guest blogger product management

Adapting to Product Risks

Guest Post by: Syed Abdullah (Mentee, Session 11, The Product Mentor) [Paired with Mentor, Bryan Postelnek]

I have worked on several products that were built with passion and vigor. At JCDecaux, I led the development of an information kiosk for airport passengers. The kiosks are interactive devices that provide concession, flight, point of interest and flight information to the passenger. Passengers can scan their boarding pass on the kiosk and obtain flight, gate and concession information. Passengers are also able to view hotel information and use the devices to speak to the sales team of the hotel. The kiosks were designed to be used by all the arriving and departing passengers of an airport. The kiosks are deployed to many airports in the U.S. including Houston Intercontinental, Houston Hobby and Orlando International Airport.

Today the product is very successful. The kiosks help thousands of customers by providing valuable information and generate a significant portion of the revenue for the company. Nevertheless, the initial launch of the product was a complete failure. The wondrous product was used by less than five percent of our entire user base. The launch of the kiosks failed because we failed to realize how the product risks pose a threat to the success of a product. In addition, choosing the wrong product management framework added to the failure of the launch. Throughout the mentorship with the Product Group, I learned from my mentor the various aspects of product risks and how to address and adapt to various product risks. 

A risk is an uncertain event that may have both a positive or negative impact on a product. Amongst many, product risks pose a significant impact on the success of a product. Product risk can be categorized into feasibility, usability, business viability, project planning, and functional and non-functional risks. 

Feasibility risk impacts the capacity of the team to build the product given time, skills and technology constraints. The feasibility risk was one of the major reasons for the launch failure of the Information Kiosk. We proposed to build a kiosk that will provide interactive maps, VoIP and provide flight information. The sales team and leadership promised the clients to deliver the product without having any discussion with the engineering team. The product and the engineering team did not get the opportunity to conduct a feasibility study. We realized we did not have the experience and resources to build the product during our first sprint. We ran into our first problem with the implementation of maps. None of us had any experience working with maps. Hence, we used architectural maps in jpeg format. We immediately noticed two problems, the maps looked distorted and outside the bound of the area for the map. We then used png but the size of the image file increased. The kiosk froze and crashed after each boot. The appearance of the map was corrupted with the placement of icons on the map. The icons represented concessions and points of interest. The icons occupied most of the screen and appeared to be on top of each other. As we neared our deadline we failed to come up with a better solution. The Aviation Authority and leadership were appalled by our product. No one liked the product. Since we were not given additional time and had to deliver the product, we excluded the maps and just included a list of concessions. Passengers were able to see all the concessions in an airport and their locations. 

One of the primary reasons for the launch of kiosk failure was due to the exclusion of the engineering team during product planning. In an attempt to secure a business opportunity, the sales team promised to deliver a product without discussing the product feasibility with the engineering team. The engineering team is a valuable resource for determining product feasibility and timeline. The engineering team is adept in determining their expertise, capability, and constraints. If we included the engineering team in the product planning and proposal process, we would have proposed a product plan which we could have built successfully.

Our project planning process also contributed to our failure. Even though we called ourselves an agile team, we delivered our product using a waterfall method. The sales and management teams wanted us to deliver the entire product at the launch. Instead of abiding by the management team’s agenda, we should have convinced them of building a minimum viable product (MVP) that resolved the highest pain points for our customers. We should have also clearly portrayed the benefits of building and delivering our product incrementally using agile methods. If we built our MVP on providing the passengers with concession information, the passengers would have received the information they needed to make their purchasing decisions. We would have also obtained valuable feedback from our customers and we could have used the feedback to improve our product. Additionally, working on the MVP would have allowed us to build, test and improve the product iteratively within the deadline. Hence, working on an MVP and choosing the right product management process is essential in driving a successful launch. 

The Information Kiosk launch failed because of usability risk. We did not foresee how the passengers would react to the kiosks. No one from the product team worked on a product that was used directly by end-users. We also did not have any experience working with maps. We did not conduct direct interviews with the passengers. We failed to create personas, user journeys, and empathy maps and did not create well-defined use cases. We relied solely on the requirements given to us by the airport administration. All of the metrics we tracked showed poor usage of the product. The number of clicks, visits, and the amount of time spent were extremely low. Passengers did not use pinch or zoom functions. Therefore, we got out of the building and went out to the airports. We began interviewing the passengers. We discovered that the passengers didn’t really know how to use the pinch function. Even though they knew how the pinch function worked on their phone, they did not realize the functionality would carry over to the kiosks. They also did not know that by as they zoomed into the map, the concessions were revealed. Hence, we started to show animations on the screen which showed how to use the various features of the kiosks. We measured our metrics after the implementation of the animations and we saw a positive increase in all of our metrics.

We also learned from the passengers that they did not like the design of the maps. Our flat maps and flat icons did not resonate with the passengers. We partnered with a company that had experience in creating maps. We deployed a 3D map to one of the kiosks and we noticed a drastic increase in the product usage metrics. We conducted another round of interviews and we learned that the passengers wanted to interact with the map. We also learned that the passengers wanted to see a path to the concession. Lastly, we also learned from the passengers that they wanted to know what each concession had without visiting the stores first. Hence, we started to add each of the requested features to our kiosk and tested the result with the passengers. We saw a dramatic improvement in the way the passengers were using the kiosks. All most all of the metrics showed a positive increase. By partnering with a company that had experience and industry knowledge and using the passengers’ feedback, we were able to turn our failed product into a successful one. Testing hypothesis and product design are essential in mitigating and adapting to usability risk.

Business viability risk impacts various aspects of the business. A product’s success or failure has tremendous impacts on other lines of business and the brand. While we proposed the Information Kiosk to various airports, we determined how the product aligned with the rest of the product JCDecaux offered. JCDecaux mainly offered advertising products. The kiosks offered the same advertising opportunity for JCDecaux. The concessions, that paid a premium, received a customized presence on the kiosk. We also partnered with the marketing and finance departments to determine the financial feasibility of the product. We also released the product in small scales. We started with the smallest airport and measured the cost and profitability. The return on investment was greater than the cost of producing the kiosks. Additionally, we determined that if the kiosks failed, the failure would not hurt the brand of the company. By aligning the product with the business goal of the company and determining profitability we minimized the business risk of the product.

The last two aspects of product risk are functional and non-functional risks. Functional risks pose threats to how a product may not achieve the activities it is designed to do. The kiosks did not really face any functional risk. All the functions worked properly.  Nevertheless, the kiosks were plagued with non-functional risks. Non-functional risks impact a product’s performance. Resource, technology and poor planning impact a product’s functionality. The kiosk’s functionality was negatively impacted by the lack of experience. We built the kiosk using android OS. The lack of experience with android caused performance problems. We developed and implemented a thorough test plan which covered both functional, non-functional and performance testing. We implemented unit, integration and regression tests for all aspects of development. By having a well-balanced team of developers and test engineers we were able to devote significant time to test the kiosk. We also maintained transparency with our customers. We clearly informed our customers if we discovered an anomaly in the kiosk. 

Every product has some inherent risks. These risks can be detrimental to the success of a product. By being customer-centric, testing your hypothesis and product idea, and engaging the engineering team in building the product from the get-go, product risks can be mitigated. We also need to thoroughly test our product to create a robust product. Lastly, but most importantly, we need to create transparency with our customers if we want our products to succeed.

About Syed Abdullah

Syed Abdullah is passionate about creating quality products. He has led the development of Airport Information Kiosk and a Mobile application at JCDecaux. He is currently working with Verizon as a Senior Product Owner.


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