SaaS Product Management, Lovefilm and Getting Stale


Lovefilm have just revamped the app that is used by devices such as Blu-ray players and the PS3 and it is, in my opinion, a great improvement. There are a large number of changes but I think also, and I’m speculating massively here, that the improvements were heavily shaped by some great data driven product management.

Lovefilm (and its competitors, like Netflix) is essentially Software as a Service – you provide a monthly subscription to access an application that delivers streaming films and TV shows to your home. They deliver this service through web browsers, Smart TVs, PS3, Kindles, iPads etc etc using a variety of interfaces, depending on the device. The one I see – via a Sony Blu-ray player – had a complete overhaul this week and they definitely seem to have got a lot right. The problem with the previous app was that, it worked fine when they just offered a handful of films – they had sections for Genres, Recently Added, Staff Picks and so on. However, as they started to add a lot more content, the interface began to creak. For example, where do you put TV shows? With multiple series? And, as you keep adding series, do you just keep putting them at the end of the list, or start grouping them up?

They also had a findability problem with films – the genre categories would contain a mixture of films and TV shows and “new stuff”, making it hard to find “The highest rated comedies” or similar. And there were a number of other quirks in the system (e.g. if you accidentally pressed Stop halfway through a film, getting back to your previous location was painful).

I won’t go in to the details of what the new interface looks like, but I suspect, and this is the interesting point here, that they must have used usage analysis data, from the previous app, to decide what to do in the new design. I.e. rather than just asking a few people “How would you want to change the interface?”, I suspect they’ve looked at how people have been spending forever hunting things down or, how customers have been repeatedly doing things like trying to get back to where they were in a film, and used this data to guide the changes.

This is a way of working not really available if the product you offer can’t be interrogated for usage. Certainly if you sell a behind-the-firewall product then, by definition, you’ve no idea how customers are really using it. You can go and ask them of course. Or you can sit over their shoulders for a day, but is that the same as gathering together the data from 1,000,000 users, aggregating it, analysing it, and working out where people are really struggling?

So I see the Lovefilm example as a success story for a new type of Product Management – data-driven, analysis-driven product management, enabled by a SaaS product. It’s a positive story because, in a recent call with an analyst, I asked the question “So, as an organisation transforms over to a service based model, what do you see as the real challenges it faces?”. I expected some bluff about the technical issues, product support, retaining customers and so on, but his reply was interesting – “The biggest issue we see companies facing is their inability to transform Product Management. It’s a function that has to radically change its techniques and tools to carry out the research it needs, to know what customers want.”. The analyst saw this as a big struggle because many Product Managers had been around a while, and had, to some extent, got “stuck in their ways”.

And this made me think about some of the interviews I’ve done over the last year or two for marketing and product management positions. Something we look for, and really struggle to find, is the mixture of experience (i.e. they know the pitfalls, the issues, the complexities of the roles) and willingness to adapt (i.e. they’re willing to forego their experience, and listen to something new). I’ve had a number of marketing candidates sit there and tell me that “Direct postal marketing has always worked for me – these new things like social media and mobile advertising are a flash in the pan”. Mmm. The change in product management when moving to a service-based model, towards data-driven decision making, retention of customers and so on, will be one that many will struggle with as well I think. But, if you’re willing to learn something new, it’s a great opportunity to advance your career in to space that is very much in its infancy right now.

And I think the results – such as Lovefilm’s new interface – are worth it.

As a final positive note, something else I think they did well, which is quite a traditional approach to marketing (!), is to do a big launch. Not in terms of advertising, but in terms of the product. As well as  the new interface, they’ve added new content – some great new films and TV series – and new features, such as streaming HD. Doing a big bang like this (rather than just tweaking things and slipping things out, one by one), I believe has an impact more than sum of its parts. For a start, it’s memorable enough for me to write this blog post about it!

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