4 Great Books to Read When Starting Out in Product
Four Product Managers, at varying stages in their journey, describe how the books have helped them
Setting out in Product Management can be a daunting task. Many of us gravitate toward the field naturally, a series of happy accidents helping us to realise that we are product managers, even before we have the job title. As a result, many newly-minted Product people have strong intuitions but little formal grounding on which to base their thinking or continued learning.
Books, podcasts and blogs are a great source of information to close the knowledge gap quickly. Here, we’ve chosen four books that will help new Product Managers (or those looking to make the leap) structure their thinking, build confidence in terminology beyond Agile/ Scrum and cement key concepts such as Outcome over Outputs, and user-centric decision making into their practice.
Strategize by Roman Pichler
“Read once. Keep on your desk forever. Strategize is a must read for new Product Managers. It covers how to form and validate a product strategy - and how to translate that strategy into a roadmap. This isn't a single idea book. It's packed full of actionable insights and structured in a way that allows for 'just in time learning'. It's easy to follow and doesn't rely on long examples to make a point. Two things that stand out…
The book brings clarity to a messy area of product. It defines three levels of product strategy: vision, strategy and tactics - and explains how to map artifacts within this framework. It doesn't shy away from the things that make strategy difficult (like the relationship between company strategy and product strategy).
It's hard to select the right roadmap for the right job. Strategize helps you navigate that choice. Should you align to goals or features? How much detail should you show? What if your environment is volatile? What if you are part of a portfolio?
Even the most experienced PMs get stuck in execution and delivery mode from time to time. This book is a welcome reminder of your strategic responsibilities.”
Andrew Clark, Product Director
Talking to Humans by Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable
“Talking To Humans focuses on how customer research can expose your assumptions and biases - and replace them with a more accurate and insightful understanding of your market. It takes a story-driven approach that frames the topic and gives context to the ideas, which is useful if you’re new to Product.
I have a background as a hardware entrepreneur. When I started, I assumed that I knew my customers and only passively observed where my industry was heading. But I only figured out where to focus and who to target once I began to actively listen to customers.
There are three key approaches in the book that I’ll make use of in future:
If possible, bring a note-taker. They’ll allow you to actively listen to your interviewees, which will help you ask better questions. If no one is available, record the session or use a transcription tool (just remember to get the customer’s permission before recording anything!)
When repeating back what an interviewee has told you, it’s handy to misrepresent things slightly. This seems counter-intuitive, but it gives them an opportunity to correct you - and further refine their thoughts, giving you more precise insights to draw from.
It’s easy to take notes and forget about them, but make the effort to track your interviews quantitatively. This will help you step back to see all the opinions you’ve received and get a view on the demographic spread of your interviewees. Transforming unstructured feedback into trackable data helps to ensure that your cognitive biases are being tackled.
What I’d love to see added to this book is recommendations about the breadth of customer base you should look to target. This is a trade-off: make a brilliant product for a small group of customers, or make an OK product for a broader market? The less perfectly suited the product is to your customers, the greater the risk.”
Alex Bowen, Associate Product Manager
Testing with Humans by Gift Constable
“Testing with Humans is the follow-up to Talking to Humans and covers how run experiments can be used to increase the chances of success in business and product development. It provides a fairly extensive list of experiment archetypes, highlighting their positives and negatives, with additional tips for when and how to run them.
Prior to reading the book, I wouldn’t have considered myself an expert in the topic, but my experience in marketing meant I was familiar with the benefits of experimentation and even some of the examples provided. The book is most directly aimed at entrepreneurs and founders, but the examples and skills described make it very relevant for emerging Product Managers too.
The book does three key things:
Helps ensure you have a method and template for structuring your hypotheses
Provides the basic questions your experiment should answer
Offers examples of formats your experiment might take
Testing with Humans also gave me some food for thought in other areas. For example, the 'Truth Curve’ table is something I could have explained but had never seen represented in such a logical format. It also provides practical guidance, such as suggesting that you only really need five people for usability testing, plus tips on how to avoid confirmation bias, and learn just as much from experiments in half the time and effort.
As with Talking to Humans, much of the content is presented as a fictional example of two engineers using experiments to better understand their potential new data product. It’s a logical and digestible book, making it a good introductory resource, albeit covering large topics that you will want to explore in further detail.”
Ruaridh Miller, Associate Product Manager
User Story Mapping by Jeff Patton
“User Story Mapping is a key tool in a Project Manager’s discovery toolkit. It’s a great method for getting ideas onto a page, wall, or even floor to discuss, pick apart and improve. Because User Stories are so widely used within the development world, it’s particularly useful for helping you translate user experiences into incremental development work. And, used in conjunction with other techniques such as Service Blueprints, Customer Journey Maps, Card Sorting (and many others), it can elevate the level of a team’s thinking and coordination.
The eponymous User Story Mapping book is the story of the tool’s development and has been central to its dissemination. The book contains powerful arguments for its value and detailed examples of how User Story Maps should be structured - from high-level activities to swim lanes. Since templates are now often baked into design and collaboration tools (e.g. Miro and Aha!) without proper context or explanation, having a guide to help optimise implementation is very handy.
That said, I don’t think this is a great reference book. Many of the diagrams and images are a bit scratchy and incomplete. There is no single page which sums it all up particularly effectively. I enjoyed reading it, but refer back to it with a groan.
I strongly recommend User Story Mapping to new Product Managers because it rationalises good discovery and collaboration practices, in addition to explaining a singularly valuable technique. But I would like it to contain a great ‘best-of’ example too.”
Tim Scudder, Senior Product Manager
Of course, this is just the start. Product learning never stops and there are stacks of great resources available.
What are your thoughts on these books - and which others do you consider essential for early-stage PMs?
If you’re finding Product Breaks valuable, please consider sharing it with friends, or subscribing if you haven’t already.