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How Product Management Can Save SaaS

With the shift to Software as a Service for many applications the need for strong product management is more apparent than ever. Here at the 280 Group we use several SaaS applications, and to be frank most of them are poorly implemented and remind me of the early days of desktop applications.

Here are just a few of the places where product managers can add tremendous value in a SaaS environment:

  • Be responsible for the whole product. No one understands the product, customer and business better than the product manager. And no one has a better holistic view. Each department (sales, support, etc.) has their own agenda that is perfectly logical from their point of view. But the if unchecked when decisions are made it can result in a terrible experience for the customer.
  • Filter out the vocal minority. Many SaaS companies are using built-in surveys and discussion forums to gather information as the basis for prioritizing features in their releases. This is a valuable source of data, but by definition the customers who are contributing are self-selected and most likely won’t reflect what your average user really cares about. If you don’t bring in additional data you run the risk of building a product that makes your power users happy but leaves the other 97% of your customers scratching their heads.
  • SaaS applications can change too rapidly. I am sure that each individual decision to add new features rapidly and change menus, etc. is well-justified within each SaaS company. The problem is that at the 280 Group we run multiple SaaS applications. Between all of them at least one changes every week or so. As a small business owner I don’t have the time or desire to re-learn how to do tasks or to absorb new features and functionality constantly – I have a business to run. Imagine if every time you opened up Microsoft Word the menus had changed. Product Managers need to specify the most important use cases and ensure that new releases don’t interrupt their customer’s work flows. And they need to understand the environment of their customers and how often customers can really digest new changes. Just because your team is doing one month sprints doesn’t mean you should necessarily provide a new release every month.
  • Implement usage monitoring software and use it wisely. Since you can monitor what features are being used in a SaaS environment it can be valuable to aggregate the data and use it in product decisions. However, you have to balance this with the fact that there may be features in the product (or that need to be added to the product) that users can’t find and/or don’t know about. When Microsoft did a survey to see what should be added to MS Word in Office 2007 8 out of 10 of the top requests were features that were already in the product that users didn’t know about or couldn’t find! Product managers need to combine usage data with common support questions, queries in the help system and customer research to determine what the right mix is rather than relying only on usage data.
  • Set the long-term vision and strategy for the product and make sure that short-term decisions are aligned with it. With the increasing use of Agile and the short development cycles of SaaS it is easy for a team to become far too focused on the short-term list of features to implement. The danger in this is that you won’t necessarily build a product that will be competitive a few years out. Tacking features on based on what seems the most important thing this month can lead you to both an architecture that can’t support large-scale necessary changes and a product that starts to look like a swiss army knife.
  • Don’t ship beta features in a product that customers are paying for. When we are paying a premium for a SaaS applications nothing pisses us off more than seeing a feature listed as “Beta”. What does that mean? Can we count on it? Does it work correctly? Product Managers need to make the call as to whether a feature is implemented and tested to the point where customers can rely on it. If not, don’t release it. As SaaS matures I am hopeful that the quality of the applications will improve and that there will be more of a focus on the user.
  • Get trained and up-to-speed on how to work more effectively with your team if they are doing Agile development. Agile environments require different skill sets than waterfall, so make sure you learn about effective product management in that environment. You might want to read Agile Excellence for Product Managers or take a course on Agile Product Management Excellence.

As SaaS matures I am hopeful that the quality of the applications will improve and that there will be more of a focus on the user. Product managers will be key to making this happen.

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