A reflection on my key learnings & what I wished I knew before starting
I recently finished my time as a product intern on PicCollage’s Explore team. As I reflect on the journey, I want to document what I’ve learned along the way for my past self and anyone who’s on a similar path.
Explore is like an internal incubator with different projects like new product development and technical tryouts. Most teams consist of a designer, a developer, and a “product person.” The product person acts as both a product manager and project lead to drive a product forward. Responsibilities include identifying the product vision, defining project scope, validating product ideas, communicating with different stakeholders…etc.
Here is an overview of the lessons, each followed with some actionable advice I’ve learned through a lot of trial and errors as a “product person” in the past 5 months! Enjoy the read! 😛
- 🧠 Product Mindset: internal & external
- 🗣 Effective communication: knowing the key points, goals, and methods to deliver information
- 🙋🏻 The Art of Asking Questions
- 🛠 Execution: optimizing for efficiency
- 💬 Meetings: coming in prepared, physically and mentally
- 🎤 Project Demos: get actionable feedbacks that drive progress
- 👁 Improve through self-awareness and deliberate practice
- 🎯 Receiving Feedbacks: separate ego from the outcome
- 🍻 Recognize and welcome all the ups and downs of the journey
- 🤓 Most importantly…think about what you’ve learned about yourself!
🧠 Product Mindset: internal & external
This is one of my biggest takeaways from the internship. I think the product mindset could be see twofold — internal and external.
- Internally, it’s about your “product vision” when building new products. Have in mind what the “core” of the product is before you start building. From there, you could then define the necessary scope based on available time and resource. If you don’t have a solid vision of what you want to build and what your team could build, you could easily end up getting to nowhere.
- Externally, it’s about how you interact with other people’s products. Automatically ask questions like “what is this product for?” “who is it built for?” “how is it interacting with users?”… etc. Try to understand what this product is trying to achieve and how would users see it. Play around with trending apps and try to analyze why they are popular. Think about what they could improve on and what features they might build next.
- The internal product mindset is largely influenced and shaped by the external product mindset. You’d be able to come up with a unique product vision only after getting a sense of the product market/category (by looking at the competitor apps, common features updates, and what users say in reviews… ).
ask yourself “what is the skateboard version of this product?” (inspired by Henrik Kniberg’s Making sense of Minimum Viable Product)
🗣 Effective communication: knowing the goal, key points, and method to deliver the information
A big part of a product person’s job is to communicate between different parties: convincing company stakeholders about why the product is worth building, talking with users to collect insights and test ideas, communicating with the team members about the product’s scope and vision…etc.
- If you can’t explain what you are trying to say in a sentence, then you should take a moment to collect your thoughts before you start to ramble on. I realized when I wasn’t sure about things, I tend to ramble on and think out loud. This was not helpful when I was trying to communicate my points.
- Visualize your concepts to help people understand better. A simple drawing can save minutes from your audience trying to guess what you are saying.
- Provide necessary context. Ask yourself, “what information should I provide so he/she can understand the situation and provide the answer I need?”
- Over-communication is about “telling” people what you are working on & how, not “asking” people what you should be working on & how. I thought over-communicating was to always make sure what others want me to do, but I realized that made me a task-taking robot, taking away my potential impact on the team and the product.
- Think extra steps ahead to avoid texting back and forth during asynchronous communications. For example, instead of only updating your team members on the status of an external partnership, also mention what you think possible next steps are. This allows them to stay informed and give feedback on your next action.
- Spend a few seconds to write a Slack message could save everyone a 30 minutes sync call. Document past discussions and highlight the key points so new members can catch up easily.
🙋🏻 The Art of Asking Questions
Asking the right questions can unlock new insights, remove potential roadblocks, clarify key points, and save communication time. Asking bad questions might confuse others, distract yourself, and slow the team down.
- Know what the purpose is. Are you trying to understand the situation for yourself or help others understand the situation so they can provide feedback? Know which mode you are on and construct your points accordingly (check out SCQA Framework to structure your points effectively).
- Ask questions for discussing with others, not finding fixed answers. If you don’t know the answer, try to come up with one first before asking others.
- Ask open-ended questions to break the ice or see if there’s anything on the other person’s mind. Embrace the awkward silence, because that’s when people reveal important insights or their personal thoughts.
- Ask precise questions to get specific answers. Mention what kind of feedback you are looking for so people know what to pay attention to.
- Be mindful of when to use leading questions. Are you trying to convince a stakeholder into adopting your view? Or are you trying to ask for honest feedback from a user?
- Keep notes and think about actionable steps you could take after taking feedback.
🛠 Execution: optimizing for efficiency
A big part of the product person’s responsibility is to execute and push projects forward. This includes asking questions like “what can I do to maximize the team’s outcome and workflow?” and planning a way to get there.
- Align the expected scope & outcome with key stakeholders and project members before the start of every project. For example, you could go over how much time everyone has for this project, what we can expect to deliver this week, and address any potential concerns.
- Always know why you are doing what you are doing and what your “next steps” are. This makes sure you don’t get distracted and helps you keep everyone is on the same page.
- Deconstruct the core behavior to explore design variations. For example, a journaling behavior can be broken down into emotional trigger, entry creation, entry review…etc. The “entry creation” part can also be further broken down into different types of entry: text, photo, video, audio.
- Break things down into smaller, actionable steps. Tackle a new problem or propose a new project by first understanding what it is and the resource you have. For example, people would be more likely to buy in and believe in plan B (with milestones based on time & resources) than plan A(just the fancy, grand outcome).
💬 Meetings: coming in prepared, physically and mentally
In the beginning, I didn’t put in too much thought when it came to meetings. I found myself feeling stuck and unsure of what to do next after meetings, especially technical challenges or ambiguous problems. For example, one of the tasks I was working on was to come up with ways to improve the result of our video summarizer app. Without much knowledge on how the highlighting algorithm and machine learning models work, it was hard to come up with ideas and engage in discussions. Thus, it’s important to be prepared both physically (doing the necessary research and homework to onboard yourself) and mentally (getting yourself ready for what you want to discuss with the team).
- Always know the purpose of the meeting. Prepare what you want to discuss or align with your team members. Have in mind the expected outcome could make sure the discussion doesn’t derail and keep everyone on the same page.
- Write things down. It’s easy to get lost when people are discussing vague concepts. The act of jotting down notes helps substantialize the points in the air and helps if you need to follow up for clarifications.
- Look at relevant past project documents to get a sense of what people did, how it was executed, and what happened afterward. Also, use that to get a sense of the keywords and discussion items to look out for in discussions.
- Have a rough top-down structure in mind about what you want to cover and accomplish in the meeting. This makes sure you have a birds-eye view of the meeting’s progress.
- For regular project syncs, a simple structure to follow could be past, present, and future:
🎤 Project Demos: get actionable feedbacks that drive progress
In our development cycle, we have weekly demo time for each project to share progress and get internal feedback. The demo time is followed by a block of free discussion time to talk about anything.
- Think about what the project needs at the moment to set the goal for the demo. Are we focusing on getting feedback, delivering progress, or aligning stakeholders?
- Be clear on the kind of feedback you are looking for in specific parts of the project. Don’t let immature, work-in-progress features distract the audience from understanding the product.
- Be prepared beforehand! Be on time, check for logistical things, and make sure apps and files are working.
🔍 Improve through self-awareness and deliberate practice
Having self-awareness is key to assess yourself, your work, and your progress. It helps you recognize areas to improve on and figure out a path to start.
- Take a step back. Every once in a while, review your learning progress and evaluate if the current learning methods are working. Throughout the internship, I wrote down my highlights and major learnings each week to keep track of my progress (it also made this reflection article easier to write).
- Unlike blindly doing the same thing over and over, deliberate practice allows you to be aware of the different components of a skill and practice each part specifically. There are a lot of resources about this topic, simply search the term “deliberate practice.”
- Effective learning connects the dots and draws parallels between different things you are doing, even if they don’t seem to be related. When I was having a hard time coming up with a marketing plan for a new product, my mentor Way reminded me that I could apply the user-centered perspective in design to marketing: think about the deeper “why” people would want to use the product. This mindset shift inspired me to come up with a campaign that invites people to use the product and write online cards to appreciate medical workers in Taiwan.
🎯 Receiving Feedback: separate ego from the outcome
It’s not possible to be 100% objective and aware of the areas you could improve on, so this is where feedback comes in.
- Help others give you good feedback. Be open, adopt a positive attitude, and have the willingness to look at your vulnerable spots. People would be more willing to give you feedback if you show them your openness in receiving them and a history of acting on them each time.
- Strip away your ego and try to understand where the points are coming from. Instead of viewing critical feedbacks as accusations, view them as things you haven’t learned about yourself.
- Be mindful of your identities. It’s easy to tie your identity to the things you are working on: this is my design, this is my project, this is my product…etc. This could make us see important feedbacks as accusations.
- Being open doesn’t mean taking in all feedback. Recognize everyone has different backgrounds, perspectives, and goals, so think critically before you choose to adopt them.
🍻 Recognize and welcome all the ups and downs of the journey
In the past 5 months, I learned about building products from 0 to 1, growing a newly launched product, optimizing the performance of an existing product, collaborating with cross-functional teams, and having an amazing workplace culture.
But that’s just the highlight of this experience. There’s also the internal stress of trying to prove my value to the team, the disappointment when the product I was working on for weeks was put on hold, the frustration I felt when I had a hard time balancing spending time on self-improvement and taking care of important relationships…etc. They’ve all contributed to my growth and learning throughout the journey in unique ways.
🤓 Most importantly…reflect on what you’ve learned about yourself!
Besides acquiring soft skills and hard skills on building products, my other important takeaway is getting to know myself better in new contexts. From learning what my strengths & weaknesses are, what I enjoy & don’t enjoy doing, what kind of environment I like to be in, what work means to me…etc, these newly discovered insights about me could help me make better decisions in future adventures.
With an eagerness to learn, a curious mind, and a growth mindset, you could unlock so many lessons out of a single experience when others only learn a few.
I think part of the joy of life is finding out what kind of person you want to be and creating a lifestyle around that. It’s easy to follow what you are told and do what’s expected, but always remember you can choose how you want to live life and reinvent yourself! 🙌🏼
Hope this article is helpful to you in any way! Please let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback and feel free to reach out to me directly! :)
special thanks to Mica, Way, Paul, and everyone at PicCollage for all the mentorship and memories along the way!