Product Management Tactics — Prototype First



At Basecamp, there is no backlog. But a team isn’t assigned to work on an idea until a certain level of work is completed first and that idea is in some sort of prototype form.


No backlog?  That’s blasphemy!  But that’s one of the unique ways that Basecamp does work.  It’s certainly not the only thing that makes Basecamp unique as a product company, but it is one of the more notable.  After all, most fast-growing tech companies have a backlog that would make most product people squirm… possibly going 18-24 months out with new features and products.  But, that’s not the case for Ryan Singer and the rest of the team at Basecamp.

We also know that Basecamp doesn’t have traditional “Product Managers.”  Instead, it’s often their designers who serve as the primary “product person” on a project.  But, these de-facto product people are the ones who will ultimately design at least a basic version of a prototype before a team will even take on any work.  In other words, the product concept won’t even get into Basecamp’s queue until it’s at least in some sort of tangible concept form.

This approach requires a bit more effort.  It’s not simple enough for everybody to agree that a concept makes sense.  Somebody has to raise their hand to actually work on creating that tangible concept.  That means that somebody has to feel so passionate about the concept, that they’re willing to spend time on something that may not even make it to “creation” phase.

There are a couple of benefits to this kind of approach:

  1. Requiring a product person to put work into a concept that might not be seen through forces product people to only put time into projects that they feel so strongly about.  Ideally, they would only do this if they felt that it was the right thing for their customers.
  2. A concept is still very vague.  But a tangible prototype allows a team to actually *see* the product and envision how it might fit into their overall set of offerings.  Sometimes, this can help a team determine that the product is right — or not right — for their customers.

Whether or not this approach is right for everybody, there is something to extra vetting of a concept before we spend our team’s resources on it.  Perhaps that’s a takeaway that any product person can put into use in their own way.