Five predictable (and avoidable) product management pitfalls

November 22, 2021

Product management

Product management is hard. There are tons of responsibilities and a thousand decisions to make. As a technology product manager and consultant in the K-12 education sector for close to 25 years, I have made (and learned from) many mistakes, and watched clients repeat the same errors consistently. As we work with our clients on a range of projects, we’re often able to provide guidance on how to avoid some of the most common product development "gotchas."

1. Assuming You Know Your Customer’s Needs

Excellent product management is built around regular communication with your target audience. Talk to users at conferences, establish user feedback groups, or—better yet—go out and watch your users in their native environment. Your personal experience as a K-12 student or the fact that your sister is a teacher are not enough to provide you with the perspective of today’s educators and students in a particular grade, subject, or locale.

2. Not Truly Understanding Your Own Product

Software and technology products are complex, and it can feel daunting or unnecessary to learn the details of how your product is built or functions. You’ve got a team of software engineers and quality assurance (QA) experts, so no need to worry about the specifics, right? Realistically, even the most capable of these folks aren’t always able to balance technical considerations with the high-level market perspective that you possess as a product manager. You need to know your product inside and out, through actually using it. This includes going through the full user journey and workflow for each user constituent, including how products are purchased, installed, and managed. Don’t turn important details over to engineering and QA; you can't assume they will read your mind, interpret the organization’s strategic plan, or make magic happen.

3. Making Things Way Too Complicated

Too many features almost always make a product worse. As a general rule of thumb, eighty percent of your users will use twenty percent (or less) of your product’s features. In the K-12 market, students or educators often don't actually choose your product, but rather are assigned to use it by someone else. Don’t make things hard for them. Conduct research to determine what functionality is actually important, and make that functionality prominent and simple to use. If you must include power features, design the interface so they don’t distract or confuse your less committed or less frequent users.

4. Thinking Your Product or Service Is the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread

Yes, your product is the center of your and your customer's universe, but it will almost always be peripheral to your users. In K-12, your product will likely be worth a small percentage of an educator’s time or attention in the grand scheme, so design things with that in mind. There will always be power-users who push for more, better, and faster, but don’t let them be your main source of feedback. Countless startups have fallen into the trap of thinking their product is so groundbreaking, so captivating, that it will change a current educational paradigm. For example, is it realistic that a virtual role-playing game will be used for several hours a week to teach American history? Seems unlikely, but that didn’t stop investors from pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into that product's development. To build a successful product, it’s critical to make your product fit into your customers' and users' available hours, also keeping in mind potential scheduling, cost, and deployment issues.

5. Forgetting About the Financials

Product management ultimately comes down to the bottom line. For a profit-seeking business, it’s critical to answer two questions: "How big is the market?" and "Can we make money from it?" While the equation can vary for non-profits, all organizations look to offer a product or service that can carry its own weight. Given the complexity of software development, it can be extremely difficult to build something that doesn’t run into the mid-six figures and take a year to design and build. How many single-user perpetual licenses do you need to sell at $29.95 in order to pay back $400K in startup engineering, along with ongoing $100K a year in hosting and support costs? (Answer: a lot.) Finally, choosing the correct pricing model is vital. Subscription or perpetual license? Per user or per teacher, school, or district? Each decision needs to align to business and customer requirements.

Great product managers are humble and scrappy. They love to learn about their customers and users, find creative and practical solutions, and get their hands dirty in the process. At the same time, they need to keep their heads up to see the big picture. We help our Clarity Innovations clients avoid pitfalls every day because our Client Lead Producers have experience in edtech product management going back to 1996. If you’re short on knowledgeable resources or need assistance with your edtech challenges, we’d love to share our expertise.