse the trend. Something had to change and Prabu was hearing a three hour lecture on exactly what those things were.
The two big dogs described their vision in detail for Prabu and his leadership team. Each feature, the way the shopping cart should work, the color scheme, the layout. Periodically, they emphasized the importance of innovation, creativity and a focus on customers. For Prabu, the goal was crystal clear. Who could disagree with any of it? What wasn't clear was how to get it done.
As the team listened, his anxiety only grew, and looking around the room, he knew he wasn't alone. He and his team ran one of the 10 largest web properties in the world, supporting one of the largest technology companies on earth. They were technical experts, which meant they knew the exact behaviors of the more than 200 million unique visitors to the site. He knew what made them tick, what drew their attention and what didn't.
The problem was that, even though the CEO and COO were in charge, the problem was more complicated than they understood. The product groups in the company ran their own web properties as sub-sites under the Prabu's and he didn't control them. They had their own look and feel, their own strategy of engagement, their own tone and their own routes to a distinct sales experience. So, as clear as his mission was, he couldn't help but wonder if now would be a good time to look for his next career opportunity.
In the meantime, habits from his 8 years of experience as a Product Manager kicked in. He organized the team, inviting leaders from each of the federated sites, including Research, Product Ownership, Design and IT Engineering to meet regularly in a dedicated war room. Each member of the team was an expert in their respective areas. Customer intelligence, release management, Six Sigma process analysis, performance and monitoring, branding -- all cylinders were firing -- people, process, technology. Yet, somehow, the goal seemed as far away as ever. Somehow, they weren't coming together as a team.
Even though the directive was clear, each sub-team, each member in fact, seemed to have separate agendas. They debated constantly about how best to realize the vision of the CEO and COO within the constraints of what was possible, but tactical agreement was elusive and painfully time consuming. Even when Prabu thought they landed a decision, it wasn't unusual for that decision to unravel a few days later, which caused more confusion and delays.
As the panic quietly mounted, he became aware that his engineering partners were asking him to take two days out of his schedule to bring the entire team to a class on Design for Business Value. Irritated that he would even be asked to consider this distraction in the middle of such a tight schedule, the team persisted, arguing that it would actually help get the team on track.
Finally, he relented, reconciling himself to it by thinking of it as a morale event and ordered donuts and coffee for everyone who attended. As the class progressed, he found that each idea, taken on its own, was familiar and intuitive -- personas, scenarios, brainstorming, paper prototyping, user testing and measurement -- but something about the whole package together seemed to hold unexpected promise for the team. He wasn't sure why they weren't doing these things already. They didn't have a lot of time, but then again, what did it matter if they weren't successful in the end?
The breakthrough for Prabu came when he started thinking about measuring success through the eyes of his customers. Was their goal to execute on the directives of the CEO and COO, or was it to actually solve the business problem that was generating so much of their attention? And if it was the latter, who could possibly be better prepared to solve the problem than his team? The shift the team needed to make, he realized, was from trying to please the company's top executives to focusing instead on pleasing customers. As domain experts, they needed to lead the execs, to claim accountability for solving the problem. They needed to lead instead of follow and find ways to build the credibility to do it.
The practices they learned in class were simple. The team had the skills already to execute most of them and he knew he could get help with the rest. He could update schedules and work plans to build the activities into the project. But the difficult part was going to be inspiring the team to think differently. It would take a change in the culture of the team to really be successful. They would have to start thinking about success differently. Once they agreed on success measures, they would have to allocate time to generate new ideas, test those ideas against the metrics and report on the results. They would have to take more risks, exercise more expert judgment and deliver on the mission of the project, not just the specs.
It wasn't an easy transition and Prabu heard a never-ending stream of reasons why a Design for Business Value approach wasn't going to work. Not everyone was able to make the switch and a few of them ended up leaving the team, but with some expert coaching, those who remained started to gain steam. At the next executive review, Prabu introduced Maggie, the principle target persona. He outlined her current experience, her aspirations, motivations and pain points. He described a vision for a new experience for Maggie and how they would measure it, what numbers would change and how this new experience would connect Maggie to the company, deepen her engagement, build her loyalty and make her an advocate for the company. It was a solid plan for reversing the competitive losses that the company was experiencing.
The execs listened in silence as Prabu gave his update. "Well, sounds like you have this under control. I like the progress. Let's see where we are in another month." The meeting was over. Prabu had argued against all the skeptics who said that the team would never be able to change the dynamics with these two leaders, that they would never sit still for long enough or listen to the team. But the truth was, he couldn't help but be a bit amazed that it worked.
In the war room, the team left a seat open for Maggie and started to talk to her as if she were in the room, speculating on the things that would work for her and how they would engineer a better experience. The team generated dozens of new concepts and tested them, first on a small scale, then with real users in production. They iterated and refined their ideas, measuring each one before deciding on the next steps. Mockups covered the walls, first in the room, then spilled out into the hallway. Even though the team spent less time managing change requests, writing status reports and other formalities designed to improve communication, collaboration improved. Engagement was stronger and the barriers between different sub-teams started to melt away. Everyone was speaking a common language. Common personas, target scenarios and measurements meant that everyone knew when something was working.
As the release date got closer, the team built up speed. They could have released the product at any time and would have been able to report respectable gains, but they used the time to make even more improvements. When they finally deployed the new design and turned it on for all 221 million users, they were able to report the largest measurable gains in engagement in the history of the site. Search engagement surged by more than 200 basis point, an improvement that alone would have been worth the investment. Customer satisfaction jumped by double digits.
"Making the decision to take the whole team offline for a two-day training was like having a root canal," Prabu says. "Our schedule was so tight and we were under such pressure to perform. But in the 8 years that I've been a Product Manager at this company, I've never led such a tight, collaborative team. In the future, I will never launch another project team without doing this again. The coordination and collaboration of the team is not just good, it’s fantastic because to be successful in design, you have to have people working together."
After seeing the results, the COO met with the team to congratulate them. The team presented their roadmap to consolidate all of the sites under a single integrated design, which they believed would increase the consistency and credibility of Maggie's experience. Prabu explains, "we were able to get ahead of the game while we were managing the schedule, knowing that stakeholders will tell you what you need to do unless you first present them with a plan."
Reflecting on their initial success in redesigning the home page, Prabu summarizes his experience, "We made the methodology work for us. It molded us on a common approach, and our ability to work as a cohesive team is something we are very proud of."