5 Unique Challenges in Managing a Social Good Product

I have worked as the product manager for Bahmni, an open source Hospital Information System developed by ThoughtWorks. During this period, I learned product management as applied to social good products. This article has my observations.

First, a few definitions and postulates.

Organizations create commercial products to make money for themselves. They do this directly (through sales) or indirectly (as part of a bundle or as a loss leader etc.). These products can come in several flavors including freemium models and advertising driven models. In a freemium model, there is a free part in the pricing model which serves to increase awareness or adoption. But ultimately, this model exists to drive customers to buy the product.

A few examples of commercial products are as follows

  1. Microsoft Windows — Standard commercial product with a license that needs purchasing
  2. Red Hat Linux — Enterprise versions with paid support
  3. Farmville — Players can opt to spend real world cash to unlock upgrades
  4. YouTube — Paid by advertising

A social good product exists to serve a mission, other than to make money, directly or indirectly. This mission could be to improve health, alleviate poverty, etc. Open source software, like OpenMRS and Bahmni, that are offered by the primary developers fall in this bucket.

The challenges and questions I engaged in as a product manager were

  • What does success mean and how is it measured?
  • How will the product sustain itself if not meant to make money?
  • Will it be taken as seriously as commercial products?
  • Who is the competition?
  • How does this product live in a commercial organization?

What does success mean and how to measure it?

Determining success in the case of commercial products is straightforward. It is usually revenue driven or profit driven. The very existence of the product depends on it making enough money. There will be other metrics and goals that are important during it life-cycle. But, the goal boils down to making money.

In the case of social good products, there needs to be an overarching goal which is valid as long as the product vision remains true. Along with this, there needs to be a set of metrics that lets us decide how well the product is satisfying its goal. If the overarching goal is not defined, the direction of the product will be tactical.

For example, an app for blood donors might have a vision of reducing lives lost due to lack of blood. Its predominant goal could be reducing this count across hospitals (metric) and this goal can have different targets for different years. There might be other metrics that are applicable during its life-cycle. The number of donors and hospitals signing up could be a key metric in its early years where adoption is key.

In the case of a social good product like Bahmni, we struggled a lot to define success. We were able to figure out a few metrics that would guide us along the product life-cycle (does a social good product have the same life-cycle as a commercial product?). For example, adoption was a key metric that is being used as a proxy for success in Bahmni. In the case of Bahmni, we had a loosely defined goal called “impact”. Unfortunately, we could not convert this goal into useful metrics due to the sheer ambiguity of the term. If I were to do things differently now, I would start by defining this term and work from there, before even getting into the product roadmap and execution.

How will the product sustain itself if not meant to make money?

A product needs to have a clear business model to survive and grow. In the case of commercial products, the decision to continue or not is contingent on their ability to generate money.

In the case of social good products, there is no straightforward answer. This ties back into their definition of success. Since success is not determined by money, but by a different metric, how long can the product keep itself alive? It is essential that the sustenance model be part of the initial setup of the social good product. There can and will be pivots in its model depending on its position in the life-cycle, but it cannot be an afterthought. A lack of clarity in this aspect will lead to circumstances where existence of the product is questioned. The first sacrifices at the altar of commercialism are products that cannot sustain themselves.

Funding, by an internal or external agency, is the most common way to sustain the product. I would be wary of adopting a model which subsidizes a set of clients against another since this leads to a slippery slope. The focus must be clear. Is this a product that is predominantly commercial but can be subsidized for a few clients or is this a product that is meant for the greater good and is not commercial? The two cannot coexist as their definitions of success are very different.

Money is the main aspect of sustenance. The other factors to consider are time and people. Open source social good products have the advantage of having external contributors.

Bahmni started off as a project, which was funded by ThoughtWorks.

Will it be taken as seriously as commercial products?

Human beings tend to equate free with poor quality and paid with higher quality. A willingness to pay indicates a willingness to commit. CIOs prefer a paid product because it implies support and more importantly, it allows them to justify their decisions.

Social good products tend to start on a back foot here. Displaying a robust ecosystem of support, documentation, training, roadmaps and most importantly, client testimonials, goes a long way towards building credibility. Talking to clients about the sustenance model gives them the confidence that is not a flash in the pan product. The market that social good products operate in should allow for the existence of such products.

During my stint in Bahmni, I don’t think I ever encountered this problem directly. Usually, the questions were around the long-term vision and sustenance. We solved the issues by working on a robust product management framework.

Who is the competition?

Almost all commercial products work under the assumption of a zero-sum game. In the case of social good products, I contend that there is no competition from other products in that space. If you find a couple of products that are giving a better value to the market, the logical thing to do is to either work with them or move to a different space where the value offered is lesser. I will call the entrenched way of working / current solution as the competition.

In the case of Bahmni, our competition was not the commercial products out there. Neither was it the other open source social good products. It was the entrenched way of working in hospitals. We had to make Bahmni in a way that the users in the hospital felt there was value in using it.

How does this product live in a commercial organization?

Commercial products and commercial organizations go hand in hand. It is easier (but not easy) to decide when the product needs investment, needs cutbacks and needs to be killed. But this question is not so easy when it comes to social good products in commercial organizations.

The first question which people ask is around the motives of the commercial organization. The second question people ask is how long will this product survive in the organization. How will it survive a slowdown? Transparency in the workings of the product helps answer the motives a lot. A robust sustenance model answers the second. If either of the two is missing, this will lead to a failure of the product.

We had this challenge with this in Bahmni too. We took care of the motives question by making all our decisions, plans and strategy public.

Closing Notes

Ultimately, these questions boil down to one fundamental issue — What is the vision of the product? If that is clear, everything else falls in place. If that is unclear, there is going to be angst, flux and chaos. This is true for all products, commercial or otherwise.

Originally published at Digital Amrit.

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