How to Keep on top of Trends that Matter to Product Managers
Decide when to care about trends and when to sit back and watch what happens next
Trends and the product lifecycle
Imagine your product strategy stayed exactly the same for the next 10 years. What would happen?
It’s unlikely that you’d be able to continue with the same strategic decisions and win. Why? Because everything’s always changing.
Which means at some point, every product must reassess its position in the market – and the strategic decisions that underpin it – to decide whether to evolve and adapt to new emerging market trends, or to ignore them.
This is notoriously difficult for businesses (and people) to do since it often means you have to admit that your current business model or product strategy isn’t suitable any more, and in large corporations in particular, this is precarious stuff.
Who is going to tell Barnes and Noble or Borders that their business model is crumbling in the face of Kindle books and 1 day Amazon Prime powered delivery?
Anyone fancy letting Kodak know that their entire business is about to get destroyed by the iPhone?
Or how about telling the execs at Microsoft Office that their model of selling physical boxes of Office software is a one way ticket to death by Google Workspace?
Trends start with early adoption and eventually gain critical mass if they are successfully adopted. The difficult part is trying to figure out when to jump aboard to trend or when to sit it out to see what happens next.
In each of these scenarios, some companies will quickly adapt to new trends and reconfigure their product offering to stay relevant. Others will fail.
The types of trends that matter to product teams
So if we agree that staying on top of trends matters, the question then is, what types of trends should we bother staying on top of?
It is extremely difficult (and probably not advisable) to attempt to stay on top of all trends. It’s impossible for one person to do. And not all trends matter.
For product people, we’re mostly interested in trends which impact the 3 core skill areas of product management:
So let’s tackle each of these separately.
1. Technical trends
Of all the different trends that product managers need to be aware of, technical trends are some of the most difficult, since the space is constantly evolving and no one is ever sure whether a new technology is actually going to become widely adopted, or whether it’s just another flash in the pan.
Types of technical trends
Technical trends can span across multiple different areas, including:
- Frameworks and libraries e.g. React / NodeJS
- Programming languages e.g. Ruby on Rails
- API technologies and principles e.g. GraphQL, REST
- Architectural design patterns e.g. service oriented architecture
- Devops and infrastructure e.g. AWS, cloud computing
Why technical trends matter
For a product manager, the technology that powers your product is clearly important, but staying on top of the latest technology for the sake of it also has its own issues.
That said, staying on top of – and using the latest technologies can be hugely beneficial for product companies in a number of ways:
- Talent – a company using the hottest new technologies can increase its chances of attracting the best talent.
- Performance – a front end powered by React performs noticeably better than non-React interfaces.
- Future proofing – building your tech stack on the latest technologies can increase the lifespan of your product since it gives you the best chance of future proofing your stack.
But, it’s a luxury that not all companies can afford. Trends are trends – and the downside of chasing the latest trends could mean you end up with a tech stack that is distinctly not future-proofed since it’s now burdened with a technology that’s not in fashion.
How to stay on top of technical trends
I’d argue that it isn’t the product manager’s role to know the ins and outs of all the latest technical trends, but rather to parse the trends they see and from outside sources to figure out what is worth paying attention to.
Here’s some of the ways PMs can stay on top of technical trends:
- Speak to senior engineers – with enough experience, senior engineers won’t get too caught up in the excitement of a new trend and will be able to figure out what matters most; you can lean on this experience to figure out what to care about, too.
- Regular show and tells – aside from your standard product demos, encourage your engineers to show and tell the new tech they’re using in your product.
- Subscribe to relevant publications – see a list of source below
- Attend conferences and debrief afterwards – the PM doesn’t need to be the one attending the conferences; it’s probably more beneficial if the engineering teams attend the conferences and debrief the rest of the team afterwards on the key takeaways for new tech trends.
- Follow engineering blogs from leading product companies – see list below
- Check Google Trends – if you’re struggling to understand which technologies are trending or are making their way into the mainstream, Google Trends can be an excellent way to keep on top of them. Google trends are a great way to understand the relative popularity of two different technologies over a period of time, too e.g. React vs. jQuery.
Some of our favorite sources for keeping on top of technical trends
- Future from Andressen Horowitz covers top trends in emerging tech
- Hackernoon – from blockchain to new programming languages, Hackernoon does a solid job of covering all bases
- The Pragmatic Engineer – a substack newsletter that deep dives into technical concepts. Very readable and super helpful.
- VentureBeat – blog and news updates on transformative technology
Engineering blogs from top product companies
Most major product companies will have high quality engineering blogs which are regularly updated. Whilst PMs might not understand everything that’s talked about, scanning and reading the latest posts is an excellent way of getting a sense of new tech trends:
- Netflix Tech blog – includes updates across tech and data science
- Shopify Engineering – updated very regularly (usually every week) with the latest tech updates from Shopify
- Spotify Engineering – frequently updated with new tech features
- Airtable Engineering – deeply technical (as you’d expect!) but nonetheless useful to gauge what tech leading companies are using
- Atlassian Engineering – all the latest from the folks who build Jira, Trello, Confluence and more
Dealing with shiny toy syndrome
Shiny toy syndrome is how we describe the tendency for all of us to gravitate towards new, shiny things. In a product development context, and particularly with reference to technologies, this can be problematic.
Lurching from one new tech framework to another just to be seen to be keeping on top of the latest trends can cause all kinds of problems in an organisation.
The best way to avoid shiny toy syndrome in a technical context is to ensure that fundamental technical decisions are taken with due diligence and that decision makers fully understand the consequences of backing a new technology. An agreement to conduct an initial spike to analyse the cost of switching can be helpful and just as product teams would use sound decision making frameworks for strategic decisions, the same tools can be applied here.
Ideally, a technical decision should be made in a way that makes switching later on easier, but this isn’t always possible and whilst it might sound counterintuitive, it’s usually larger corporates who suffer the most because the cost of switching major infrastructure and product codebases is usually far higher than for a nimble startup who can switch with ease.
2. Business and market trends
What do we mean by business and market trends? Ultimately, business or market trends are shaped by a number of different factors.
These factors work together in weird and wonderful ways to create new playing fields for businesses. Sometimes, these factors will shift organically over time and other times, the changes will happen quickly.
The gradual shift to the mobile web didn’t happen overnight but the shift to remote working did.
In both cases, businesses needed to adapt to new market trends, but clearly you won’t always have the luxury of time to decide on a clear strategy.
Factors that influence business and market trends
- Economic – are you building a product in a recession or a booming economy?
- Political – political events (wars, political policy, new political dogmas, societal progressivism)
- Technical – major advancements or incremental advancements in technology will lead to new market conditions and change customer expectations
How to stay on top of business trends
Again, as with technical trends, it’s impossible to stay on top of every single new market trend.
The trick is to firstly set up your sources of information so that you feed yourself a balanced diet of market information and then to understand when the trend reaches a tipping point which means you should pay attention to it.
To do this, you need to take a macro view of the market – to zoom out of your domain space and gain a better understanding of what’s shaping the world. Armed with new knowledge about how the world is evolving, you can apply these trends to your own product and your strategy.
Some of our favorite sources for keeping on top of business and market trends
- Morning Brew – an engaging daily newsletter that keeps you up to date with all that matters in business
- Trends – a community of entrepreneurs and business people dedicated to finding opportunities through emerging trends
- Crunchbase News – startup investment news, reports and analysis
- World Economic Forum – a global view of the emerging world
- McKinsey – good old management consultancies still have a place in the world
- The Information – tech specific, but still lots of value in their daily newsletter
- Wired – their business section has a solid overview of how tech is shaping business
- Trends.VC newsletter – 5 minute reports on new market investment trends
- Harvard Business Review – a classic
- Twitter – taken with a pinch of salt, the twitterverse can still be a solid place for identifying emerging business trends
In addition to staying informed through solid information channels, there are signals to look out for which can indicate the emergence of major new trends worth paying attention to.
Signals that indicate new business trends
- Investment – are investors flocking to new technologies, new industries or new paradigms that may shape the future?
- Startups – are new startups emerging around a new industry? Keeping track of new funding investments on the likes of Crunchbase and Angel.co helps you to understand what’s happening in various startup markets.
- Consumer spending habits – are consumers suddenly spending more than they historically were on specific areas? For example, if consumer spending on subscription products is increasing, what does this mean for your product?
How to become adaptable to new business trends
Recognising a new business trend is one thing. Actually adapting your business to accommodate or capitalise on that new trend is another.
Here’s a few ways that you can become more adaptable.
Create a culture of experimentation
A culture of experimentation means you’re given the freedom to try new things and learn from results. This could mean building a landing page to test the appetite within your customer base for a new, emerging trend that you’ve read about.
Apply market trends to your roadmap and strategy directly
Not all market trends will be applicable to your domain. One way to test this is to directly apply a market trend to your strategy and roadmap directly, to test whether or not the trend is relevant and applicable to your product.
Create a culture of innovation
In-house innovation teams or labs can be tasked with keeping their finger on the pulse of new market trends and turn those into actual product.
Speak to non-customers
Speaking to non-customers means speaking to people who do not currently use your product today and have up until this point not thought about using it. The emergence of new consumer behaviours and technologies can open up opportunities for you to target noncustomers
3. Design trends
— Archive (@uiarchive) March 14, 2022
Remember when Instagram looked like this? Or how about when all UI components were completely flat, Windows Phone 7 style?
The problem with design trends is that as soon as the trend has passed, your product can look extremely dated if you don’t continue to keep up with the latest visual trends.
We always say that if your brand is built upon the principle that you are fresh, trendy and hip then it’s probably worth the investment of constantly keeping on top with the latest visual trends.
For other products, it may be possible to just stick to universal, fundamental UX principles instead. Make a button look like a button. Make the text easy to read. Anticipate user’s questions. Make features easy to understand and intuitive enough that you don’t need hours of explanatory videos to onboard users. These are UX principles, not design trends and it’s important to make that clear.
That said, even if you decide that keeping up with the latest, fresh visual designs isn’t a critical part of your product strategy, there will still inevitably come a point in time where your product will look and feel so outdated that you’ll still want to give your UI a makeover to bring it in line with industry standards.
You probably don’t want it ever to get to the point where you lose customers because of a poor, outdated design, so it’s still useful to keep on top of design trends before this happens.
How to stay on top of design trends
The relationship between technology and design trends
There’s an important point to be made between the connection between advancements in tech and design trends. New CSS3 properties meant designers were able to introduce shaded backgrounds, curved corners and other fun stuff.
CSS grid makes managing layouts easier and new design tools such as Figma make componentisation of product design easier by allowing product teams to work on component-based designs.
Some of our favorite sources for keeping on top of design trends
- HeyDesigner – a daily breakdown of the latest design news and systems that matter to product teams
- Designer news – a community and roundup of designer news and trends
- UXDesign weekly – a weekly roundup of designer news
Company design blogs
Just as companies have dedicated engineering blogs to keep users in the loop with how the company is keeping up with new trends, many leading product companies also have design blogs that are worth reading.
Here’s a selection of a few company design blogs that you might want to check out:
How to know when to reassess your strategy based on new trends
As we’ve mentioned previously, not all trends need to be taken so seriously that you should act upon them. Some trends will fade, and if you’ve skipped the trend entirely, nobody will care.
So, before you decide to pay attention to a trend, we’d suggest that there are a few questions worth asking yourself.
Questions to ask yourself
- Domain space – is my domain space impacted by this trend – or could it be in the future?
- Impact existing customers – are my existing customers likely to be impacted by this new trend in any way? Does it make them more likely to demand the new trend or switch to a competitor?
- Loss of potential future customers – is my product losing potential future customers by not adapting to this trend?
- Competitive threats – are competitors adapting to this trend and benefiting from it as a result?
- Pre-mortem – using the pre-mortem framework, as yourself what would happen if we didn’t adapt to this trend?
If the trend scores high against these criteria, it’s worth revisiting your strategy to understand how you can adapt to the trend that matters. If not, it might be best to sit it out and wait to see what happens next.
But in the event things do move quickly and you want to adapt to the new trend, you’ll need to make sure you’re not too late to the party. Better still, why not challenge your team to create new trends of your own?