Impressions from Product Camp and Design Thinking meetups

PCamp DT Collage

Last week was full of rich discussions and presentations, at events focused on 2 intimately linked topics: Product Management and Design Thinking.

Product Camp

On Wednesday evening the 2nd (almost annual) Product Camp – the first occurred in December of 2012 – was held at Criteo. The event was brought to life by the Paris chapter of ProductTank, the team at We Do Product Management, and Xebia. The event followed the BarCamp format, with topics submitted by participants, and multiple discussions occurring simultaneously in different rooms.

Much like the inaugural Product Camp, most of the attendees seemed to be Product Managers and Chef de Projet Fonctionnel (literally Functional Project Manager, a job title that is often substituted, incorrectly or not, for Product Manager in the French tech world). There were also some User Interaction designers scattered amongst the attendees I spoke to. The topics discussed ranged from gamification and prototyping, to Agile best practices and how to find a product manager job in France.

I kicked things off by participating in the prototyping & wireframing discussion, where the focus was on two things: which prototyping tools are best (pencil & paper, Axure, Balsamiq, POP, etc.) and is it possible to manage every aspect of a project using only interactive wireframes, thereby eliminating the need to write a specifications document? The feedback from some was that it is possible and they’d done it successfully. My thought on this was that it depends on the project, the company, the maturity/comfort level of team members with prototypes and wireframes. Many companies are still waking up to these tools, and it may be necessary to progressively transition away from a 100-page specification to a detailed, interactive wireframe. It’s up to the product manager to understand rules, processes, and best practices and then adapt/break them as necessary :)

The second discussion, on Agile best practices, saw us discussing whether the development team alone can be Agile without the rest of the company being Agile. The general consensus was hell, no. By rest of the company, we were referring more precisely to people who influence and interact with the product team but aren’t necessarily part of day-to-day Agile (particularly, SCRUM) activities such as daily standups, sprint planning sessions, etc. So here we were referring to CEOs, sales directors, and such. The outcome of our talk was that it’s better to sell those influencers and stakeholders on the benefits of Agile and get their buy-in. Otherwise it’s rather useless trying to implement Agile just for the sake of implementing it. As a process, Agile is much more than just working in iterations and doing sprint demos. It requires a mind shift and change in company culture.

Lastly I participated in a talk around the concept of design studio. One of the participants shared his personal experience with the concept and how he’d applied it to a mobile project. Overall the concept makes good, practical sense and for anyone not familiar with it, it’s another fancier way of saying co-creation (on a side note we are drowning ourselves in acronyms and labels in the industry!). So you get various project members together to brainstorm on how best to address a user need and the best possible solution(s). Which leads me to the second event of the week…

Design Thinking in product conception/ideation

Thursday evening, at the Nealite offices, myself and everyone else who could squeeze themselves in, came by to listen to the company’s co-founder and Director of UX & Innovation, Benjamin Servet, share his experiences with Design Thinking.

The main takeaway, for me, was very simply that design thinking is nothing new. In fact design thinking, is human thinking. The example Benjamin used was wedding planning. Generally, when a bride is planning her wedding she gets together with key people in her life – family, friends, girlfriends – to brainstorm and plan out what has to be done. Everyone throws in recommendations for the best bakery, best dressmaker, best stationery supplier, ideal honeymoon location, etc. Then a schedule it setup for what has to be done when, by whom, in what order, etc. This, in essence, is design thinking.

The second takeaway was that while there is no official Design Thinking manifesto, diversity, creativity, and solidarity/kinship/empathy are key tenets of design thinking. And around all this, lies the element of intuition. As Mr. Servet pointed out, intuition and empathy also implies a certain awareness and observation of the world around us. Being in tune. Noticing the subtle things. Being able to make correlations and analogies to things that at first glance seem unrelated (he cited getting inspiration for a digital project from a visit to a flea market). As he put it, the more one is able to develop these abilities, the better one becomes at design thinking.

So it’s not enough to get multiple people into a room and have them brainstorm; it’s more important that each of those people bring with them personal experiences, personal diversity, and empathy towards their fellow mankind. I found this point to be extremely valuable because it served as a good reminder that whatever product or service we are building, we are building it for humans. We need to step out of the digital mindset and take a look around us, travel to another country, try a dance class, participate in a medieval re-enactment event…whatever, but just get out there and learn, and then bring that knowledge back to the drawing table. I believe The X-Files said it best with “the truth is out there”.

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