How to build ground-breaking products: A manager's guide

Suzanne LaBarre

In this three-part series, we’re talking to leaders and managers from teams at Shopify, Ironclad, Twitch, Uber, and more to learn about how they’re rethinking the way they work to keep pace with the outsized change in work right now.

When it comes to shipping great products, clarity is everything. The better teams understand what they’re producing, why they’re doing it, and how they can get it done, the easier it’ll be to focus on shipping products that customers love.

As a people manager, you play the role of head curator, guiding your teams toward the most promising solution, then helping them realize it (and ignore everything that might get in their way). “It boils down to: How are we improving the customer’s journey and driving value?” says Oura Ring VP of Growth Manbir Sodhia. “Can we do that and make a positive impact on ROI? If we can do that, it’s ours for the taking.”

Here, Sodhia and other experts from Shopify, Ironclad, Work & Co., and Super share their secrets for building products that get results.

Design for customers, not OKRs

“Don’t ship the org chart!” It’s the ultimate warning against corporate dysfunction. When teams design products that reflect the hierarchy of their company and not the actual wants and needs of customers, everyone suffers.

Avoid this pitfall by thinking beyond Objectives and Key Results. “Designs fall over when they're developed in a vacuum of product requirements that are narrowly focused on a locally optimized goal,” says Shopify Senior UX Manager Katarina Batina. At Shopify, a multinational commerce platform, teams do their roadmapping and planning in Figma and FigJam, which lets them visualize a project’s value proposition to the larger organization. “It’s very easy to see things in design and figure out whether they're the right or wrong problems,” echoes Senior UX Manager Sebastian Speier.

Building digital prototypes can also help with buy-in at the highest levels of the company. “Prototyping has shown itself to be a way of making decisions quickly with leadership,” Speier says. “It's not just about bringing transparency to the work. It’s about letting people explore their idea all the way to the end state so that they can decide whether it's the right solution to the problem.”

Put your customers to work

At Ironclad, a digital contracting platform, some of the best product ideas have come from an unlikely source: the customers themselves. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Ironclad noticed that customers were using its products very differently and needed new ways of analyzing their contracts. The company responded by convening a round table of 10 to 15 customers to gather insights that ultimately formed a major part of Ironclad’s product roadmap for the next 18 months. Some of those customers participated heavily from conception to launch, reviewing design concepts in FigJam and beta-testing new features.

The co-creation process wasn’t just about tapping users’ expertise to make better work. It was about getting them invested in the outcome, which can bolster a product’s chances of success in the market. “We were building alongside our customers in a way that kept us grounded and kept them excited about the direction we were going in,” says Chief Product Officer Steven Yan.

Too many ideas? Ask yourself three critical questions

With digital collaboration tools breaking down traditional workflow barriers, your product teams may find themselves in the difficult, if not entirely unwelcome, position of having too many ideas.

That’s what happened at the design and technology firm Work & Co recently on a project to develop a new R&D platform for IBM Research. “When we were concepting, there were close to 50 ideas for what the platform could’ve been, generated in a matter of weeks,” says Design Partner Casey Sheehan. “We can’t take 50 ideas to a client.”

So Sheehan turned to a set of questions he asks any time he has to navigate a sea of options: Why does this platform need to exist? What does it need to do? And how are we going to build it? This process helps ground the team’s thinking in reality and ensures that the final solutions are not just the most exciting ones, but the most practical ones. “Good ideas are easy to produce, but it’s really important that the ideas we generate are ideas that we can ship,” he says.

Think like Ike

Once you’ve nailed down your direction, your team’s next big challenge is to stay on task. At Oura Ring, a wellness device, Sodhia has a go-to strategy ripped from the pages of a presidential playbook.

The action prioritization model, also known as the Eisenhower matrix, is a framework for ranking goals in four quadrants: those with a major impact, quick wins, thankless tasks, and fill-ins. Named for former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (who was also something of a time-management guru), it’s a quick and easy way to help your team prioritize the most important aspects of a project—and eliminate the fluff. “Maybe there’s one task you never get to,” Sodhia says. “After two to three weeks, I just ask my team, ‘Was this important in the first place?’ It’s okay to say no, it’s okay to challenge the norm. That makes us a healthier team.”

An image of a prioritization metric FigJam file with stickies and Asana tasks linked in the file.An image of a prioritization metric FigJam file with stickies and Asana tasks linked in the file.
Visualizing priorities not only helps team align on goals, it also helps facilitate conversation.

Run from vanity metrics!

What success looks like varies from one product to the next, but one thing applies universally: The work needs to provide real value. Obvious? Yes. But as anyone who has chased page views or daily logins knows, it’s all too easy to get sidetracked by vanity metrics—data points that make your product look enticing, but don’t contribute meaningfully to the company’s strategic goals.

At the building management startup Super, every major product decision has to funnel up to a single metric. “When building a SaaS product, the bottom line is: Are people going to pay for the product?” says co-founder Vika Kovalchuk Zamparelli. “We aren’t chasing numbers that aren't tied to the essential value that we're providing in the market.”

To learn from failure, visualize it

When something goes wrong, Oura Ring’s Manbir Sodhia likes to hold project retrospectives in FigJam. Teams retrace their steps visually in a shared digital file, allowing everyone to contribute to an at-a-glance trail of what happened and why. “That interactive visual element really helps us break the mold of remote work, where it can be tough to have frank conversations about mistakes," Sodhia says. Visual retrospectives also double as a team-building exercise, of sorts, laying the groundwork for robust communication on future collaborations. “It allows everyone to have a voice and a shared experience.”

A project retrospective visualized in a FigJam fileA project retrospective visualized in a FigJam file
Visualize wins and misses in a shared retrospective file

Read part one, to learn how people managers can reframe their approach to tackle some of today’s biggest workplace challenges, and part two, to find out how to get the best out of teams.