Move over product manager, introducing the Behavioral Product Manager

A Behavioral Product Manager

  • A BPM understands that humans have systematic irrationalities. They seek to understand these irrationalities and build for them.
  • A BPM knows that their users do not have fixed preferences. They know their users make different decisions depending on the design and context of an experience.
  • A BPM is not afraid to be paternalistic. They understand that giving users all the choices and information can be burdensome rather than welcome. They believe it’s their job to make decisions easier and this sometimes means making decisions in the best interests of the user. (See last point on good vs evil: a good BPM has reason to believe the behavior they are encouraging improves the welfare of their customers)
  • A BPM knows users make different decisions if they are deciding for today’s self (now) or tomorrow’s self (future me).
  • A BPM understands that habit formation is extremely tough. They know that it’s much easier to have the user make a one-time decision that automates their usage and value extraction than to insert their product into the user’s life on a daily basis and ask them to log in/perform a new action every day.
  • A BPM is able effectively to communicate, educate, and translate behavioral science insights for the engineering and design team. They ensure every person on the team is tuned into the small details of an experience and asks each other for the behavioral insights to justify small and large product and design decisions. There is a shared language, focused on details.
  • A BPM is ruthless about identifying and prioritizing a key behavior — what uncomfortably specific action they want the user to do (rather than a generic action like ‘log in’*). For example, if they are building an online education platform, they may define the ideal key behavior in concrete terms like, “Add online course schedule to their calendar, right after signing up for the course” or “Get to min 30 or 40 in their first online course.”
  • A BPM ensures that all team members have input and agree with this specific key behavior. They work to ensure all team members are actively using it to drive their priorities. A BPM formulates a research plan around this key behavior, has appropriate data tracking metrics for this key behavior and is open to change the key behavior when it stops driving business growth as expected.
  • A BPM will assume they are not the first person to identify a customer insight or product opportunity.When investigating a new problem, they will not start with original research or new features. They will seek out existing academic literature/case studies to not reinvent the wheel.
  • A BPM will question their own intuition on the problem and solution — and their team’s intuition. When someone says “we tried that before and it didn’t work” they will ask to see the data as proof. They will not reference their personal experiences as justification for a feature request.
  • A BPM will listen to customer interviews and focus groups but remain skeptical that people’s attitudes, beliefs and perceptions will translate into actual behavior. The good product manager is constantly thinking about the “say/do” dilemma.
  • A BPM will prioritize logging and testing infrastructure — the tools for understanding — over new product features. In fact, they will likely choose to delay a launch in order to put in a testing system.
  • A BPM promotes a team culture that is unforgivingly meticulous about data integrity, test methodology and tracking actions the user takes in the product.
  • A BPM will have a data / logging QA process they follow rigorously. They never launch a feature without first testing that the data collection works as specced.
  • A BPM understands that behavior is hard to change. Because of this, they seek proof that a feature/change will produce the intended results. A BPM is religious about experimentation.
  • A BPM uses experimentation to understand why something works or doesn’t work, which gives them confidence to build a long-term roadmap and strategy from the results.
  • A BPM is ruthless about the experimental control condition. Once they decide to invest valuable resources to conduct an experiment, they do not compromise on the experimental design. They insist that the control must isolate the key variable, even if it degrades the customer experience. They understand they are trading off a small number of current customers for an improved experience for future customers.
  • A BPM ensures random assignment and avoids self selection. Everyone in the experiment should be equally likely to end up in the control. When relevant, they ask their data team to double and triple check the randomization to ensure it’s truly random.
  • A BPM documents the experimental conditions such that design and engineering understands the key question and hypothesis.
  • A BPM publishes the team’s hypothesis on which version will win, their assumptions on sample size, conversion, effect size and how long the experiment will run. They ask the data team to publish their data analysis plan prior to launching.
  • A BPM packages and promotes both successful and failed experiments so the rest of the company (or public) can learn from the investment. They believe in systematic results reporting and are unafraid to loudly communicate lessons learned from “failures”.
  • A BPM creates a behavioral map of all the decisions that a potential and current user must do to reach the key behavior. The map zooms into each step and every detail of the whole process. They use their detailed map to gain a shared vision of the problem and prioritize product and feature opportunities.
  • A BPM meticulously documents the barriers that a user currently experiences. They do this with a combination of observation, the behavioral map and data. They constantly ask the team what barriers can they remove and what benefits can they amplify. They are deeply worried about small frictions within the process and ruthlessly remove them.
  • A BPM instills in their designers an unwavering aesthetic for simplicity and ease. They ask designers to justify every additional step, choice and decision a user must make.
  • A BPM builds and articulates powerful benefits that increase a user’s motivation to overcome hurdles. They prioritize features that add immediate, concrete and hedonic benefits to using their product, so long as these also align with positive long-term value for the customer.
  • A BPM does not leave copy to the end. They understand the role of copy in driving mindset and framing. The product must work hand-in-hand with the copy.
  • This is simple but will be controversial when practiced. A BPM uses their powers to bring positive value to their customers lives.
  • A BPM works to change the behavior of their users in order to deliver on the company’s mission for customer wellbeing (assuming the mission is positive … tobacco companies need not apply)
  • A BPM resists manipulating the irrationality of the human psyche to extract more money from customers for less value.
  • A BPM differentiate between short-term and long-term value. For example, if Zynga succeeded in getting me to play games for five hours a day, they may have provided me short-term value (otherwise I wouldn’t keep playing). But they may not be delivering long-term value. Humans act differently when making decisions for short term/today’s self and long term/tomorrow’s self. Because of this, a good BPM would measure the long-term impact of heavy game play and whether it corresponds to positive wellbeing for their users.

Want to learn how to become a Behavioral Product Manager? Apply for Irrational Labs’ Behavioral Economics Bootcamp.

Kristen was a PM for 6 years at Intuit and startup called Lytro. She now is a Principle at Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University and co-founder of Irrational Labs. She helps startups and tech companies apply behavioral science to help people become happier, healthier and wealthier.



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Irrational Labs

Irrational Labs is a product design company that creates behavioral change for good.