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.


  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.