What makes a product team successful? We asked 5 Boston tech companies to find out

by Justine Hofherr
November 13, 2018

As anyone who works in tech knows, product teams are crucial to a company’s bottom line. This cross-functional group touches every aspect of the business — engineering, sales, customer success, design and marketing — in order to release innovative new products and functionality and ensure the success of the business. This team not only implements roadmaps and strategy, but also defines new features and product lines for the rest of the company: It’s no small task.

But what separates a good product team from a great one? Well, we spoke with five leading Boston product teams to find out. They shared how they stay creative while launching new products from start to finish.

 

simplisafe
photo via simplisafe

Product Manager Adam Pineau at SimpliSafe, a local tech company that makes home security systems, explains how the prevalence of false alarms spurred the product team to come up with a new visual verification feature. 

 

How did the idea for a recent new product come about?

An overwhelming majority of alarms are false. Hence, law enforcement in many jurisdictions do not give high-priority response to alarms triggered by traditional security systems. We are committed to helping our customers get the help they deserve as quickly as possible. A good portion of our customer base has cameras. If our monitoring center could verify the authenticity of an alarm by accessing the customers’ in-home cameras, we might be able to persuade law enforcement to move our alarms to the top of their queue. Visual verification was thus born.

With this feature, customers on our Interactive plan can opt in to allow our monitoring center to access alarm recordings from their cameras during an alarm event. This video footage can aid in the triaging of alarm events by the monitoring station.

 

How did your product team take that concept and turn it into a real product?

We value the security and privacy of our customers over everything else. Sharing a customer’s recorded video footage with our monitoring center safely and securely required us to invent entirely new video streaming approaches. We created access tokens to the associated alarm video that could only be accessed by monitoring station personnel for one hour after an alarm event occurred. We then worked with the monitoring station to ensure that their systems supported visual verification, and provided sufficient training to their personnel to take adequate action on alarm events where visual verification was available.

We had to build new interfaces within our apps to allow our customers to opt into visual verification if they desired. The interface and how monitoring station operators interact with this video has been refined over time as they have become more accustomed to working with video of an alarm event.

 

What is the most interesting thing your team learned in the process?

We had initially wondered if the adoption rate for a feature with significant privacy concerns might be low. However, our concerns were put to rest thanks to a huge uptake among customers, proving that the value of having faster response to emergencies trumped any perceived privacy concerns in this case.

 

hopper
photo via hopper

Lead Product Manager Mia Patton dishes about how travel tech company Hopper experimented with texting travelers to find out what types of tickets they want to purchase.

 

How did the idea for a recent new product come about?

Hopper forms relationships with our users and travelers, but also with the airlines whose products we sell. Relationships with airlines are stronger and better for both parties when we can demonstrate that customers buy a variety of types of fares — not just basic economy or the cheapest fares possible.

 

How did your product team take that concept and turn it into a real product?

The product team started with an experiment to see how many users who were purchasing basic economy were actually aware of the restrictive nature of their flights. They sent out text messages as a sort of “concierge service” to see how many people would be interested in upgrading to a regular economy ticket when offered, as well as purchasing baggage and reserving seats. Turns out, the engagement has been incredibly high: on average, we are seeing 80 percent response rates.

This concept was integrated into the app with several product features all geared toward making users more aware of the differences in fare class. We’ve made it extremely clear, using our friendly “Fare Bear,” which explains which fares are basic, economy, and premium economy. We’ve also scaled our concierge service and now have a team working on contacting users for flight upgrades from basic economy within 24 hours of booking. As we move through this experimental phase, we will begin automating the ability to upgrade your ticket within 24 hours of purchase.

 

What is the most interesting thing your team learned in the process?

The most interesting thing that the team learned in the process is that Hopper users value more than just the cheapest flight. Our users convert better when they see options: airline options, fare class options, etc. They want to make an informed choice, not just the cheapest one. This has helped us shape our product decisions moving forward and helped us get to know our users even better.

 

formlabs
photo via formlabs

Jennifer Milne, a member of 3D printing company Formlabs’ product team, shares how an intern project morphed into a fully-fledged new product.

 

How did the idea for a recent new product come about?

Our ceramic resin, an experimental material that gives a stone-like finish, started as an intern project to see if we could make something that printed consistently and could be fired to create a fully dense ceramic part. Once we got to proof of concept, we decided it was worth investing more resources into this. While there wasn’t necessarily a huge market for this material, it was challenging to develop because it is highly filled. We decided to move ahead knowing that the development time spent on a filled material would set us up well for developing more filled materials in the future, and that a ceramic resin would be an exciting development, helping to position Formlabs as a leader in creating truly novel and accessible SLA materials.

 

How did your product team take that concept and turn it into a real product?

Developing new materials starts with setting a product specification, followed by formulation development. After the formulation is locked, the next stage is settings development, where we dial in print reliability across different geometries, and tune in final part accuracy. When we have final settings, we go through print validation, running hundreds of prints across different printers. We then review print reliability at a green-light meeting, discuss any observed failure modes and decide to launch or not. For ceramic specifically, very critical applications validation needed to happen. Not only did the material need to print reliably, but it was also important that people could fire parts reliably. The applications engineering team developed a recommended firing schedule by printing and firing parts in-house in a kiln. An early formulation had very low firing success, with parts deforming, cracking and crumbling. So we iterated and improved the formulation, taking those firing results and print reliability information into account. We also worked with our process engineering team to include custom support strategies like filleted trusses to address the problem of weak supports snapping under the weight of the printed part during printing.

We also went through an external beta test with local partners. One of those partners, Nervous System, developed a unique jewelry line using our ceramic material, which made for a great story when we finally launched. The final product, when used with the burnout process we developed, had good fired part density and acceptable print reliability. Ceramic resin printing exists today — but equipment is typically built to specifically print these highly filled ceramic pastes. Ceramic resin printers can cost upwards of $100,000. For Formlabs to offer ceramic resin on the Form 2, which retails for just $3,350, makes ceramic 3D printing accessible in a way that it never was before.

 

What is the most interesting thing your team learned in the process?

In 2018, we launched three filled materials: Rigid Resin (glass-filled), Ceramic Resin (alumina-filled), and Castable Wax (wax-filled). We also added new steps to our typical materials development process, such as applications validation, or testing in specific workflows that go beyond the printed part, and external materials testing. We typically do testing both internally and externally with applications experts. For the applications engineering team specifically, developing the firing schedule was an important learning process. We had to do it in a short period of time, and consequently got better at methodical design of experiments. Our work on the recommended burnout schedule for our Castable Wax product, which launched a few months later, was smoother and faster from that learning process.

 

logicmanager
photo via logicmanager

Brendan Colliton, VP of business development and product management, and Nick Cook, product manager, share how they decided to update LogicManager’s risk management software after a pen-and-paper brainstorm session with customers.

 

How did the idea for a recent new product come about?

We knew that we wanted to do a better job engaging users as soon as they logged into our application. Our platform has always emphasized engaging businesses’ front-line employees while providing reporting for senior decision-makers, so we needed an adaptable home screen that would accommodate both of those audiences.

 

How did your product team take that concept and turn it into a real product?

We weren’t exactly sure what we were after until we led a product exercise at our annual IMPACT customer conference. The idea was to provide an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper with a blank monitor to all attendees and ask them to jot down some ideas and drawings of what would make them want to log into LogicManager every morning and utilize it throughout the day. We received a ton of awesome ideas that we combed through for different themes, which ultimately led to our initial concept. From start to finish, the journey from idea to product was hugely collaborative.

 

What is the most interesting thing your team learned in the process?

What you set out to build and what you actually end up building are often very different — and that’s a good thing! We received a substantial amount of excellent feedback throughout the process, from customers to senior managers all the way to entry-level employees. Sometimes, the best feedback comes from the most unexpected places. The end result for us will be a product that customers love because they all had a hand in its creation.

 

shyft analytics
photo via shyft analytics

SHYFT Analytics is critical to the development of medications and treatments for patients. The company builds analytics software used by pharmaceutical and other companies to translate clinical and commercial data into intelligence. Alexandre Sitbon, senior director of product management, shared how they develop new applications by employing a unique product delivery methodology.

 

How did the idea for a recent new product come about?

SHYFT serves life sciences organizations that use large amounts of data and need a variety of insights to drive the development and commercialization of drugs. We have built proprietary technologies to manage data and visualize insights that can be employed throughout the lifecycle of a medication. While our new parent company, Medidata, handles the development side of that drug lifecycle, we’ve created products that help our customers attain peak sales rapidly and break barriers for patients to access treatment. And so, every time we develop a new application, we find where our core data management and insights competencies can be applied.

Looking at all activities required to bring a drug to market today, we see a number of areas where data and insights are managed and created manually. In fact, armies of expensive and inefficient consultants tend to handle this manual work. Combining our domain and technological expertise, we believe we can disrupt the space and ship amazing products that will delight our users, and eventually bring better care to patients.

 

How did your product team take that concept and turn it into a real product?

To turn a concept into a real product, SHYFT employs a product delivery methodology. This approach involves three phases: product ideation, product development and product distribution. During the ideation phase, our product managers and designers analyze market dynamics, competitor products and services, and spend a good amount of time talking to prospective and existing users. The development phase is driven by a scrum team mixing engineering, design and product management. This group is responsible for defining business requirements and the high-level architecture of the product. They are also in charge of employing an agile method to bring the product to life. The last phase includes getting the software into the hands of users as quickly and as successfully as possible.

Since it has been in place, the PDM has helped us optimize customer satisfaction and decrease time to market while increasing the quality of what we ship. It is important to note that we have a user-centric approach to everything we do. It is about caring for users and putting yourself in their shoes. Especially in the enterprise software space, we don’t build products for buyers but for actual users. And that is eventually what convinces our customers to join the SHYFT platform. If users are satisfied, our buyers will recoup their investment many times over.

 

What is the most interesting thing your team learned in the process?

Having  the discipline to say “no.” This year, we have revamped Lumen, our data visualization application. The goal was to transform a great product into something truly unique and magical. The challenge there was to balance the need between feature parity and never-seen-before capabilities. As part of being user-centric, it is our responsibility to maintain features our users have come to love. But sometimes, it goes against bringing something new to market. Our team spent countless hours debating the pros and cons of every feature the new version of Lumen came with. And while these conversations have helped us create a better product, we know now that saying “no” is quite difficult and time consuming. I believe we could have shipped Lumen faster if we had more experience in that regard, but I’m still glad we went through this process and I am extremely grateful that SHYFT’s senior leadership gave us their full support throughout the development of Lumen.

 

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