What does product management look like at FutureLearn?

Matt Walton, Laura Kirsop and Simon Pearson, Product Managers at FutureLearn, recently explored different definitions of product management. In this follow-up post, they explain what product management means for us at Futurelearn.

 

Keep learning

A product management wordcloudAs Product Managers, we draw on a diverse range of experiences, from teaching in schools to building consumer products for organisations like the BBC.

We also like to find ways to draw on the experiences of others. Fortunately, there are a lot of other Product Managers sharing best practice, and we always aim to keep learning and honing our craft by attending meetups, such as the excellent Product Tank, or reading the wise words of others on sites like Medium.

And we arrange exchange trips to find out how others work and share our own experiences, and have spent a couple of useful afternoons at The Guardian and Government Digital Service.

 

Product management at FutureLearn

During a recent away day, we ran a short session with members of the Product team to help us arrive at six principles we believe underpin product management at FutureLearn:

 

1. Articulate a clear mission, build a vision for the product and tell its story

Having a strong, simple mission, which is a little bit audacious and everyone believes in, is vitally important to guide every decision you make. At FutureLearn, our mission is to pioneer the best learning experiences for everyone, anywhere. Our product roadmap always needs to lead us closer to this goal.

The vision for our product is to inspire the best learning experiences by telling stories, provoking conversation and celebrating progress. This mission is our north star, and our product vision gives coherence and character to how we approach each problem or opportunity. We champion this vision both internally and externally, and it helps us work with over 60 partners to create a single, unified, enjoyable product.

As well as having a strong and clear story for our product, we aim to articulate a strong story for every product feature: why we are prioritising it and how it helps us deliver on our mission.

 

2. Find your audiences – your users and business stakeholders – and engage with them, as often as you can

At FutureLearn, we talk about “learners” and “educators,” to help us understand the two key types of people using our product.

We involve our learners through user research and testing, both remotely through surveys and interviews, and by guerilla testing in the British Library where our offices are based. We listen to suggestions that come through our feedback channel, UserVoice, which provides a good bellweather of the most common problems that affect our users. And we use analytics to try to understand how our product is used by looking at data.

We regularly talk to our educators and run partner events, to gain a better understanding of our course creators. We also recently ran a hack day with them to explore the ways that we can improve the experience of creating and running courses.

We work closely with with all parts of the company to get their input and feedback. And we have organised our product team into three smaller teams, who work closely with others in the business that share common aims – more on this later.

 

3. Regularly show progress, listen to feedback and build consensus

We try to make our product development process as transparent as possible, regularly showing work in progress at our fortnightly sprint reviews, all team meetings, and with partners and key people at our owner, The Open University.

We aim to take into account the needs and experiences of voices from across the company and beyond, to help craft what we deliver and inform prioritisation, to give everyone a sense of ownership of what we are delivering. We do our best to explain why we have made the decisions we have, to help encourage everyone to buy in to them.

We don’t have any official sign offs and instead rely on making sure we make work as visible as possible, to give people the opportunity to feed in if necessary.

 

4. Create focus and prioritise

Like most digital businesses, we are never short of great ideas and things people want us to deliver urgently. As Product Managers, it is our job to make sense of the many demands and create focus around a small number of things, to help the team deliver high-quality work as efficiently as possible. Distractions and task switching are the enemies of quality and the momentum that helps us deliver.

When we prioritise, we aim to make our decisions as clear as possible and explain why we believe the things we have prioritised have the most value for our learners, educators and FutureLearn. The “why” is as important than the “what.”

 

5. Motivate different people to work together

Our teams solve complex problems on a daily basis and we need a diverse range of people to do this. We work in multidisciplinary teams including Product Managers, Developers and Designers, and wherever possible try to involve others from across the business who understand the problems and opportunities we are tackling. Often we have Ruby Developers, Interaction Designers, Copywriters and Marketers in the same session.

The Product Manager’s job is to help bring these people together and help them work together to create the best outcomes.

 

6. Reflect on the past and use it to inform the future

Through retrospectives and reflective practice we are honest about how things could have worked better and we use this to inform what we do next.

Once we have shipped features we measure their success against what we expected, and use this to inform how we iterate upon them.

 

What does this mean, day-to-day?

Everyone in the company should be able to understand how what they do on a daily basis relates to our mission. Each task should help us deliver on the goals we set every fortnight. These, in turn, should help us deliver on our product roadmap. And that should help us deliver on our product strategy, which achieves our mission.

A product management onion

One mission, three teams

At FutureLearn, our product strategy has three broad themes, each aligned with the company’s strategic themes of growth, experience and commercial.

  • Discovery and sharing: Grow a network of learners, educators and organisations open to anyone in the world.
  • Learning experience: Create a highly enjoyable social learning experience for learners and educators.
  • Premium products: Create a sustainable business for us and our partners, by offering valuable paid-for products around our core free learning experience

We have created a cross-functional product team for each of these themes, each containing a mix of Designers, UX Specialists, and Front- and Back-end Developers.

Our Discovery and Sharing team works closely with our Marketing team; our Learning Experience team with our Content and Courses team; and our Premium Products team with those working on the commercial aspects of our business.

 

From vision to reality, quickly and often

Each of these teams has their own roadmap, formed by listening to learners, educators and people across the business. It is not time-specific, but gives a guide of our next priorities. We review this every three months.

Three months is a good period to create focus, then reassess how the world has changed and if the priorities remain the right ones. After three months, people tend to start to question the roadmap and we know it is time for us to build consensus again.

We work in an agile way, borrowing and incorporating techniques and practices from different methodologies that we find useful. Using the roadmap that we have collectively agreed to guide us, we work in fortnightly sprints to deliver a set of goals.

Here’s roughly how it works:

 

Planning

Every two weeks, we plan out the problems we’ll tackle in that period at a high level. Generally this involves quite a lot of discussion, whiteboards and squeaky pens.

Each sprint typically includes work towards new and significant things on our roadmap, small and incremental changes to existing features and work to help us understand future priorities.

It’s the Product Manager’s job to keep the plan for each sprint focussed, so we can ship frequent, incremental changes, analyse the effect they are having on our users, and refine based on feedback.

 

Standing up

Every morning each team has a five to ten minute stand-up meeting, where each team member shares a relevant summary of the problems they tackled the previous day and what their plans are for the coming day. It’s the perfect opportunity to share blockers and plan who to pair with to ensure we deliver on our goals.

Everyone one is encouraged to keep their contribution short, by handing around a token. Where input or discussion is required, this happens in smaller groups after the stand up has finished.

 

Reviewing

At the end of each sprint, we get the team and key people from around the business together, to review the work we’ve done, reflect, suggest improvements and celebrate the progress we’ve made.

After the sprint review,  we have a retrospective to talk about what how we worked together during the sprint – what went well and what went less so – and to see if there are things we’d like to change for the next sprint. This helps us constantly improve and refine how we work.

 

Retrospecting

A FutureLearn team taking part in a retrospective

The process is simple – and will be familiar to lots of readers who already work in similar spheres. We tinker with our process constantly in order to organise ourselves efficiently. We’re lucky enough to be in an organisation that understands the value in this constant experimentation.

 

Looking out for the team

A solid mission and vision, paired with a flexible process, does not deliver a great product on its own. What makes a product great is a diverse team of talented people working closely together towards a common goal.

We believe in the Government Digital Service mantra (coined by Jamie Arnold) that the Unit of Delivery is the team. It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure we nurture this, because it is fragile! And this is especially important to remember as a Product Manager.

If you played the bingo game in the last blog post, you will have found out that the most common word associated with product management is “people.”

Good product management means working with everyone across the business to create a shared vision and deliver it. So it’s important to look after the team: inspiring them; helping out in whatever way possible; clearing distractions; making the tea; keeping everyone calm and focused; remembering that there are no heroes; and encouraging input from everyone to find the best solutions to problems.

What does product management look like to you? Tell us in the comments below. Or if you’d like to know more about the way we work, check out more “Making FutureLearn” posts.

Category Making FutureLearn

Comments (2)

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  • Peyton Bowman

    Definitely interesting perspective on how the product development process is not only shaped by, but also continuously builds and shapes, product teams. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Rob

    It’s a great article. Thanks for sharing.

    However, it seems like there’s some gaps – I’m interested to know who is accountable for the product. You’ve talked about the functional things you want to address, but where do other bits fit. For example when to remove bits of a product because they’re too costly to maintain vs the value they bring or how to protect personal information about the learners.

    I’m also interested in how tech and product work together. Presumably you have some tech monitoring to check the service is available to your learners. Who is accountable for the service being available?

    Thanks