Context Switching and Product Usage

Switching. Get it, switches!

I switched jobs a few months ago - and with the switch came a transition to a new machine, something I've done many times before. While this gets a bit easier each time thanks to increasing reliance on the cloud and my own personal routines, it's never quite seamless. It's been a few months now, but a couple times a week I find myself reaching for an application or visiting a web app and finding either the application or my credentials missing.

Aside from being mildly annoying, it got me thinking about how a big the impact of a sudden shift in job, location, connectivity or lifestyle can have on the digital products we use. There are applications I spent almost my whole day in at my last job that I hardly touch now, and vice versa. And there are apps that I use in a completely different manner.

Apps I'm using more:

  • Google Docs
  • Apple Mail
  • Apple Messages
  • Keynote
  • Excel

Apps I'm using less:

  • Sketch
  • Slack
  • Google Sheets
  • Jira
  • Google Hangouts
  • Whiteboards (analog, but worth mentioning)

Some of these are simply functions of having a completely different job. I'm not really managing product backlogs any more, so it's natural that Jira would fall off completely.1 Keynote falls into this category as well - I'm doing far more presentation work than in the previous role, and we place a greater emphasis on presentation design. Excel has replaced Google Sheets for many functions because I'm looking at larger data sets and can't live without a proper pivot table, which Google Sheets still doesn't compete on. 2

Other changes are driven by changes in office & corporate culture. My new company is still super reliant on email for day-to-day communications, and while a few groups have adopted Slack is still primarily in the hobby phase of adoption and isn't a reliable communications channel. And while not necessarily an application, per se, my use of whiteboards has drastically decreased, as we tend to use written documents as discussion guides around a table instead of collaborative editing on a whiteboard. 3

All these changes are to be expected - but the key insight for me is that these context changes aren't necessarily something a good product person would be able to pick up by looking at Mixpanel or raw usage stats - they require qualitative understanding of the where, when, how and why people use products that can only be gathered by talking to real people in a non-scalable way. But there's no doubt to me that these insights are at least as valuable as the sum total of quantitative data most PMs look at every day.


Footnotes

  1. I do miss have a well-groomed public backlog of tasks and am looking to replicate this way of working with less software-specific product, suggestions welcome.

  2. Google sheets scripting, on the other hand, blows Excel out of the water IMO. Vanilla JS scripting FTW!

  3. I hate this part. The problem is that the document owner ends up trying to interpret feedback from a group that is often vague and unclear and coming back with a revision that may or may not match what the rest of the group had in their head. This means we sometimes take 3-4 turns to get something right because key visuals or phrases are getting lost in translation.