Welcome to The Elusive Consumer. Ellie is joined today by Michelle Parsons, an experienced product leader who has worked at well-known companies such as Netflix, Spotify, Kayak, and most recently, Hinge. Join us as Michelle discusses her career path and her recent work at Hinge, where she oversaw the development of new features and led a redesign of Hinge’s dating app based on extensive user research. Let’s get started on The Elusive Consumer.
Hi Michelle. Welcome to The Elusive Consumer. It’s really nice to have you.
I’m so thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.
Thank you. In our world, in the world of research, we often talk about how to build authentic connections from brands to consumers and how to use data and insights to achieve that. And I’m really excited about this episode because you seem to be a person that really values data and insights in your professional role. So I’d like to hear more about that. But before we go into all of that and your role at Hinge, could you talk us a little bit about your journey and what led you to your existing role?
I think people who end up finding their pathways into product, especially over the past decade, sometimes have very different journeys into how they discovered what product management was. And that’s definitely the story for me. So growing up I really wanted to be a doctor, and I think that a lot of that really had a lot to do with the fact that when I looked out into society, when I looked out into the world, doctors were really using both science and creativity to solve really big problems and really help people. And for me, it was something that really resonated with me growing up in a lower income household, in a place where very predominantly Hispanic and Mexican population, that was really important to me. And I looked up to those individuals as kind of cornerstones of society and of our community. And I went to college, I studied that.
I was really adamant about becoming a doctor. I loved science, and science is something that had always really just kind of sparked a light in me. It’s inquisitive by nature. You ask a lot of questions, and you can use a lot of data and insights, the observations around to go and solve problems and come up with your own answers. And oftentimes, asking yourselves even more questions once you find those answers. So I got to the end of my college career, college journey, and I just used to have a lot of doubts honestly, about going into the medical field for a number of reasons. I think it’s cost-prohibitive and time prohibitive, and I didn’t know whether or not I really wanted to spend and commit the next 10 years to studying the medical kind of profession. So I ended up going into teaching.
Teaching has also been something and education has also been a really big part of my life. I’ve been influenced so heavily by teachers and mentors and coaches and advisors throughout my entire life. From elementary all the way to my career now, I really found a deep passion there, but I saw a lot of problems. And I realized that the scale that I had in my individual classroom just wasn’t going to be enough and I wanted to do more. I wanted to have a greater impact. And I ended up joining a small edtech startup in Boston called Aliu, and it did not survive because what we were trying to do was basically sell supplementary and remedial education to kids on their off hours. And no kid wants to do studying on their off hours. But it was a really awesome little startup, it was about 30 of us, and we were using gaming technology then to, or game mechanics rather, to try to help motivate kids to take them through these learning pathways.
And I discovered product management through that job. I started as a curriculum specialist and just kept on… Really at that time, we still had cubicles. Offices have really changed since I started working 14, 15 years ago. I kept on peeking my head over to the product team. I kept on asking my boss, what is that team doing? And I had a million and one questions and finally she was just like, “Michelle, go talk to that team.” And so that was really the spark that led me into product. I started helping them with customer interviews and competitive analysis and just really anything that the team needed help with, I was just throwing my hat into the ringer. And so that’s really how I landed into product. And then through my career, through my journey, have just really looked for problem spaces that I’ve really found a deep passion in and have resonated with me deeply.
And I feel like that is the best way for my perspective to really get a footing and a foothold into that empathy that I believe is really critical for the best product managers to really deeply empathize with your users and what they’re doing. So I landed at Hinge over the past two years. I spent time there helping build and scale the company and it’s been fantastic.
That’s great. And I love how you describe asking the right questions. I was reading your bio and you mentioned, “I believe in empowering my teams to ask the right questions and use creativity and data to find solutions to user problems.” And then you go on to say that, “I like to see myself as an optimizer that translates data into strategic visions to create meaningful impact.” And again, we go back to the data and insights there. Talk us through again, what data and asking, the importance of asking the right questions means to you in your current role.
Yeah, so I think when I think about asking the right questions, I really think that it’s about getting several layers deeper than just what should we be building?. It’s really about what are our customers, what are our users coming to us for? What are their emotional states, their mental states, their environmental states that they’re experiencing when they’re coming to our products. I think for a Hinge, it’s a really interesting intersection of consumer product and psychological and emotional and behavioural science, honestly. Because, when you think about a user who is coming to a dating app, they’re coming for a variety of reasons. They could be seeking love for the very first time. They could be brand new to a dating site. This could be their 30th time on a dating app. They could be coming right after a heartbreak. They could be coming after a failed relationship, after failed relationship, after failed relationship.
Or they could be coming super optimistic because they just heard about this amazing product from their friend that had a marriage and a baby and all the other things that come along with the relationship. And you really need to be cognizant of how your users are showing up to your product and what their mental models are when they approach downloading for the first time or using it for the 30th time. And I really think that it’s, for me, it’s about asking my teams to always go a layer deeper to really understand what is the mission and the goal for your particular area that you’re owning. Whether it’s the profiles team whose mission is really about helping the users empower and showcase what truly makes them them, or something down to our activation team, which is really just trying to help get people off on the right foot for their very first time, their very first few moments on the app.
And when the teams come together, it’s not about asking what ideas do we have that are going to solve this problem, these problems that we believe to be true, but it’s really about how do we uncover what the biggest problems are, what the biggest opportunities are. I actually spent the majority of our time focused on that space, that big broad space, before we even get deeper into what ideas, what solutions might we be able to dream up to actually solve those problems. Because sometimes I think we can oftentimes go down into the ideas and start debating the ideas, the mechanics of like, “Is it this button? Is it this colour? Is it this copy? Is it this solution?” And we’ve lost track of is this thing even solving the main problems.
And there’s many products out there that you see just filled with features and experiences that aren’t actually solving the problem. They get in the way and they become overcomplicated. And so I think from our team, it’s really about getting deeper back down to first principles, asking about who this user is, what their key problems are and how we might be able to really illuminate the opportunities ahead of them, or remove friction when they encounter it.
And how do you go about doing that, whether it’s at your role at Hinge or in previous roles at Netflix? For instance, you worked in the kids and family unit where you’re also crossing the boundary of data privacy and security. And I’d like you to talk us through that. I know that’s a couple of questions in one, but how do you strike the right balance between that user’s privacy but also creating the most enjoyable experience for them?
Yeah, I think my approach to building product is always to ensure we have every kind of discipline present in the room, including policy, GR, legal, but I think it first comes down to helping everyone understand. I think it’s coming back to what is the goal that we are trying to accomplish here, and really grounding that in what the user is trying to come to our product, our service for. Because if you bring everything always back to the user, and you really try to deeply empathize again with what their goals are and they show up to your product, whether it’s Netflix or Spotify or Hinge, and what they might be experiencing, both in terms of actually physically using their product as they navigate through it as they try to make decisions about what to do, what to select, what to play or what to do next.
Also really keeping deep down who are these people? Because these are actual humans, right? I think sometimes we can dehumanize individuals when we’re thinking about building products because we’re so concerned about, “Is this thing going to hit my metric? Is this thing going to drive revenue? Is this thing going to drive DOW?” And we forget that these are real people who are showing up to our products with real emotions and real feelings. And what I always try to do is worry at my teams around that because I think that when you can deeply relate to individuals, when you can almost physically put your feet into your user’s shoes, you start to be able to take a little bit of a different perspective on how they might be feeling when they show up. And then I think privacy and trust and security become a top concern because it’s a top concern for me when I’m using any product, right?
And so how might I then bring that into the things that I’m building and creating? And so the things that I tend to do with teams then is as we’re constructing our big opportunities map, really trying to understand what are all the ways in which we might be able to solve these problems. And then we’re getting deeper into ideas. We start to bring in a variety of different disciplines so that they also have the deep context, not just at the moment of, “Hey, we’re about to build this thing, can you go check this to make sure that it’s compliant with COPA, for example, or GDPR.” But no, they understand how we got to these ideas, and now they’re really invested and bought into the journey, and they’re helping us problem solve. Okay. Well, I encountered something at Netflix where we are trying to build a kids’ activity report.
And the goal for this particular new feature, new product was to help parents kind of get an insight into what their kids were exploring and experiencing in Netflix, what different topics they’re being exposed to, what their favorite characters were, new ideas for discovery. The goal here is really to help inspire discovery through parents. One of the things that we heard was that parents wanted their kids to move off of certain shows. They had watched that show for the hundredth millionth time, and they’re like, “I just don’t know what to give my kid next.” And one of the things that we had uncovered was that the parent just don’t have a lot of insight into what other shows and characters or kids might like that are similar, but also offer kind of maybe different topics in terms of skills or emotional or social emotional learning.
And so this report was a collaboration between a number of teams. It’s an email, it was a really amazing product. But in the UK, one of the things that we learned as we were going through the development of this is that child protection laws in the UK are very different to child protection laws in the US. And in fact, a child in the UK has their right to be protected from their parents in terms of their data and their usage. And so something like a kid’s activity report, which is basically taking kids’ watch history and data even though it’s their parents’ account, and being sent to somebody else who’s not them, it’s against the law in some capacities, in certain capacities. And so we worked really closely with our legal teams and our policy teams to figure out, how can we actually go about testing this without necessarily putting ourselves at risk, and making sure that we’re being compliant. So I think that bringing these teams in really early and helping them really understand, they start to problem solve and creative problem solve with you.
And that’s interesting because you talk about bringing different types of perspective into one room and getting the best feature in terms of backgrounds and expertise. So how do you do that in terms of creating more inclusive products to ensure that in fact, all voices are heard and all of us feel more included in new features?
This to me is something that starts with first and foremost, building inclusive teams. So building teams that are representative of diverse backgrounds, cultures, experiences. I think that it’s really difficult to build inclusive products when you have a team that looks and thinks and has the lived experiences that are all the same. So that’s where I tend to try and start. Moving forward, I think that inclusivity should be part of the conversation like any other PRD or spec or strategy doc. It’s about thinking about who your users are and how they might experience your product a little bit differently, whether that be people with disabilities or people from different sexual orientations. Hinge, this was a primary thing that I encountered when I first showed up to Hinge. Or whether it’s people of different lived experiences and backgrounds and ethnicities. Something that I’m actually extremely proud of that I worked on at Netflix was a Representation Matters collection.
This was during the pandemic, the time of George Floyd. And the teams were really working hard to spotlight black creators, black artists, black actors, and I used leading kids and family. And I was like, “Why aren’t we doing something on the kids and family side for this?” And I got some pushback, but I advocated for it. I’m half Hispanic, I grew up in a Hispanic household. I’m queer. I never really saw faces and people that looked like me until I was much older. And I’m thankful that there’s more representation now in the world, and that’s just kind of more of a norm. But I think that kids want to see people that look like them when they grow up because it helps inspire them. It helps make them dream in different ways and motivates them. And so I got a team together, it was stealth.
We were all working from home and spread out across the country at this point, and it was a really fast turnout that we were trying to get done. And I kind of started on honestly a week later than the Netflix kind of adult side of the house. And so we got together, we wrote up a PRD, we talked to some of our leaders and got them kind of bought into it. And we started to try to create this Representation Matters collection that really showcased diverse characters. So whether that be ability or background or orientation or ethnicity, and put into a collection that was easy to find and we spotlighted it right on our kids’ homepage. And then one of the things that actually sparked was we started to realize, “Wow, there is not a lot of content that features diverse characters in the kids’ space on Netflix right now.”
And we got together with our content partners over in LA and we started talking about what we could do. And that actually sparked the creation of several more content and shows and series that were focused on diverse creators, diverse characters. And I think it really helped to illuminate that with the variety of disciplines from content to data to product to really help make that happen. And then here at Hinge, I think that we think of everything as love for all, right? Everybody deserves to fight love regardless of who you are and where you come from and how you love. And so that has really been a cornerstone of the past two years I spent at Hinge, which is really building in a more inclusive experienced force, specifically the LGBTQ+ audience, but also ensuring that we have constantly evaluated what ethnicities we had, how we showed up for our users who needed accessibility. And so that’s been a really powerful tool I think that I’ve been able to bring, especially since I have lived experiences. And that’s kind of LGBTQ+ realm.
And it’s really nice to hear organizations that are making a positive impact in this space and that more brands are becoming aware of how this will ultimately impact your revenue. Moving on from that to the tagline that Hinge uses, “The app that’s meant to be deleted”, and how you are really living up to that tagline through your data driven approach. Could you talk us a little bit about what Hinge does differently in order to be more data driven and user focused?
Yeah. I think starting from that tagline from the mission of Hinge, which is really about creating an app and an experience that’s built for meaningful relationships, that’s really meant to help drive people towards intention connection, and eventually off of the app. Now the world is changing and what a relationship is also changing. And so I think it’s really about intention, about meaningful, about connections between individuals that are based on authenticity and based on vulnerability and based on open and truthful communication. And I think the things that Hinge does is it’s several fold. It starts from just the design of the app. So when you think about juxtapose against other apps out there that are swiping, so you make decisions much more rapidly because the mechanics of moving your thumb from left to are just much faster than the mechanics of having to move your hand from up to down.
You also have to like content on Hinge versus just swipe. And so it just slows the entire process down. So what might take a millisecond on one of the other apps takes a second to two seconds on Hinge. And so by that very nature, you must slow down and you must evaluate just a little bit more. The other thing that that’s really important is that we do require users to upload six photos and three prompts to even use the app. So our onboarding process is 20 minutes on average compared to maybe a minute that the other apps might take. And the goal here is again, to just ensure that you’re putting enough effort into the experience so that we can guarantee the communities of higher quality. Now, I will say that over time though, you might just see people kind of be like, “Okay, I’ll take the 20 minutes to fill out a profile. That’s fine. I figured out how to hack the profile.”
And there’s many Reddit threads out there that you can find. I think dating apps built off of the heels of social media, like Instagram and Facebook. And so there’s already these built-in dopamine receptors. I know that this picture get this many likes on my Instagram, so I’m going to pull that over here. I know the recipe or the formula that tends to get likes and it might not be actually super reflective of who I am. And so it ends up happening when you actually look into the data, what you see is that at the end of the funnel, Hinge kind of showed up as every other app. We basically had the exact same problems when it came to people chatting, people ghosting, bad dates, et cetera. And we were asking ourselves why.
So when you look at this data, you know might immediately say, “Well, there’s a problem in chat. We need to help people have better chats. We need to help people build momentum in chats.” And I think for me, when I looked at that data, I was asking myself the question, “Well, why? Why are users not having productive and exciting chats? Why are they just ghosting each other? Why are people falling off the momentum? Why is the speed in your pace so slow?” Because if I think about myself out in real life, because if I saw somebody at a party or a museum or somewhere that I was in trees and attracted to, I’m going to go up to them and probably try to find some way to talk to them, and nothing’s going to stop me from doing that because there is some level of spark or attraction.
And when I think about what was missing on dating profiles and dating apps, it was that level of like, “Wow, I’m just so excited about this person that I really want to engage with them in deeper, more meaningful ways.” And when we realized what was happening, it’s not that people didn’t know how to chat. We didn’t need games or questions in chats or an inbox. People had talked about that. Maybe we can star people because there’s so many chats in the chat list and well, why are people collecting so many chats in the chat list? You’re not going to be able to effectively go out with 14 people. That seems a little bit ridiculous, right? So what we ended up finding was that people were actually using the match list or their chat list as a secondary evaluation because they were giving very soft signal earlier on in the journey and they weren’t that interested.
That’s why they weren’t talking. They just weren’t that interested. And so they were going through this negative feedback loop, constantly getting burnt out, leaving the app, and then a couple months later coming back and doing the exact same thing because there was no better option. And so what we really tried to do here was focus then on how do we bring a bit of that spark that you can get in real life, the texture, the 3D, the liveness, the voice, the personality into a dating profile, into something that is on a phone, flat, 2D, really difficult to help bring dynamism out from an individual. We are humans, we’re all unique and creative and individuals. And so we started thinking about new formats and new ways to actually help motivate our users to share more about who they are. And that’s how we developed voice prompts.
That’s how we got things like video prompts and prompts polls, all of these different ideas that would help our users express themselves in unique ways that were best for them. And the other thing that that did, that was really important, was it slowed down evaluation even more, because now when you went to a profile, you didn’t know what you were going to get. This profile might have a voice prompt. This next profile might have a video prompt. This next profile might have a prompt poll. And so profiles became less homogenous, they become less homogenous, whereas in the past, every profile kind of looked the same. And so eventually, I love that Febreze commercial when they’re talking about, you got nose blind because your house is like… You don’t really know what your house smells like anymore until someone new comes.
Well, it’s kind of what I think about dating apps. It’s kind of like eventually you’re just going through the motions. And so how to get people to actually have more excitement and more awe. The possibilities are in front of them, and it’s really through helping users express more of who they are in very deep and nuanced ways. And that’s I think what we’ve been able to discover through this data and through talking to our users about what resonates and what doesn’t resonate with them.
And you often mentioned that word authenticity and what role that plays throughout different features, but how do you continue that, particularly in a world that’s moving more away from that human factor and more towards things like AI?
Yeah, this is an interesting question. I think that at the end of the day, individuals and humans are all very unique. We have our own experiences, we have our own insecurities, we have our own passions, we have our own vulnerabilities, we have our own things that excite us. And I think that yes, there’s AI and there’s things that can help us put a filter in a photo or write a better prompt or take some of the edge off on some of the corners of the things that we want to create and build. But, I oftentimes think the way that you approach that is going to be different based on who you are. And so I still think that authenticity will shine through and should come through because we don’t want to become, I think, a society of people who all act and look and think the same.
I think that’s the beauty of diversity. It’s the beauty of our unique and individual experiences. That’s the beauty of coming together as communities or in relationships, learning from each other, is growing from each other, is having that human connection. I think that things like generative AI and other things of that nature, like the metaverse, all these other things that have been buzzwords that have popped up over the past couple of years are just things I think that can help us express ourselves in different more nuanced ways. But I think the way that you show up, and even think about things like Roblox, for example. You can pick out your own skins, your own clothes. So yes, I’m experiencing the world in this virtual world, but I’m still my own unique avatar. I still think that the way that you think about how you put your own flavour, how you put your own personality into the things that you’re creating with these other tools will still be a bit reflective of who you are.
And so that’s why I think that there will always be space for both. I think that tools, new features and new technologies help enhance us and help enhance society.
So what do you think is next in the app dating world specifically in terms of future innovation or anything fun that you might be working on at the moment?
The things that I’m very excited about to see as a team now goes on, I’m taken a step back and I’m moving into more of an executive and residence role at product school to really focus more on my coaching and how product management’s actually taught, but the things that I’m really excited that the team will be working on I think is exploring. How do you actually help people form these authentic relationships in a society? I think you talked a little bit about this. There are some of these formulaic things that users and people believe to be the ingredients for a perfect relationship. And sometimes what ends up happening is you put on these masks and you put up these walls that ultimately over time, like three months, six months into a relationship, you can no longer sustain and they have to start coming off.
And that’s when you really see these relationships start to become rocky and shaky. And the ones that survive are the ones that two individuals are able to communicate through their challenges and their insecurities and their vulnerabilities. But I do think that this is something that needs work. One of the things I’m actually extremely excited to see this happen over the past kind of three or so years is a focus on mental health and mental wellbeing, and how this has become part of just the discourse of individuals. I’ll talk about my friends, people talk about it in the workplace. It’s become a norm. What I don’t think has really become part of the norm or the discourse is couples’ mental wellbeing, couples’ relationship therapy, because I think that there’s so much stigma that’s tied to talking about basic problems that might arise in a relationship or how you might address deep differences in perspective or opinions.
And I look at individuals in my life who are really doing some of this hard work, who do go to couples’ therapy, and they go to it because they’re in a good place. It’s not that you have to go to it when you’re in a bad place. I wouldn’t go see a therapist when I’m just at the brink, I want to see a therapist to keep up really positive mental wellbeing, talk about how I’m feeling, how I’m approaching problems, et cetera. And so I think that there is an opportunity for us to really dive into a world of not just relationship formation or connection rather, but relationship evolution, because that to me is one of the biggest missed opportunities that no one’s focused on right now. And it’s not enough, I think for these apps to say, “Well, we’ve done our job. We’ve connected you, and now you go do the rest of the work.”
Because what you see from the data is that so many people, about half of our users, are coming back onto the app after whether it’s a fail relationship or a pause or whatever it might be. And so there’s an opportunity for us to really help reorient and reshape the way that they come back the next time. And I think that there is an exciting opportunity there.
I like that, relationship evolution. Talking about that, you mentioned vulnerability and showing that and that it’s become more common and less stigmatized to talk about various vulnerabilities now, but also that vulnerability can be seen as a strength. How do you go about as a leader setting that sort of example for your team?
Yeah, this is something that I work on actively all the time. I think that especially as a leader, it’s so important for you to be open and transparent with both your successes and your failures. I think that modelling has a lot to do with how your team will then show up to their teams, how psychologically safe they will feel to fail, to come to you with problems, to come to you with ideas. And this I’ve had to learn. Honestly, I have, in a very vulnerable state right now. I think there was times that was earlier in my career where I tried to always keep everything so buttoned up and put all the weight on my shoulders, never wanted to fail, and it caused me to become so stressed out and so anxious. And what I ended up doing was passing that stress and anxiety onto my team, right? Because when the leader of the team is taking armour all the way, and people can tell. People can see through the armor that you put on sometimes, because oftentimes I actually believe that the armour is crystal clear, right?
I oftentimes talk about it being a very diamond exterior, but you can see right through that. It might be hard, might be really, really hard, but you can see through it. And so I think that it comes down to sometimes just like when you’re in that vulnerable state, when you’re feeling stressed and you’re feeling anxious, to name it. And oftentimes I would sometimes start meetings being like, “Today is a really stressful day for me and here’s why.” And then when you name that in a meeting with your entire team, they’re like, “Ugh, I’m feeling like that too.” And I’ve oftentimes had people Slack me afterwards or send me a message and saying, “Thank you for saying that because I was feeling so overwhelmed and I didn’t know whether or not this was normal or not normal, and thank you for letting me know that it’s not normal.”
I think that just little things like that, you never know how your words are going to hit somebody, how they’re going to experience or internalize those words that you say, whether it is showing up in a vulnerable and open way, or showing up in a tight and closed way. Both of those things will have impacts on how your team operates. And I think that it’s okay. It’s okay to sometimes have bad days, and it’s okay to not necessarily be as open one day. And so I think that everyone just needs to give them themselves a little bit of grace because we’re all humans at the end of the day, and we’re all really trying our best. We’re trying to lead, to show up as our best, to do the best for our users. And sometimes, you’ll have a bad quarter and then it’s like, whoop, we got to roll those sleeves out and we got to figure out what we’re going to do.
But over time, if you build up that level of trust and camaraderie with your team, people are more willing to go with you in the trenches, especially if you’ve been transparent across the board.
And I like that because in research we often say that authenticity will show and resonate with your customers and consumers at the end of the day. So going back to some of your previous experiences at some of these top tech companies, do you think that that culture existed? And if not, what did you do to go about building that?
Yeah, I think that most of the companies that I’ve worked for have had very strong mission-driven cultures and have really focused above all on the user. So I think that’s one of the privileges that I’ve had, is that the products I’ve worked on have really been consumer first, try to solve really deep-rooted customer problems. Taking things like music that’s on a CD to music everywhere, taking things like you have to rent a DVD at a Blockbuster back in the day to I can stream anything anywhere from any device, to even things like dating where I used to have to potentially go out all the time and now I can have access to many more people who might meet my criteria, my needs, and my desires much more effectively. I think that setting a strong culture, if you don’t have one at your company, within your own team is super important.
And one of the things that I’ve always tried to do is get everybody back and aligned to who our users are. I oftentimes will start meetings with just, “What are we here for?” I was a teacher back in the day, so I oftentimes will just pull up my teacher abilities. And it’s really about I think helping the teams really understand why we are all here and who we’re here for. Even if our teams are working on a variety of different problems. Even if the activation team is working on onboarding and the profile team is working on profiles and discovery team’s working on the discovery, every team might be working on a small piece of the bigger problem, but we’re all working on the same problem. We’re all working on the same thing at the end of the day.
And I think that that’s the way to build that throughline between teams, because I’ve oftentimes heard, “Well, I have no idea what this team is doing and I have no idea where I fit in.” And that’s the moment where I’m like, “Okay, got to beat the drum again.” And as a leader, your goal really is to just be repetitive almost over and over again. If you think you’ve said it too many times, you haven’t. And so it’s really about helping remind everybody and bringing people back into the tent, bring people back closer to each other, so they can see how everything fits into the larger puzzle.
And what else do you think brands can do today to better serve their users and better emphasize that user experience?
I think talk to their users. The number of people who I hear who don’t do the research, who don’t talk to their customers, who don’t look at feedback and review and customer service. I mean the customer support and service teams are one of my best teams, one of my closest teams I love to bring in. And in fact, both at Netflix and at Hinge, we embedded the CX teams into the product teams, because no one knows and hears from customers more than the people who are contacting our CX teams, and they are the voice of the customer to a degree. And I think that at the very end of the day, I think that that’s one of the things that teams can do. Embed your CX teams, embed one person who’s an expert on whatever area that you’re working on right into your product teams, because they are part of the company, they’re just not a support function. They are part of building better experiences because they’re on the frontline responding to users. So I think that’s one thing. I think talk to customers if you don’t already talk to customers.
You don’t need a robust research team. I understand that not every company can afford that or can have that, but even having your PMs do it once a week, once every two weeks, there are ways to basically get insights directly from your users. Those to me, are the biggest things.
And what do you think is the main responsibility of product managers today in terms of when they’re thinking about tomorrow’s products?
I think the role of product managers has evolved and will continue to evolve. The thing that I think that product managers are most responsible for is one team leadership and direction, really helping to ensure that everybody on the team really understands what they’re working on, what the problems are, why they’re here, why they’re a team in the first place. I think it’s number one, it’s clarity of just understanding why we’re here and really ensuring that everyone deeply understands that. So doing a really great job of translating those insights and that data, the big problems, basically opportunity space so that every function, design, research, data, engineering, et cetera, really understands what their role is in helping solve that problem. Because when the teams really deeply understand their problems, they all believe that they own that problem together, that’s when I see the best work happen. I think secondly, it’s really about looking into partnering deeply with design and research to really look into what are the biggest problems and opportunities that we are not tackling yet, and how impactful could those be if we found a solution to them?
And so it’s really looking into the future to strategize. And I really encourage my PMs to really think about strategy very deeply when they’re thinking about the features that they’re building. How are they going to leverage the features that they’re building in a way that’s going to impact the users, impact the business, but also what story are they trying to tell? Why are they even building this? And so I think that product managers need to be really excellent storytellers, because they’re telling a story to leadership, they’re telling a story to their team, they’re telling a story to the users themselves. And when we go out and rebuild a product, you want that product to really resonate with how your brand is seen outside to how your products felt and experienced in the app or in the service.
I love that. The storytelling ability is so critical in any industry and particularly so in our world as well. You mentioned a great phrase earlier. You said, “What are we here for?” And that you bring that up with your team. If I could ask you on a personal level and in your next career roles and how you go about living your life, what are you here for?
Yeah, this again, I think as humans we constantly are evolving. We’re constantly learning. I have had so many successes in my life and so many failures alongside of those. I think the things that I try and live by are continuous growth and reflection. So for me, it’s not about being perfect. It’s not about showing up and thinking I know all the answers. I suffer from imposter syndrome. Like many other people, I suffer from feeling like I’m not good enough. And for me, it is about trying to do my best every single day and trying to make an impact on the biggest problems that society faces. That is what drives me. I think that all the things that I’ve ever worked on, I’ve had deep connections to… Music for example, it’s just something that I can turn on a song and it changes my entire emotion, my entire being.
I love live music, I love going to concerts. You have memories that are tied back to your earliest childhoods, from CDs that you had, et cetera, all the way to dating. I met my previous partner on the apps. And I met many community on the app. When I came out as a queer woman from South Texas, I didn’t know how to go about finding friends or relationships. And the apps were something that I turned to build community, to build friendships. And I still have community from these apps. So for me, it is about working on problems and I feel I have a direct impact on humans’ lives that are actually fundamentally changing the way that they can navigate the world, that they see the world, that they experience the world. And then I think from a personal perspective, it is really about just trying to do better every single day, and then giving myself a little bit of grace to fail, and then get up the next day and say, “All right, well what did I learn from that?”
I think that’s what I’ll take into my next career, my future, it’s about how do I then help live that experience and showcase that out in the world so that other people can see that, and I can be an example. Many others before me were examples to me.
And I really enjoy doing episodes like this because it shows the human behind the role, and particularly to consumers, because in a world where sometimes big tech and data can seem scary and daunting, it’s important for us to show that data can also be used for good. And that companies and corporation, most brands are actually working towards creating better products, more inclusive products that can help the society of today and tomorrow. And before we wrap up, is there anything else that you’d want to say to the audience or the consumers that you think is important for them to understand in what product managers are doing and what tech companies are doing that they should be excited about?
One of the things that I’ve been spending a lot of my time thinking about, especially amidst the layoffs that have happened over the past year, where you saw a lot of VC money coming in and the stock market was going wild, and there’s just a lot of hiring and just excessive prioritization… I wouldn’t even call it that, just doing of everything and anything. And when I look at what’s happening now and how I philosophically think about product and setting up product teams and what product managers should and should not own, is that we’re going to move into a world now where efficiency and effectiveness is really of critical importance. And where every single VC out there wants to see that you’ve proven revenue. And so I think that there’s a way to balance that, and so you’re not focused on revenue for the sake of revenues grow, that the detriment of the consumer experience and the products experience, the user experience.
Because you can do that in the short term. There are so many growth hacks out. There are so many cheap short-term hacks that you can put in place to grow your revenue, to grow your user base, but it’s not sustainable. And we’ve been seeing that that has been happening over the course of the past decade. And I think when I look out into the world, I just hope that we don’t go back into that same model, but that we really think about what are companies, when I think about the company that I’m working for, what are we really here to do, and let’s ruthlessly prioritize that. Let’s get all of our people-oriented on the biggest problems so that we are focused and we have the collaboration and the minds of many people together to solve those problems first and then we’ll move on.
Because I think efficiency and effectiveness in teams working really well together is going to be what’s going to be required of the next generation of product managers and of product leaders. It’s going to be a mix of very good strategic thinking and frameworks mixed with really effective execution. And the best way to do that is to really ensure that your team feels like a cohesive unit that’s reflective of all the disciplines involved in actually creating that product. And I think that’s how you’re going to get the most effective and efficient products built out there.
Thank you so much Michelle for your time today. I really appreciate you taking the time. I understand how busy you are and thank you for talking to us.
Is there anything else that you would want to mention before we close up for today?
About Our Guest
Michelle Parsons is an accomplished product industry leader known for her expertise in search, discovery, and personalization at top tech organizations. As Product Executive in Residence at Product School, she inspires her team to ask the right questions and solve big problems creatively. Formerly Chief Product Officer at Hinge, Michelle led product, design, and research across growth, core experience, recommendations, and engagement messaging. Her previous roles include Product Innovation Lead for the Global Kids and Family team at Netflix, where she identified new opportunities and revamped parental controls. She also contributed to Spotify's personalization platform and scaled innovation across the company. With experience at KAYAK, Cengage, and Pearson, Michelle brings extensive product management knowledge. A DePauw University graduate, she holds a Bachelor's degree in Biology and Chemistry, minoring in Education Studies. Michelle is a Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner, recognized for her ability to empower colleagues, understand customer needs, and lead high-performing teams to deliver exceptional results.