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The Product Owner and The Pandemic

Abhishek Mishra May 26, 2020

Product Development AI/ML COVID-19 Pandemic Survival Viable Product

I won’t waste your time talking about COVID19. You are in a lockdown like me, waiting for this to blow over and the world to dial back to normalcy. While the pandemic has claimed more than we all anticipated it would, the fact remains that it will keep on claiming more lives, business and peace. All of that will impact, apart from everything else, our software products and the hard work we put in them. Statista predicts a decline of 5.1% in software spending for 2020. That means fewer people will buy, renew or upgrade product licenses.

Surely that’s not the case for every product. If you have anything to do with remote connectivity and collaboration, you would have seen a jump in sales already. But the lion’s share of the products is in sales peril. For instance, a friend’s firm which has a product dedicated to MIS data visualization has started seeing major cancellations on license orders. The same is the story for another one that manages a restaurant floor. I can bet you know a story or two yourself.

In these trying times, what do we product owners do?
I believe that the key here is what we already do everyday as product owners: Prioritization.

Let me share an example. Recently we did a complete turn-it-on-its-head-workshop of a product backlog for a customer and we realized that we can and must do away with so many of the backlog items. The lockdown has shown us that we can survive on just the essentials, and similarly, our customers have also started seeing the strategic minimum they need to ensure business survival. But it is our duty as a product owner to take them through that exercise of arriving at the strategic minimum. And yes, it can be very painful.

The customer I speak of had carefully thought of multiple features that would place its product light years ahead of the nearest competition. The user experience was ironclad butter- both secure and smooth. A user could access the critical path with a negligible learning curve and the features went as far as the rabbit hole. Product heaven in short. Hence it physically hurt to see them think of removing pieces of their dream from the backlog (or deprioritizing it). But hurt or no hurt, we had to take them through it. “We said we want payments? What has the quickest integration out there? Let’s just do that. Automated photographic verification? No that can wait. We will use manual research. Police verification? That’s imperative but let’s look at what the law says now.”

This is… not a Minimum Viable Product but a Survival Viable Product (SVP if you will). This is what we must do for our customers, especially those with their backs to the wall. It is no easy feat as there are complex research points for each decision. The entire framework of the world changes each day to adapt and as must strive to predict where the tide would take our product. Those predictions coupled with the customer’s revised business priorities direct the backlog reprioritizing decisions.

The intent is to strip away “the luxury” and stay alive, while staying true to the initial vision. After our exercise with the said customer, the sign-up process bid adieu (temporary, hopefully) to a lot of cool, AI/ML based verification features. But the sign-up is still ironclad. The payment methods are fewer but there is enough to cater to the target market. The police verification was carefully stripped down to an auto-verification through criminal records. The SVP we arrived at was not a shell of the product, but its spiritual equivalent that can withstand the storm.

As product owners, each of us has a responsibility to think through our respective product backlogs and if need be, reorganize it against the pandemic. If you have the luxury of not having to shelve any planned items, I still recommend a visit of existing features in the wake of the pandemic and think about the unpredictability that comes for free with the current world.

How has the pandemic affected your role as a product owner? Did it lead your backlogs to be reorganized? Please let me know in the comments!

e-Zest is a leading digital innovation partner for enterprises and technology companies that utilizes emerging technologies for creating engaging customers experiences. Being a customer-focused and technology-driven company, it always helps clients in crafting holistic business value for their software development efforts. It offers software development and consulting services for cloud computing, enterprise mobility, big data and analytics, user experience and digital commerce.