Bridging the Gap Between Users, Technology and Business with Yelp Product Manager

This week Product School hosted Kristine Oak, a Product Manager of Consumer Contributions at Yelp for an #AskMeAnything session. Kristine answered questions on everything from product culture, understanding the product and user needs, focusing on the longer-term vision, successfully transitioning from UX to PM, and the key principles of building a product.

Meet Kristine

Kristine is currently a Product Manager of Consumer Contributions at Yelp. Prior to this, Kristine was a PM of Mobile at Stella & Dot Family of Brands. She is passionate about building products that solve user needs as well as achieve business goals. With her background in engineering and design, complied with her experience working with diverse teams, Kristine has a holistic understanding of shipping good products, from discovering user needs to translating key insights into actionable steps to product development and stakeholder communication.

“How do you and your team go about building out KPIs for new products at Yelp?”

At Yelp, we spend a good amount of time every quarter reviewing next quarter’s OKRs. Once we identify our OKRs (objectives and key results) for each team, we then think about what the main Levers are to achieve each OKR. Once we have the Levers outlined, we then go through the specific projects and initiatives that will help us fulfill the lever.

The KPIs are then outlined from an initiative level, where we think about where we want to be with specific metrics for certain initiatives by end of the quarter (or by end of the year, distributed by quarter).

You might be interested in: The Difference between OKRs vs KPIs

“Can you share your past experiences and your career plans?”

To be honest, I had no idea or intended to become a product manager. I studied manufacturing and design engineering, and human-centered design. Though I didn’t quite know exactly what I wanted to do, one thing was for sure: I wanted to understand and solve user needs. I spent the first few years of my career in user research/UX. I soon realized that I wanted to not only understand and uncover user needs but make impactful decisions as to how to go about solving them, what makes sense from a strategic point of view. I landed my first PM role at a sports technology company, and I really think I was able to land this first PM role because I was able to share my passion for user needs and user-centered design.

There may be a lot of PMs that have a strong background in business but so many companies, especially tech companies are always looking for someone that can understand the user and put themselves in the user’s shoes. Since my first PM role, I learned more about bridging the gap in consumer, business and technology (my engineering background here definitely helped).

Check out: 4 Essential Resources for User Experience Beginners

“How long should it take a PM to become familiar with an existing product and then start making changes?

I really think this depends on what the product is, who the users are of the product as well as how you as the PM feel. For instance, when I was working at Stella & Dot as a PM, I spent about 3-6 months really understanding the product as the users of the product were quite niche and it was so critical for me to understand everything to the tea. This doesn’t mean that during this “learning” period, I don’t do anything though. As I was learning the product and the users, I was able to map out the near and long-term roadmap and propose changes here and there, and after I felt that I understood the product very well, focus on the longer-term vision I initially had.

On the other hand, at Yelp, there’s so many different aspects of the platform and the needs of our consumers are much more wide in breadth (ie. users wanting to know the wait time, users wanting to hire a home service to fix their broken pipe, users wanted to know whether or not businesses are taking certain safety measures during Covid-19). With such a dynamic environment, I think it’s critical to always be thinking of ideas to solve for varying user needs, even if you may not feel that you know exactly how everything works. It’s more important to innovate on what makes sense for users now than spending so much time understanding a potentially outdated, underused feature before proposing a change.

What are the most basic and best principles to follow when building a product? How can I make sure my product is a MUST and not a nice to have?

When building a good product, I think there’s 4 key principles to follow/keep in mind:

  1. User need: Start with possible personas and detailed use cases. Prioritize the use cases and brainstorm solutions. This is where you have to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer and brainstorm ideas that are unique, delightful, and compelling. This is a good product design framework to use (both in interviews and in real-life PM-ing).
  2. Metrics/Be analytical: What key metrics would you track to measure the success of the product and how will you measure it? It’s critical for PMs to balance making data-driven decisions, not just qualitative insights/feedback. Being able to measure and monitor key success metrics will help you make changes to ensure your product remains successful and continues to be a “good” product
  3. Strategy: this is all about making sure your product has a competitive advantage in the marketplace and building out product roadmap. Thinking about business goals here as well as cost/risk in the short and long term.
  4. Technical: it’s really important to be able to participate in technical discussions and help make trade-offs. a lot of times, things don’t go as planned and to be able to evaluate the pros/cons of various alternative solutions can make a difference in delivering the right product on time

Check out: Building International Products by MasterCard Director PM

“As a UX researcher, what do you think made your transition successful? Is there anything you’d do differently now?”

I was working in user research/UX before landing my first PM job. I truly believe what helped me transition to PM was expressing my passion about user needs, and being able to tell my story. I used an online portfolio where I talked through my top projects/accomplishments that involved really thinking about the users at the core and working with various teams to come up with a solution. Having a visual portfolio really helped me a lot during my interviews.

I also knew my weaknesses – I didn’t have a strong business background nor felt that I was extremely technical for some PM roles. I read a lot of books about PM roles, did a lot of mock interviews with people, and just really made sure I understood the core principles of what makes a good PM.

Most importantly, be passionate and show your passion for the user. I really think more and more companies are looking for user-driven PM so as long as you tell the story of wanting to bring the user’s voice in product decision making, you will stand out.

Check out: 5 Excellent Ways to Build your Own Product Management Portfolio

How do you balance addressing COVID impact for the immediate term, while thinking about the product and features viability post COVID?

The pandemic has definitely changed everyone’s lives. during this pandemic, Yelp has been relentlessly focused on delivering the most up-to-date and helpful information to our consumers and businesses. When we think about the different ways we can help our users up-to-date during the pandemic, the features can be broken down into more immediate, factual information such as whether the business is currently closed/open, whether they offer takeout/delivery, whether their staff are wearing masks, or into those that are more risky – tapping into how users feel about how certain safety measures are taken at certain businesses. This is a sensitive area and that’s why we ensure more rigorous data collection/analysis, and a lot of scoping before coming up with a solution. A great example is a new feature we actually launched today to help users feel more confident when visiting businesses during Covid.

In summary, we think about what do the users need to know right now vs. as the pandemic continues/goes away over the next year or two. What information would users still want to know? and how can Yelp continue to be the source of accurate, reliable info during uncertain times?

“How do you think of the difference of being a PM of 2C products vs 2B products?”

I’ve mostly worked for B2C but I do have couple of insights I can share. when it comes to being a PM for B2B, your goal is to empower the business you’re working with so that they can deliver the solutions their users need. You are one step detached from the direct consumers and instead focused on what will drive the success for the business. This means you often think about the needs of the employees of the business as they are the ones that will be delivering solutions to consumers. delivering solutions/products for businesses can be more structured in terms of timeline and milestones.

As a PM for B2C, you have to tune in much more to consumers, and things can feel much more fast-paced and dynamic. This also means that discovering user needs and being on top of user’s changing behaviours/needs/desires are not always as expected, and you really have to be prepared to make changes fast to ensure users have what they need. For instance, when Covid-19 hit, Yelp really had to pivot a lot of our projects and initiatives to focus on what the users need right now – which is up to date information about businesses. this can be difficult and challenging at times but it’s very rewarding and what I love most about working for a 2C company that is always attentive to the users changing needs.

Laptop and smartphone on desk with side plant

When enhancing a product or feature, how do you balance your perspective of understanding the actual problem by not inclining too much into customer perspective?

I think this really hits the heart of being a PM. A PM’s job is to bridge the gap between users, technology and business. While I am passionate about users, it is critical to always keep in mind the business goal and strategy.

My advice here is to layout your goal as a PM and think about what user problems you want to go after and which ideas/solutions make sense both short term and long term. This is where prioritization is key. Layout the different user needs & use cases, and determine which one to go after. Then lay out all the ways to solve for that use case and prioritize based on your vision for the product, business goals as well as effort/risk.

“Can you tell us about the challenges to scale a product in an exponential way to meet companies forecast and goals.”

I think this really depends on the type of product/service and the industry the business is in. Based on my experiences, I think oftentimes, the biggest challenge comes from the unknown of whether something will work or not. Because of this high risk, unknown of a potential 10x plan for a product, it can be daunting to commit a great amount of investment when there seem to be so many ideas that can still make an impact in the shorter run. Especially when there are so many aspects to a product and different user segments and various user needs that constantly change, it can be very hard to decide to invest a chunk of time and effort into building out a “could be” vision when that time and effort can be used to build things now. This is why I think frameworks like the horizon framework is so critical because it allows you to determine which initiatives/projects are of high risk, high potential, and set aside dedicated resources early in advance to try it out.

At Yelp, we are very thorough and rigorous when it comes to planning out the roadmap for the next year and beyond, and it’s so important to understand early on that some initiatives/projects are much riskier, but can have high potential, so we can set aside dedicated investment for such projects.

“How do you uncover user needs in the overall product development process? What method do you find the most effective?”

From my experience, there’s several main ways to uncover user needs:

  1. User interviews: this is pretty straightforward but talking to the users directly, either one on one or in a focus group. This is good for understanding how users currently use the product, their intentions/goals overall, their lifestyles, and for just getting to know the users better
  2. Usability testing: this is usually done further down in the product development process where we’ve already identified the user need and which solution to build, and we want to decide between different variations of the solution. Often times, this involves showing users two versions of the same idea and having them complete certain tasks to observe and identify what to change/fix from the built solution before finalizing
  3. User surveys & questionnaires: these are great for when we need both qualitative and quantitative feedback from users quickly, and usually we want to validate existing hypotheses, and already have an idea of what the user needs are.
  4. Data analysis/trend analysis: this is purely quantitative, and usually involves business operations and data science teams to help discover helpful trends and insights in the way users use our product over time. this is usually done at the beginning of the product development process, and this is the onset of identifying possible new goals to go after. these are really helpful to understand the current state of a feature/product and come up with potential hypotheses backed by data, to further validate and ideate on.

It’s difficult to pinpoint which one is most effective. It really depends on what the product is and who you are solving for. I would say that if you work somewhere where there are dedicated user research and design team, then work closely with them to run more qualitative user research while you look into the more quantitative data analyses and trends to shape the hypothesis and goal of your product.

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