Early in my career, I listed questions to ask potential employers — how is the product team structured? What features or capabilities drive the most impact to key metrics? How are decisions made?

The diplomatic answers were never satisfying. I was reaching for an explanation of product team culture that I didn’t know how to ask for.

Years later, interviewing people for product leadership roles, I saw a different set of questions being asked:

Is this a product-driven company?

Who makes the proposal — and owns the decision — to create a new line of business?

How is the incentive…

No all-team virtual happy hours necessary.

My product manager peers who (remotely) started new jobs during COVID-19 seem to agree: the biggest challenge is building relationships.

On the surface I didn’t find this surprising — it’s intuitive that no live face-time, fewer casual encounters at lunch or between meetings would make it more difficult for colleagues to feel familiar. Anyone who has been part of a buzzing Slack instance can tell you that remote collaboration tools don’t produce closeness on their own — they require your time and intent to foster relationships. But I underestimated the degree to which real relationship building impacts a PM’s efficacy:

Insights from building behavior change products

It’s January, and my social media streams are full of meal prep ads — losing weight (one form of behavior change) is top of all our minds again.

I’ve written before about building products designed to promote behavior change. The more users I’ve interviewed, experiments I’ve run, and products I’ve launched, I’ve observed a pattern in the fundamental motivations that get people started, and the fundamental motivators that seem to keep them going.

Getting Started

Product managers always want to talk to the early “super users” and understand what is making them so successful. I have been through several of those cycles…

Becoming a people manager, I found the same problem I originally set out to solve with Path to Product. The typical advice is generic — rarely based on real, specific scenarios, much less scenarios in your discipline. (Yes, it’s important to build trust and communicate… now what?)

I have found managing people as a product manager to be both easier and harder than I expected, in ways that flouted typical “people leadership” advice.

Easier: The heavy product management workload can help fight the temptation to micromanage.

I’ve read a lot on the dangers of micromanaging, especially in an execution-heavy discipline. If you’re accustomed to doing the work, and perhaps still doing some in…

Is your product a nail?

Silicon Valley loves to mock itself. We live for the latest Halting Problem writeup or Sara Cooper tweet. Every shiny new technology — chatbots, blockchain, AR/VR — gets its moment in the spotlight before the (limited) use cases are revealed… and it fades into obscurity again, appearing only in satire about our optimism.

But I’ve noticed a blind spot.


Machine learning.

Before you get up in arms, let me explain.

At no time have I ever been called into a meeting to discuss how blockchain or AR could revolutionize my product. (OK maybe, in the context of a hackathon…

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Emma and Eliza (Path to Product editors)

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Air high-fives from California,

Emma & Eliza (Path to Product editors)

I’ve had many coffee chats where prospective product managers obsess over the hard qualifications they think they need for the job. Technical skills, design tools, an MBA, scrum certifications, and so on.

The core of product management is very simple:
Maximize your business value by making decisions about what to build and when.

Put into a single sentence, it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard. You don’t need any special degrees or tools to understand it. You know exactly what you have to do… in theory.

The hard part of product management is understanding the soft, subtle ways…

Early on in my PM career, a resourcing hiccup led to me being “the second PM” on a fully staffed team. The first product manager and cross-functional leads had been collaborating for years before I arrived. For the most part, I was taking notes and writing bug reports, and not contributing much value. I filed this experience away under “Bad ideas: having more than one product manager.” And I avoided teams where multiple product managers might cross paths.

“Only one product manager” is easy to agree with and probably the correct default — one responsible party, one person to consult…

Why we struggle to help people exercise more often, save more money, and make other changes that matter

In the past few years, building products in healthcare and finance, I’ve realized something:

Despite thousands of books, articles, and studies on the topic… we’re still early on in learning about changing behavior. We’ve found some marketing hacks that work in the short term (especially to sell things!), and some edge cases where a behavioral science technique can drive small improvement.

But for the big, fundamental behaviors that matter (diet, exercise, savings…) for any given individual… it’s hard to find the answer…

Emma Townley-Smith

Design-driven Product Manager. Love learning how people and products work.

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