Agile · Design · Product management · Scrum

Product Management and User Experience virtual conference

I spent the day yesterday (February 3) at an all-day virtual conference on how product managers (or ‘product people’), designers (or ‘UXers’), and developers (or ‘engineers’) can work well together (the PMUX conference).  The conference involved six presentations from some luminaries in the field whose books, blogs, articles, and even tweets can be insightful and encouraging for those of us working in product development.

Jeff Gothelf spoke about product strategy as the big picture that encompasses UX strategy.

Jeff Patton spoke (and drew pictures) about balancing continuous discovery and continuous delivery.

Laura Klein talked about planning a user’s path from first learning about a product to revenue-generating engagement.

Tomer Sharon presented six key ways that product managers and UX designers can work well together and value each other’s unique contributions.

Christina Wodtke spoke about the benefits of radical focus on well-defined objectives and key results.

And Marty Cagan brought it home by discussing 20 key things that separate typical teams from truly great ones.

Between each presentation the group of us listening together from my firm had a few minutes to talk together about how the ideas applied to us.  Many things we heard resonated well, and it was affirming to see that we are already progressing along the path to becoming a great team.  Our group included product managers, product owners (like me), engineers, designers, and marketers.  We wrestled together about how deeply our company culture appreciates the compelling value of great user experience design: we’re better than we used to be when our primary focus was being incredibly smart and simply utilitarian in our technology but we are still growing in having outstanding UX as a core differentiator.  We explored ways we can continue growing our discipline of listening to users as part of our product design and discovery process, and we were encouraged to affirm our growing learning velocity.  We talked about ways to resist territoriality and promote the kind of collaboration that values skills over roles and trust over control.  It was a good day and I could write a lot more about several of the talks – I might revisit them in the next few weeks if I can.

Unfortunately, two elements from the day rubbed me the wrong way, and they both relate to an ongoing undercurrent of subtle sexism that plagues the technology space as well as our world at large.  The four male presenters gave strategic talks about big picture issues confronting product development as an industry; the two women gave practical talks full of personal anecdotes and self-deprecating humor that gave concrete examples of how to apply parts of the theory.  And two of the men gave what our industry views as the highest compliment available to well-designed products by calling them “sexy.”

I’m a huge fan of taking presentations out of the theoretical and showing how they apply in the practical worlds in which we all live and work.  I think a day-long conference discussing product management and design ought to contain both big picture ideas and practically relevant application of those ideas.  But why the gender divide on who presented what?  And what exactly is “sexy” technology?  Why is being “sexy” the best thing that can be said about a product, rather than perhaps smart or intuitive or cool or appealing?  If “sexy” defines the pinnacle what pressure does this place on women in the technology workforce?

I am confident that these aspects of the PMUX conference were entirely unintentional; it’s also true that I may have been the only one to notice them.  But bias and discrimination are no less destructive for being unconscious.  There were a number of great aspects to the conference and the presentations; for me unfortunately these benefits were undercut a bit by the elements of sexism cropping up.  It would be nice if things were different, but I know that in truth it’s not that simple.

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2 thoughts on “Product Management and User Experience virtual conference

  1. Hmm… I too ‘went’ to the conference and your tweet which attracted me to your post and it made me wonder what I missed – I too am concerned with sexism and racism in society and the tech workspace. Personally, I didn’t pick up on this and I think you’ve read too much into it. It’s not a word I’d use but to say something is sexy it’s a “turn on”, it’s heightened emotions. Is it really alienating women when someone calls a product sexy?

    1. Jason – thanks for your thoughtful response. As a father of two daughters I find myself particularly sensitive to statements that equate being sexy with being great. There are a lot of hopes I have for my daughters and how they will be perceived in the world and being considered “sexy” is very low on my list; I want them to value being smart, insightful, creative, competent, compassionate, curious, strong, engaged, articulate – all the things that we as a society value in men but praise less in women. Even as women move into the workforce where being “sexy” is utterly uncorrelated with being effective we still use sexy as a high compliment – and one rarely applied to men. I’d like to think we could find a better adjective to describe and praise an appeal in product than calling it sexy.

      Of course I also readily acknowledge that I may in fact be making too much of this word choice. My reactions are definitely colored by all I bring into the conversation. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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