Tastemaking: The Art of Product Management

Product management is an obscure art. Many people, especially outside the tech world, have no clue what it is. When I tell someone what I do, they often reply with “You mean project management?” The lengthy explanation that follows sometimes falls on deaf ears.

In an effort to explain it effectively I realize that I have to use a few words that everyone understands, put into a succinct, easily digestible sentence: “product management is like x for y.” The object (y) is the overall experience or quality the product provides. Even if the product doesn’t have any user interface (like an API or a power supply) it is a part of something people use, and their experience is the ultimate goal. But what is the subject (x)? Before we get to that, let’s talk about taste.

a: critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation
b: manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation

After all the data is processed, customers consulted, competitors studied, and engineers brainstormed, the essence of product management is to use good judgment and make the right roadmap decision. In other words – and referencing the dictionary definition – a product manager should have good taste. Not just general taste – a good taste in the subject matter and the market they play in. Good product managers are connoisseurs in their field.

an expert judge in matters of taste.

Outstanding product managers are tastemakers, setting a trajectory and influencing others to develop a good taste as well. This brings us to the ultimate definition: a product manager is a user experience tastemaker. Not all product managers are, of course, but it’s a noble goal to aspire to for everyone in the trenches.

a person who decides or influences what is or will become fashionable.

Crosscheck: Steve jobs is considered one of the best product managers ever. “User experience tastemaker” is an apt way to summarize his life achievement.

Paul Graham published and excellent post on the topic several years ago: http://www.paulgraham.com/taste.html