Here’s an oldie, but a real goody. Back in 2007, I posted this piece about the problems that occur when Product Managers (and thus companies) don’t have proper domain knowledge. It garnered a LOT of comments, especially from some former Delrina employees.
I’m reposting it as it is (still) a good relevant topic. I’m not trying to (re)ruffle any ex-Delrina feathers.
But I still want your comments. My own opinion on this topic has changed a bit since I wrote it. I won’t elucidate on that just yet, but if people do leave comments, I’m certainly open to a good discussion.
As part of the second Pragamatic Marketing blogfest, I’m responding to Steve Johnson’s post: “Everyone needs to know what we do here“.
In it, Steve writes about the need for domain knowledge for technology workers, particularly in regards to the business they are in and the needs of their market. Whether talking about engineers, marketers, sales people or product managers, everyone needs to understand the company’s strategic objectives as well as some aspect of market dynamics.
In this case, I can’t really argue too much with Steve. If key people in a company don’t have domain knowledge, then the question “Why not?” must be answered. Do your competitors have domain knowledge? Most likely, especially if they are leading you in the market. How can anyone run any kind of successful business without domain knowledge?
For technology companies, the questions to consider revolve around defining exactly what “domain knowledge” is, and how best to acquire and maintain it.
Domain knowledge, particularly in B2B technology companies, can be quite complex. Not only do Product Managers need to understand the overall market, but also market specifics that vary from geography to geography. They need to understand overall trends in the market, as well as technology and economic trends that could impact product performance. Then come the questions related to competitors — who are they, what are their strengths/weaknesses, and where are they heading? Finally, Product Managers need to understand their target customers in detail — what they do, what they find valuable, how they currently use your product (or one of your competitors), and why they would value yours.
All of these areas of knowledge constitute domain knowledge. The reality is, very few individuals can have a full understanding of all of this information. I believe there is a myth that the lone Product Manager can collect, analyse, understand and then react to all of this information. The reality is that technology companies should look at the Product Management function as opposed to the individual Product Manager, as the locus of this knowledge.
Clearly other teams in the company also have domain knowledge, but Product Management needs to collect it and put it all together to make a coherent picture out of it. To do that well, it can’t be the responsibility of a single individual. Companies should be thinking about Product Management teams for each of their products or product families.
Some companies seem to succeed in spite of themselves. You’ve all heard of (or maybe even worked for) at least one of these kinds of companies. They had an innovation that lead to a successful product, but couldn’t repeat that success. Why not? One of the principal reasons is lack of sufficient domain knowledge to make the leap to a second successful product.
Remember Delrina Corp? The makers of WinFax? Back in the early 1990s, WinFax was the clear market leader for faxing on Windows operating systems. Everything in the company was focused on the Windows operating system.
I was a technical writer at the time, and was hired to join the “small but growing” Macintosh team at Delrina. The goal was, as I was told, to build out a whole product line of Macintosh products, with the first product being fax software. And who knew fax software better than Delrina, the people who invented it?
At the time, the core Macintosh development team consisted of three people: the lead (and sole) developer (Don), the QA engineer (Mike) and me (the tech writer).
During the development cycle of the first version of Delrina’s Macintosh fax software, a number of things happened that made me wonder if I’d made a good choice coming to Delrina.
Given that the three of us (Don, Mike and I) were virtually the only people in the entire company who had actually used a Macintosh, most people there only experienced the product through the documentation that I was writing (on a Windows PC using Ventura Publisher nonetheless — not my choice!).
On the Macintosh, the software worked by setting the fax-driver as the target for print jobs. This was done via the Chooser in the Macintosh environment.
At one cross-team meeting to review the development and documentation status, someone, I don’t recall who, asked:
“What are these Chooser and Finder things? Who named them that? Can we change them?”
I kid you not. I couldn’t make that up. Almost immediately Don looked at the person and stated, almost robotically:
“No we can’t change them or rename them. They are fundamental to the operation of the Macintosh.”
I gathered that this was not the first time he had uttered that line.
Later on, the issue of the product name came to light. At another cross-team meeting, it was announced that the naming committee had decided on a name for the product, and all software, documentation, marketing materials etc. should use the name. The name was….hold your breath: WinFax Mac.
Now, if you recall back to the early 1990s, it was the height of the Macintosh vs. Windows fight. Users in the Macintosh community were pretty vocal about their disdain for Windows.
Mike and I looked at each other and waited for Don to say something. Don made an attempt to hide his frustration and then tried to calmly explain why the prefix “Win” as in WinFax was not an acceptable name for a Macintosh product.
The Product Manager would have none of it. He explained the enormous brand equity “WinFax” had, and how strongly attached the name “WinFax” was to fax software and that the plan was to leverage it in this new foray in the Macintosh market. Mike also tried to explain the issues with using “Win” in the name of a Macintosh product and was also shut-down.
A couple of months later, at yet another cross-team meeting, the PM announced that feedback had been received from a large number of beta customers indicating their dislike of the product name, and thus a new name would be found without the prefix “Win” in it. Mike, Don and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
Once the project was complete, I decided to leave the company and find employment elsewhere. Even back then, early in my career, I could see the dark days ahead if I stayed at Delrina. I found work at a startup, but continued to track Delrina and their Macintosh product line. A few months later, I saw a review of the product in a computer magazine. The review was OK, but the documentation got a 4 out of 5! 🙂 I still have a copy of that manual.
As it turned out, the fax product was Delrina’s first and last Macintosh product. Aside from Delrina’s lack of knowledge about the Macintosh computer and user community, they also didn’t understand the dynamics of the Macintosh fax market. Delrina had succeeded in the Windows market by being first to market with an innovative product, and then controlling the channels by signing OEM deals with virtually every PC fax hardware manufacturer. In short, virtually every PC faxmodem that shipped at the time came bundled with a copy of WinFax Lite.
The same strategy had already been executed by other Macintosh fax software manufacturers. So when Delrina entered the Macintosh market, it not only was a late entrant, but the channels were all tied up by competitors. Their strategy, leveraging their Windows dominance to enter the Macintosh market was completely useless. And why? Quite simply because they had no real domain knowledge or true understanding of the market they were entering. Decisions made in a vacuum always look pretty good at the time.
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