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Who Moved Product's Cheese?

The digital product design and development landscape has seen an accelerated transformation in recent months. This shift is driven by both market dynamics and the adoption of emerging technologies like AI, in everyday work. On the market side, we’re witnessing product portfolios being consolidated, startups grappling to stay afloat, innovation teams being disbanded and leaders (CXOs, managers, ICs) being laid off - all in an attempt to manage falling stock prices. The mobile app boom has plateaued, with the rate of apps downloading flattening. A handful of companies like Meta, Google, Bytedance and Snap, dominate the share of eyeballs on smartphones. Startup Investments dwindled in 2023, with Web3 businesses seeing a 73% year-on-year decline. Sectors such as media and entertainment and e-commerce are down by roughly 60-65% while emerging fields such as Clean tech, battery manufacturing and AI seem to be on the rise.

On the everyday work front, new methods, models and tools are being developed to match (and surpass) the sophistication of human intelligence. The discourse around technologies like AI oscillates between awe at its potential breakthroughs (for example: designing new proteins, rapidly scaling services, potentially detecting and curing cancer) and caution about the risks of over-dependence (limited exposure to diversity of human behaviors and customs, overlooking ethical implications, an optimization mindset driving only business growth, and exacerbating global economic inequality).

As technologies continue to advance and fists get tighter on innovation spending, it’s time for product professionals to, as the saying goes, ‘move their cheese’. I foresee a potential obsolescence of current practises, a threat to designer roles, and predict a return to a first principles approach to product development.

The emergence of a bigger, bolder T-shaped professional

While traditional specialists and generalists will always have their place, the 'T-shaped' professional seems to be gaining more traction as organizations seek people who have learned to balance depth and breadth of knowledge. Just like in the field of Medicine, digital product development will also see specialists grow into super-specialists while generalists will be asked to become much more versatile. B-schools are already renaming their original MBA programmes to ‘MBA in General Management’ while they launch specialist MBAs in finance, healthcare, data science and AI. The job market reflects this evolution too. Gone are the days of the catch-all "Interaction Designer" or "UX Designer" - now, we see a proliferation of titles like "Growth Designer," "Product Designer," "Content Designer," and "IA and Navigation Designer."

On the other hand, generalists will be asked to broaden their skillset. Not every business will require super-specialists. As technologies become more sophisticated, and the more rote, predictable work becomes automated, generalists will be expected to possess an ever-expanding array of complementary skills. It's a curious state of affairs, to be sure. But for the discerning product professional, it's a shift worth observing closely.

The imminent reshaping of product teams

Businesses are asking their teams to do more with less - several have fired support staff, replacing them with automated systems to handle service requests and even R&D departments have been downsized, with the onus of research now falling on product owners and designers. Add to this, generative AI is lowering the barriers for non-techies to engage with tools once the domain of experts. It's making "creation" accessible to anyone with an internet connection, catalyzing a larger and more diverse pool of individuals to pursue product development.

Gone are the days when location, cost, and resources segregated the creator class. Generative AI is leveling the playing field, allowing people to experiment with AI-driven design tools without requiring advanced technical skills. With tools such as tldraw, ChatGPT and Krisp, who-does-what in the product development lifecycle is about to be shaken up.

I wouldn't be surprised if, one day soon, a product thinker could draft a hypothesis, set project goals, crunch the numbers, create user flows, mock up UI, and hand it all off to engineers for deeper integration. Of course, they may still need experts to tighten the screws, but the dependence would be a shadow of its former self - making the traditional crafts of product design and UI development feel increasingly obsolete.

Now, before the designer cognoscenti among you raise a hue and cry, let me clarify. The idea that design jobs in tech will disappear entirely should be met with healthy skepticism. It's those designers who've focused solely on mastering design tools to create pixel-perfect visuals, who've relied heavily on templates and toolkits, who've shown little curiosity about user behavior and haven't invested in skills like systemic thinking, sensemaking, and storytelling - those are the ones who, honestly, should feel anxious.

Design is not just about operating digital tools well. It's about understanding user context, needs and emotions. Human intuition, creativity, and empathy play crucial roles in creating experiences that resonate on a deeper level. Those qualities cannot be easily replicated or replaced. Building that muscle will be essential for the young creative professionals seeking to thrive in tech.

A conscious return to first principles

Companies like Adobe, Atlassian, Miro, Notion, Amplitude, Dovetail, etc. that build widely used tools for R&D are approaching the current situation from a technology capability addition angle to stay relevant and get quick wins in a hype-fueled market. This typically prevents them from approaching it from first principles, which is why it feels like everyone is reducing the scope of their problem area to the easiest 1%–summarising text, changing image backgrounds, and the like–instead of what’s actually hard: inquiry, thinking, decision-making, aligning with humans, etc.

It feels like everyone is reducing the scope of their problem area to the easiest 1%

Forward-thinking leaders must no longer be content with merely addressing “What the user wants now.” They have a remarkable opportunity to design futures that feel like a natural evolution in how their customers interact with the product or business. By looking beyond narrow use cases, we can imagine products that don't simply optimize through standardized experiences, but honor the human spirit and the diversity of human experience by offering intelligent, context-aware, bespoke assistance to customers - anticipating user behaviors and needs before they're even expressed.

Product competitiveness will hinge heavily on experience–on how the offering makes the customer feel–rather than on a mere accumulation of features and frills. The product thinker who possess the foresight and the conviction to champion "good taste" and quality will be the most valued. Those who have carved out space for experience-driven product development will have the best chance of capturing market share. This mindset shift has the power to fundamentally transform the very nature of product building as we know it.

Pivoting philosophies

Business models are being upended as the business world navigates bearish behaviour and government policies try to keep up with technological advances. Take OpenAI for instance - once an open source bastion, now a protective guardian of its intellectual property. Many organisations have already started to premiumize their AI offering, seeking to maximise value from these emerging capabilities (there are whispers of Google potentially monetising its AI features as well). On the other hand, open-source platforms are catching up. As forums consisting leaders from tech, politics, ethics, aesthetics, indigeneous studies, linguistics, human studies etc. come together to try to get ahead of the uncertainty around inflation, privacy, authorship and deepfakes; policies are being written and rewritten to ensure the situaltion doesn’t spiral out of control.

This state of flux poses a profound challenge for business leaders. As external factors keep influencing company culture, they must evaluate where the company's philosophy resides today and whether they're still on the right mission. It’s a delicate dance, this shifting of company priorities, to steer organizations to align with the rapidly evolving economic and technological landscape. But for those leaders with the fortitude to embrace change and gracefully bring teams along with them, the rewards may be bountiful.

To recap, what's really going to matter in building products is good experience, taste, sensible leadership and diversified skills. We must be able to sniff change, move nimbly with a keen eye and an open mind in all this turbulence reshaping our domain–to ‘move our cheese’ before we’re left far behind on the digital frontier.

Have any more thoughts? I'd love to hear DM me on Linkedin, Twitter or Instagram.


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