The Secret to Mixing Data and Creativity in Product Management

 Image Courtesy of Limelight Imaging

Image Courtesy of Limelight Imaging


These days, data is king. As product managers, one of our most important roles is being a data guru. It’s undeniably essential that PMs pull usage data and analyze it so we can build better products. Without king data, we have no insight into how people use our products, no baseline guiding our development process.

Data vs. Intuition

Data can reveal the weak spots in our product or can isolate a popular feature, but there’s no creativity in data, no human touch. Data reflects the outcomes of user behavior, but not the human drive behind those behaviors. After all, we are complex, complicated beings, each with our own emotions, knowledge bases, worldviews, and experiences. A specific aspect of a product that excites and inspires one user may be bland or even annoying to another—the data can’t always show us the difference. In other words, all the data in the world can’t tell us the “whys” or “hows;” without human creativity and curiosity, metrics can be analyzed but not interpreted. Nor can data tell us how to produce an amazing user experience—only human creativity can do that.

Too often we’re told that product development is data and metrics vs. intuition and creativity, but this is limited, binary thinking. These approaches may seem like polar opposites, but each has its strengths, and if we favor one approach to the exclusion of the other, we’ll lose something valuable in the process. If data is king, then his parliament must be human creativity. PMs must adhere to data’s baseline, but we also need to be able to follow our gut and improvise, tweak, or even skip to a new track and draw inspiration from other areas of our lives as we build our products.

Making Space for Creativity

In funk music, the underlying structure is always the emphasis on the first beat in the “one, two, three, four” beat format. Affectionately, and even reverently, called The One, this accented first beat in the 4/4 signature is the only absolute element of funk. During the last three beats, funk masters can “bring the funk” by improvising elaborate riffs or adding in vocal phrases, as long as they all hit on The One together. Funk can accommodate elements from a wide array of musical genres: funk rock, jazz funk, psychedelic funk, electro funk, funk mental—there’s a vast amount of space for experimentation. The result is a music that’s bold, vibrant, energetic, expansive, and imbued with an irrepressible ingenuity, yet highly structured at the same time. For the audience, funk feels intuitive; the emphasis on The One makes funk immediately appealing and utterly entrancing in a way that no other music can quite replicate. The groove of The One is so energizing that listeners often can’t help but get on up and dance dance dance to the funk.

When we “bring the funk” to product management, we’re combining data with creativity: interpreted data becomes our One, the first and most pronounced beat. Because our One holds us in check, this effectively means that data has an absolute mass greater than a mere twenty-five percent of the equation. Yet, in the space of the remaining three beats, we’re left with a fertile ground where our creativity and improvisation can flourish. When our gut tells us that something is off, we can return to our One for more information before stretching the rubber band of improvisation even further. When a hunch tells us that we’re onto something, we’re free to experiment with as much creativity as we can muster, as long as our work relates back to our One.

Compared to a purely data-driven approach, bringing the funk to our work might feel a little like flying by the seat of our pants, but that’s not really the case. With our One to guide us, creativity simply becomes another path to product development—a path that will probably be more interesting, spontaneous, collaborative, and educational. Yes, we’re winging it to a certain degree, but combining the power of data and creativity might shake the stones out of our head and allow unique, outstanding ideas to enter our work process on the sly.

Identifying Human Cravings

Because it’s difficult (and presumptive) to explain the thought process of another PM, it’s hard to describe how bringing the funk to product development works without drawing on my own experience. One of the first times I brought the funk to my work, my team and I were in the process of integrating a chat feature into a media site. The data told us the feature wasn’t very popular, but it was up to me to interpret that data and determine what exactly was amiss.

That’s when I discovered an interesting correlation hiding in the data: users who posted a chat comment but who didn’t receive replies were less likely to post again in the near future. On the other hand, users who got replies to their posts were more likely to start new threads fairly quickly. I had found my One.

In the space of the remaining three beats, I found the root of our chat engagement issue—our chat didn’t feel like a community—then improvised a simple, but powerful, solution. To make our chat feature more inviting and inclusive, I added a new component to the user interface just below the text-input field that said, “Contribute to the community: reply to JohnDoe123.”

No metric could ever have isolated a lack of feeling, nor could it have identified the human instinct that makes communities so fundamentally attractive to us. Yet by appealing in the smallest way to the humanity of our users, our chat engagement soared—now users weren’t just chatting, they were supporting each other. Giving over beats two, three, and four to creativity made us hit on the next One that much more strongly.

When we adopt data as our One and hit on that first beat, we’re tapping into the almost endless amount of information that data has to offer, but at the same time we’re leaving a wide berth for creativity, a space where chance and genius can take root. Where our creativity leads us, and what we’ll discover in the process, is something we can’t predict, but isn’t that the fun(k) of it?



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Yonatan Levy