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A Product Manager’s Minimum Viable Desk

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the benefits of working at a standup desk. People have reported having more energy fewer back and shoulder problems after they made the switch, and studies have shown that sitting for too long can be bad for your long-term health. I was a little skeptical that I’d like it, but I was intrigued to try it out. I did some research into different styles of standing desks, but most required either spending lots of money or drilling into sheetrock…needless to say, I was hesitant to do either before trying it out to make sure I liked it. So I tried to make my own out of the materials I had in the office. I put my laptop on the top of a bookshelf we had in the office that turned out to be right at my eye level. Turning some plastic drawers upside down, I was able to create a solid support for my keyboard and mouse. Voila! I had my standing desk. I tried it out for several days and really liked it.

Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, talks about the benefits of launching with what he calls a “Minimum Viable Product.” To quote from the book, “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” As product managers launching a new product, Ries argues that our goal should be to build just those features that allow our customers to get a sense of the essence of the product and nothing more. We can learn from those customers what they like, what they don’t like, and whether there’s enough interest in the product to make it worth pursuing further.

I had been aware of this concept before, but as I was reflecting on my experience creating my standing desk, I realized I had unwittingly been applying many of these principles. I “launched” with just enough “features” to get a sense from my “customers” (in this case, myself) whether this was a viable option. For me, having the screen and the keyboard at the correct height were the two minimum features required to get a sense of whether a standing desk would work for me, so those were the two initial requirements I started out with. No big huge monitor, no docking station, no gel mats, no treadmill. While these things would certainly be nice, they weren’t necessary to answer the fundamental question of whether I wanted to work at a standing desk at all.

However, as I used the desk, I realized that my feet were getting tired so I brought in a yoga mat from home to put under my feet. Realizing that I liked the concept of the desk but missed having a big monitor, I upgraded from a laptop screen to a 22’’ LCD screen. I also co-opted a bar stool from the break room to sit on when I got tired and needed a few minutes off my feet. The key point was that I made each of these upgrades and additions over time in response to needs that I discovered I had while using the product. Rather than waiting until I had my big monitor, my yoga mat, and my bar stool before “deploying” my standing desk, I tried it out with the minimum features necessary to make it work and added as I went along. By doing this, I saved myself a lot of time and money by not implementing features I didn’t need. I may have thought that a gel mat was necessary, but a yoga mat suits me fine. I may miss having two monitors (I kind of do, actually J) but I find I can get my work done just as easily using only one.

As product managers, we can apply many of these principles on our projects. Before spending many millions of dollars on a project, let’s make sure we know people will want to use what we build. Having them tell you what they want is a lot easier than throwing money at educated guesses. Once we know they do want to use it, ask them or let them tell you what additional features they need. We can and should use our expertise to come up with what we think are good ideas for products, but let’s make sure that people agree with us before putting loads of money on the table.

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