How Product Stewardship Incentives Can Hurt Customer Experience

Commentary: Sometimes our best intentions are to help customers go wrong, says Tim Bray. The problem could be how we reward PM.

Image: skynesher/Getty Images

“We need to stop breaking the software that people use.” So writes famous software developer Tim Bray, and he’s not wrong. Bray used to write about the impact of product managers on consumer-facing software (like the apps running on our phones), but his premise generally rings true. Namely, when promotions are tied to a given activity, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more of that activity, even if it’s not the best outcome for customers.

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Customers are victims

Bray works on a few sample applications that he says have gotten worse with age. From iPhoto to apps from The Economist and MLB, for Bray, some apps become “tremendously slower” or “fantastic and stalled” for no apparent reason.

Or maybe there is a reason:

It’s obvious. Every tech company has people called “Product Managers” (PM) whose job it is to work with customers, management, and engineers to define what products should do. No PM in history has ever said “That seems to be working pretty well, let’s just leave it as it is.” Because it’s not daring. It’s not visionary. It doesn’t get you a promotion.

He continued, “It’s every PM’s dream to come up with bold UX innovation that garners praise, and many believe in the gospel that software is better at figuring out what the customer wants than the customer. And you get extra points these days for using ML. Thus, PMs may play with products with the intention of fixing their career, not necessarily the customer experience. Is it malicious? Of course not. It’s just human nature: people trying to succeed within the “rules” of success within their given organization.

Not that it’s limited to consumer software.

What you reward, persists

Bray thinks that kind of behavior is best in business, and when it comes to the kind of product development he castigates, he’s usually right. “Because these were enterprise products, … the number of customers was several orders of magnitude less than [for a consumer app], so the PM can go talk to them and offer ideas for improvement. Customers are pretty good at spotting UX gaffes in the making.

Well yes. But Bray’s underlying point—that promotion incentives often (still?) drive product decisions—isn’t just a consumer software problem.

If I told you that there are companies that place a high value on creative software engineering, such that engineers are promoted for building a machine learning algorithm that can coordinate the delivery of tacos instead of a PostgreSQL database service that many customers want, would you believe me? Well, it’s true (or was). Or what about companies that promote PM to bring new products to market, rather than making incremental improvements to existing products? Also a true story.

I could go on, because perverse incentive structures for PMs are as plentiful as there are companies in this world. Nobody is perfect. Among other suggestions, Bray said, “Maybe we should start promoting PMs who are willing to accept a casual release or three.” Again, it’s talking about a particular problem in consumer software, but think about your own business and what you’re rewarding. It’s easy to talk about being customer-centric (and who doesn’t say that?), but careful attention needs to be paid to internal incentive structures to ensure that what companies are actually building is what are most dear to them.

Disclosure: I work for AWS, but the opinions expressed here are my own.