ADRIENNE TAN: Hi everyone my name is Adrienne Tan. I’m a co-host at ‘This is HCD’ podcast. Before we begin, as this podcast was recorded in the Sydney CBC, I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional custodians of the land where we met today and pay our respects to their elders both past and present.Tonight I’m speaking to Ivy Hornibrook who will talk us through her career transition from UX into product management. Hi Ivy thanks for joining us this evening. Before we begin, I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about your career.
IVY HORNIBROOK: My background is in UX design, in human centred but before I entered into product management my roles were actually very hybrid. I used to call myself the UX team of not quite one, after Leah Burley’s book ‘The UX team of one’ and it always got a lot of laughs at events and meet-ups. What I realised as I was progressing through my career is that all the other things that I did were actually well that’s what product management was; things that involved managing stakeholders, things that involved prioritising or working with the tech team.
So it’s always a difficult question for me to answer when people ask me about what my background is, how long I spent in UX and how long I spent in products. That’s a long winded answer but I guess briefly I spent six years working in NSW government. In NSW government I was head of digital programs with responsibility for product in UX and a few years ago I left NSW government, did a whole lot of soul searching, thought about working in service design, thought about product management and now eventually I’ve ended us a head of product for a start-up here in Sydney.
ADRIENNE TAN: Excellent. Well, we’ll look forward to delving deeper into that topic. So can you start off by telling us why you decided to move into product management? I know you’ve alluded to it because you were doing some of the product management tasks but what drove you really to change career from being this UX-er or classified as a UX-er into a head of product.
IVY HORNIBROOK: When I first started working in digital, the first label that I found that fit was UX. I was doing things like I was running workshops, I was doing co-design, I was doing things like card sorting. So, all of these activities, I thought well that must be UX. And I remember heading along to my first UX Australia and at UX Australia there was this feeling that I had found my people, I had found my tribe. It was a way of thinking that just resonated with me. It was a way of approaching problems and something that I deeply believed was what mattered in order to create great products.
As I thought about it a little bit more though, I realised that the thing that I enjoyed most about UX was deeply understanding the customer, deeply understanding how somebody was actually going to interact with things that we create. But not only that, but understanding how it’s going to make an impact in their lives. And that, understanding the problem that we would solve by something that was created through say products, that was the essence of what I enjoyed the most. Looking at roles though, what I found was that a lot of UX is actually, at this point in time, it’s often in the production phase, it’s in the delivery. The problem has been defined by business strategy, by product strategy and the role of the UX designer/researcher is often to validate and to work within those constraints. I also thought, now service design is an area where you can take that step back, you can reframe the problem. So perhaps service design is the area that I should look into. But for most service designers, at least in Sydney, there aren’t very many service designers working client-side that get to see through a problem, all the way through to the compromises, to the trade-offs, the constraints that inevitably arise as you work through a problem and make it reality.
And looking at, I guess all of these elements, products was one role where you get to be there at the beginning, thinking about the problem, really interrogating ‘is this worth doing?’ But you’re also there holding that understanding, that understanding of the customer to take it through to what will eventually become reality.
ADRIENNE TAN: That’s so good to hear that you see the product really is core to understanding that customer problem. I’m sorry to hear though that UX plays such a, play a role further down the stream rather than being a partner of product essentially, trying to discover the problem together.
IVY HORNIBROOK: That’s an interesting thought, Adrienne. I’ve actually and one of the reasons I wanted to go into product as well was I felt that product often has a role to play in, in determining the process that products become reality. So by being a product manager who understood the value of design I thought this is where I can influence to involve designers at the right time because they do have such a great role to play and so much to offer but if the organisational culture or the processes haven’t been that way in the past, then I thought that the role of a product manager could then open up those channels for design to contribute at the right time.
ADRIENNE TAN: Absolutely, absolutely and you know we’ve always said that product has a lot to do in the whole process, you know that’s why product management’s really hard to define because you go from concept right up to retirement and that’s a very long period of time. But UX-ers have that kind of experience that they can partner with product to definitely do a better job trying to understand the customer problem.
But just trying to understand your move into product a little bit better, can you describe the steps you took to move into product in Sydney? And I say Sydney because it’s got a good thriving start-up culture yet we also have these big organisations that also have big product teams in it. So you’ve got a bit of both.
IVY HORNIBROOK: So as I said before, the first label, I guess, I found that fit was UX originally. And so I didn’t actually know very much about what product management meant. The first step for me was understanding ok I’ve heard about this thing called ‘product’, well what is it? Does it apply to the things that I want to do? And how do I find that out? Started by going to meet-ups; I find that in those kind of groups you do get a sense of the people that are there, the roles that they do and can contextualise in terms of the organisations that the speaker might be from or the conversations that are had.
That was the first step. And I still wasn’t completely sure and I must say leaving the product conference, which is a product management conference, when I went to that conference, that was the time when I went right, okay I think there’s something here. I think that this is a term for the parts of the process that I want to focus on, the places where I think I can bring most value. It was quite, for me, a bizarre world being at that conference. It felt as though there was all of these concepts I was so familiar with from design but just a slightly different vocabulary.
ADRIENNE TAN: Oh interesting.
IVY HORNIBROOK: And I remember the first thing I thought I needed to do was to map the vocabulary of products to UX. Now my background is, I have a major in English. I should probably have known that it’s never just a matter of vocabulary. But at the time I thought okay what UX and what design always called ‘users’, product calls ‘customers’; what we call ‘user research’, product looks at through the lens of testing and validation.
What I didn’t realise at the time is that customers aren’t just users in different clothing. That’s actually an emphasis on monetizble value; it’s an emphasis on the different responsibilities of a product manager. But that first step I thought right, maps and vocabulary, read a lot of medium, go to meet-ups, rebrand myself as a product manager, start applying for jobs.
ADRIENNE TAN: Excellent. And how was that job seeking process like? Did you find that there were challenges moving into product from a UX role?
IVY HORNIBROOK: Certainly I did. What I found was one thing that I know now is product managers very rarely get roles by applying for them from a job board. And this isn’t something that was obvious to me. I think it’s probably something that’s not obvious that those who are considering…
ADRIENNE TAN: Is that different in UX though?
IVY HORNIBROOK: Most of my UX experience was in one organisation that I spent quite a lot of time in. So I was there for six years and there were opportunities to move, and now that you mention it, those opportunities never came from applying for a position. Those opportunities came from having great conversations with people at conferences from, there was a time I had too much leave at work so I knocked on the door of a design agency in Sydney and said ‘can I just intern with you for a couple of weeks?’ And at the end of it they said ‘you’re not an intern, do you want to come work for us?’ So I think you’re right, Adrienne, it’s not about applying to job boards. It is about who you know, how you know them, how you’re able to demonstrate the strength of your craft because it’s very hard to discern the skills of both a designer and a product manager from a covering letter and a few pages of CV.
ADRIENNE TAN: So when you did start to apply for some roles, do you think the hiring managers were excited about your ux skills and they could easily position you in product? Or was there some translation required?
IVY HORNIBROOK: Definitely not. I thought they would be.
ADRIENNE TAN: Yeah. I would be excited.
IVY HORNIBROOK: I read role descriptions that said ‘deep understanding of the customer’ and I thought well this is my craft, this is what I do. What I found was that although that understanding was in every role description and is at the essence of what is considered to be good practice in product management. The skills that speak more loudly are skills in data analysis, skills in engineering especially found a lot of role descriptions and a lot of hiring managers that expected a technical background. And I actually remember applying for a role, and this was one that I had an internal referral, and the recruiter came back to me and said that they wouldn’t be proceeding, even with a phone screen, because the role had moved away from a UX focus to a data driven one. I remember being offended but the reason why I was offended was coming from human centred design, coming from a design background, I felt fundamentally that a data driven approach and a design-led approach are both about making decisions informed by evidence. What did it mean to move away from a UX focus to something data driven? You need to be able to identify your assumptions, to be able to test your hypotheses, to be able to get data about why the direction you want to take is the right one.
I got a phone screen but I didn’t proceed much further than that.
I think the mistake that I made was the one piece of vocabulary, I alluded to this earlier, I wasn’t willing to let go of ‘user’s versus ‘customers’. I felt as though that would betray the values that I believed were so important about solving problems that are worth solving, about understanding humans as humans and not just about their monetary value. And it wasn’t until I’d spent more time actually as a product manager that I understood well someone’s got to pay for what you do. It doesn’t matter if the problem that you have is going to change the world; it doesn’t matter if you’re working in government or not-for-profit or in social enterprise, an innovation lab in a large corporate, somebody’s still funding it for a reason and you might be able to change the world but you’re going to cease to exist if someone isn’t willing to pay for it. And now that I’ve spent some time working as a head of product I think I’m better able to articulate the value of why design matters and how it can actually really benefit product management; how doing something like a service blueprint helps you to understand the impact not only on the development team but that there’s a cost also in how you support the product, the touch points, how the brand is affected. It’s looking at things through the commercial lens of your stakeholders but being able to bring the toolkit and the methods of design in a way that can also change the way the product is done.
ADRIENNE TAN: Absolutely and I think people forget that. People associate your toolkit with a role and that’s not necessarily the case. A role is simply a set of activities that you carry out and the tools that you bring can come from various different kinds of practices, theories and framework and for us in product the tools and the practices and the frames come not only from design but come from engineering, some of it comes from architecture. But strategic management, strategic marketing, we bring a whole range of tools with us to get the job done.
But I’m very excited to hear that your human centred design toolkit is really of great use to you in product. And so when you started your role as a product manager, and I know you had one previous to this role as head of product, what was unexpected or a surprise to you about jumping into product management? You know when you first started your job what did you go ‘oh my god, that was…like really love it or really hate it or that was unexpected’.
IVY HORNIBROOK: I think certainly how much it differs between organisations and how little shared understanding there is about what a product manager actually does. So…
ADRIENNE TAN: Can I stop you there? Do you think you find the same for UX though? Or is it less for us, definitely more so for product?
IVY HORNIBROOK: I think there’s still variation but I’ve often observed that as far as the community goes, as far as the specialisation goes, that understanding, I feel as though products in Sydney and in Australia is a few years behind where UX was. So I remember the size of UX Australia, for example, about six or seven years ago, and if you compare that to the size of some of the events in product now.
Also thinking about today there are, that’s probably a bad example, but there are UI designers, there are UX researchers. There are other fields that are more starting to define themselves. So certainly service designers, UX strategists are emerging as well. Some of those definitions continue to be contested and sometimes I feel as though they’re continuing to define themselves against some of the other specialisations. But those terms are starting to take meaning that companies understand, that designers certainly understand. But that specialisation isn’t yet the case for product managers and even what lines you may draw upon; whether it is about the size and the maturity of a company, whether it’s about core experience versus innovation, there isn’t a whole lot of consistency about how product managers are segmented. So I think that’s quite different.
What is similar though is the level of education you need to do about the value of your craft. Just as in design I felt as though it’s a constant case of advocacy for why this approach, these methods have a lot of benefit and a lot of value to bring. I think the same is the case for product management. So that designers aren’t reduced to y-frames, product managers aren’t reduced to requirements. That wider education piece and that advocacy is true for both.
ADRIENNE TAN: Yeah it’s incredible. Product management has been around for so long. It started off in the 1930s in fast moving consumer goods where they needed to differentiate between one soap to another and yet after all of these years we’re still trying to struggle defining our role and our position and our benefits in organisations. And it’s a more mature profession than UX, it’s just that we’re terrible at branding ourselves and we’re terrible at promoting what we do and because of the differences in company sizes and industry, that does have an impact, but yeah as a profession we’ve not done a very good job.
IVY HORNIBROOK: And yet it has the same impacts for designers and that’s not how, I guess designers have segmented, it’s looking at the roles that you play within an organisation and it could be that that’s the way that product management goes as well when you’re looking at, it’s starting to do so I think with product marketing, for example, which previously was for some roles the primary part of a product manager’s role.
ADRIENNE TAN: Yeah. There’s product owners, there’s product analysts, there’s product strategists. There’s quite a few roles, it’s just that we don’t speak well of our own kind of profession. We don’t have the same kind of vernacular.
Was there anything else that was surprising apart from the fact that you know it’s a misunderstood term, it’s a misunderstood role and it’s defined differently across different businesses?
IVY HORNIBROOK: How much writing you do.
ADRIENNE TAN: Yes.
IVY HORNIBROOK: Adrienne I know you’re a fan of writing as a way to articulate thoughts but even so having spent so many years advocating other methods of communication, and especially the power of visual communication, I was surprised at how much I now had to rely on the written word. And I do find that to be a struggle at times because I know that there can be better ways to create understanding when the wall of words just becomes something that obscures rather than creates clarity. So it’s been interesting in how to actually bring other methods of communication, other methods of documentation. Also actually the way that teams collaborate, so at the heart of agile and at the heart of Kanban and many of those other methodologies, is this idea of cross functional teams is at its core. But I actually find that a lot of teams are doing this quite poorly. So again, this is something where I think bringing the design skills of facilitation and how to have quite constructive collaboration, that’s something that’s been quite surprising to me.
ADRIENNE TAN: Mm that’s very interesting but yes I know I can sympathise with lots of product managers out there who have to do PowerPoint, D.A.R.E government PowerPoint, D.A.R.E, take stakeholders along the journey yes and there’s absolutely if you can use different methods of communications, especially visual communication then by all means we definitely support it.
And I think that’s great though, everybody comes from everywhere in product management. You’ve got B.As product managers and UX-ers, I think that adds to the flavour of product as well and you bring your own kind of tools and techniques to hopefully lift the profession. And so my final question really is what advice do you have those in UX looking to make the move into product? What would you tell them to do?
IVY HORNIBROOK: I think you’d be surprised at how much of the job you’ve done before for all UX-ers. What I find happens is that it’s a role that needs to be filled to create vision and clarify and direction, to be able to prioritise. And in the absence of someone fulfilling a product manager role, that role falls often to UX, if falls often to engineering, sometimes a split between the two, but what that means is that a lot of UX people have done some version of the role before. But on top of that what you bring to product management, Adrienne is, you alluded to it a moment ago, everyone comes to product from somewhere else and that somewhere else will simultaneously be your greatest asset as well as your greatest weakness. As a UX-er your skills are in creating empathy, in creating that understanding and you almost have a sixth sense for usability. Those things will often give you a great product sense but what I said before, the things that aren’t going to come as naturally for most people is understanding that although that problem, that pain point, is really worth solving, how to then map that back to the commercial context, how to map that back to where is the business model? It might be a really worthwhile user problem to solve but somebody does have to pay for it. So keeping in mind that empathy is going to be one of your greatest tools but also that you need to be able to rise out of that and think about what you are most responsible for.
ADRIENNE TAN: Excellent. Well thank you very much for your time, Ivy.
IVY HORNIBROOK: Thanks Adrienne it’s been great being here.
ADRIENNE TAN: I hope you enjoyed this episode and if you’d like to be a part of the conversation or community hop on over to thisishcd.com. You can request to join the slack channel and help shape the future episodes and connect with designers around the world. Thanks for listening and see you next time.
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