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How do you balance tradeoffs to level up legacy products?

by Nis Frome
June 20, 2018

Most product leaders and managers don’t have the luxury of starting from scratch. Rather, they’re responsible for improving and growing legacy products with existing customers, rigid stakeholders, and technical debt. How do you optimize decision-making in these less-than-ideal environments?

There is no silver bullet, but the answer begins with empathy and understanding. For the culture, for the various concerns and perspectives, for what’s worked in the past. Then find creative ways to push the boundaries, iterate, and leave a meaningful mark.

Last week, we partnered with Silicon Valley Bank to host a conversation moderated by Thor Ernstsson, CEO and Founder at Alpha. Panelists included Alanna Ford, Innovation Product Manager at AARP, Vivek Bedi, Head of Product at LearnVest and Head of Consumer Experience Products at Northwestern Mutual, and Brent Tworetzky, Senior Vice President of Product at InVision. Below are video highlights from the event, key takeaways, and a video of the unedited discussion.


Have a framework for prioritizing engineering resources

A major theme throughout the discussion was ‘balance.’ Product teams working to level up legacy products must carefully balance stakeholders and resource allocation. For Tworetzky, prioritization has three layers.

“First, your product should be present-proof and meet the needs of today,” he explains. “Then it should be past-proof in that it’s backwards compatible and meet the needs of the ecosystem. And finally, it should be future-proof in that it fits into where you’re going.”

If your organization has the resources to allocate resources to each in parallel, Bedi emphasizes the importance of cross-functional teams. “We embed QA engineers into products teams,” Bedi says, explaining how even new features are carefully tested for backwards compatibility. For larger projects, Bedi will dedicate an-hoc team to solving one particular problem.

Keep moving forward

While balance is important, product teams have to be sure that they’re continuously iterating and making forward progress. Bedi looks at one metric in particular to ensure that he’s on the right track.

“In 2015, we had 89 releases to the digital experience for Northwestern Mutual. In 2016, we had 177. Last year, 1,405. We’re on pace to hit 4,000 this year,” he says. “A lot of that is pretty revolutionary for Northwestern Mutual. It was really waterfall – business gives us requirements and then you come back months later, and they’re like “who are you guys again?” and what they need has changed. How do we change that mantra?”

He answered his own question shortly afterward: smaller teams that ship more often.

Make change desirable

By definition, a legacy product is already in the market and has (presumably) at least a few customers or users. Usually a team has been working on the product for some period of time, if not since the beginning. Any vision you have for the product necessarily involves change, if not a complete 180-degree turn, for someone else. And that can be scary.

“It really comes down to people feeling threatened,” says Ford. “It gets really personal. When people feel like their livelihoods are being threatened, I think it’s really powerful to come back to the user. We record a lot of our conversations and tests. If you can show through prototypes someone’s real reactions in a way that might be able to bring that threatened person in, I think that’s powerful.”

Tworetzky urges product manager to go one step further.

“When do you do research yourself and interview people, it’s different than just reading someone else’s research. It connects you in a human way,” he explains. “It’s a tool that you can use to influence people at your company. Have them interview a user. Have them watch a user fail trying to use your product. Don’t water it down. Use that emotional hook.”

The full conversation is below.


A special thank you to Silicon Valley Bank for hosting the event! SVB has helped and continues to collaborate with innovative companies and their investors in moving bold ideas forward, fast. SVB provides targeted financial services and expertise through its offices in innovation centers around the world.

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Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.

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