Building a Great Digital Product Culture.

Chris George, SVP Product Management
12 June 2018

There has a been a fundamental shift in the last 10-15  years around the way that tech companies and design/development agencies think about and approach ‘digital’, inevitably, this has changed the way that teams who design and build digital ‘things’ work and collaborate together to realise great digital experiences and services. 

As a digital product accelerator, this shift has been central to the way that Somo approach product development, and build, grow and retain the teams that underpin this process. 

The rapid adoption of mobile technologies by consumers has seen further opportunities (and associated complexities) with a myriad of choices  in the software development life cycle (SDLC), all of which has led to an extremely exciting time for both users and the teams that the build the digital products that they use everyday.  

One of the main changes has been the move away from the fixed  ‘project’ mindset of software and application development to the rise of thinking about software applications as a digital ‘product’, something that is tangible and the user will return to and use consistently over time. 

This mindset change, has enabled a corresponding way of iterative discovery, design and  development to ensure that a product is constantly updated in-line with user expectations and market forces.

A Mobile Catalyst 

The late nineties saw the exponential rise of use of  the Internet in our everyday lives, that led to ever more complex web applications aimed at solving a number of increasingly difficult user problems and replicating existing real world journeys, in a meaningful way online.

Sites like GeoCities, MySpace, Yahoo, Google and eventually Facebook changed the notion of the internet from being a passive content delivery medium, to an environment that supported websites with rich user interfaces and intricate, multi-stepped user journeys. This required a corresponding shift in the technologies used to develop online  applications, and a number of fundamental development tools, languages and techniques were in constant flux. CSS replaced tables for layout, Javascript became the goto language for client side interactions and HTML was becoming more capable with every update to the W3C standards.

Then in January 2007, Steve Jobs announced the launch of the iPhone and the relationship that we have with technology was changed forever. Suddenly there was a powerful internet enabled device that lived in our pockets, and facilitated a fundamental shift in the way that technology relates and adapts to a user’s context.  

The myriad of options of digital ‘things’ to build and the ways in which to build them grew exponentially. Websites were replaced by mobile ‘apps’ as the application distribution method of choice and with the introduction of Android, Google’s mobile OS, mobile application development was (is!) a complicated and ever changing undertaking.

A Mobile Team and Culture 

The rapid rise of mobile, with the corresponding myriad of development options and approaches (that today need to be encapsulated in a single product) necessitated a move towards cross-functional design and development teams, working together on a single product.

The other major change was a shift towards products being designed around user needs, with a constant test and learn mentality, that translated to ever improving products, in-step with the increasing development possibilities. This change in mindset arguably led to the rise of the product manager as a key member of the development team, and their integral role in the newly coined Product Development Life Cycle (PDLC). 

This approach has been widely adopted  throughout the industry and has seen the inception and subsequent rise of globally recognised products like Spotify and Netflix, just two examples of product ecosystems that are used by tens of millions of people daily and have redefined the music and television industries respectively. Unsurprisingly both of these examples are developed by cross-functional product teams who are widely regarded, with a recognition of being part of companies who have fostered an admirable product culture. 

There are hundreds, or maybe thousands of companies in a range of tech verticals who are all looking to replicate this success, partially through the implementation of a product-centric team culture and the benefits that this demonstrably brings. 

But what exactly do we mean by ‘product culture’? And how do you build one? It’s not all jeans, t-shirts, bean bags, pizza, craft beer and designer dogs under desks.

As a digital product accelerator working with a range of world class clients, having a great product culture is vital at Somo to building and retaining high-performant digital product teams in today’s highly competitive market.

Somo strive to  achieve this in the following ways:

  1. By promoting an Agile, modern engineering culture that encourages flexibility around languages, toolsets and solution approaches

  2. By encouraging both in-team and cross-team collaboration and communication through a range of mediums, physical and digital e.g. Slack, Zoom, Meet-Ups, Lightning Talks, Hack Days, white papers etc.

  3. By providing working and development environments for cross-functional agile teams that foster and facilitate best-in-class product development

  4. By structuring teams with product management (and thereby the user) at the centre of team

  5. By ensuring flexible working capabilities for the team enabling both remote working and distributed teams

  6. Beer and Pizza!

Realising great products in today’s digital landscape is as exciting as it is challenging and central to this is empowered, enabled happy and motivated product development teams to conceive, design and build amazing applications. 

In my next post I’ll go more in-depth about how we approach the different phases of the PDLC here at Somo, and how these pertain to the steps outlined above.