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the intersection of business, design, and technology

Author: Liana Leahy (Page 1 of 2)

A graduate of Smith College in Computer Science and Theatre, Liana spent her youth in New York City coding by day and singing at night. With 20 years engineering experience behind her, she is thrilled to be working at the intersection of business, design, and technology as a product manager at MeYou Health.

JS Party

I had the privilege of chatting with Amal Hussein and Kevin Ball about the engineering/product management relationship on their podcast, JS Party.

We talk about:

  • What does a product manager do?
  • How product managers are the glue in your organization
  • How product responsibilities are shared with a tech lead
  • How product creates a shared vision around the features your building
  • How to sell refactoring and other necessary back-end work to your PM and the business
  • How to know if product management is for you
  • How the lessons I learned in theater has helped my engineering and product career

Check it out here:


One of the most undervalued skills in engineering is knowing how to be the glue. This is how I transitioned from engineer to product manager.

Like noticing when other people in the team are blocked and helping them out. Or reviewing design documents and noticing what’s being handwaved or what’s inconsistent. Or onboarding the new people and making them productive faster. Or improving processes to make customers happy.

Check out this blog post  for some very valuable thoughts on the importance of these soft skills, Being Glue.

In a similar vein is this blog post, Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions. But I think the Harvard Business Review misses the point. They call many of these soft skills, Non-promotable Tasks.

Workers who spend more time on non-promotable tasks are held back from demonstrating their full potential.

If something needs to be done and benefits the organization, then it has value.

How listens and learns from you

Originally posted to the MBTA Customer Technology Medium blog is getting better. It’s getting better because we learn from you.

Today, the agency’s website attracts 1.6 million monthly active users, and both usage and satisfaction metrics are trending upwards. Over the last year, we’ve increased our NPS score by 26%. We were named a 2019 Webby Honoree in the Government & Civil Innovation website category. And Tim Buckley, communication director for Governor Baker says,

“The MBTA’s Customer Technology team produces dynamic web content and tools that not only help customers use the T, but also helps riders and the public understand how the T is putting their money to use every day. The T’s team is among the best in state government when it comes to their ability to adapt and produce useful content on this scale.”

In late 2017, the Customer Technology team released a new version of the website based on more sophisticated technology. But we didn’t stop there. We collected surveys, looked at analytics, and talked to riders. In other words, we took a customer-centric approach to learn what was working and what needed changing.

Based on this research, we learned that:

You want to know when to catch your bus or train.

The website is powered by some really complex real-time data about the system and the service. And this information fuels the vast majority of visits to the site. Google Analytics tells us that 77% of visitors to click through to a schedule page or a stops page. And many of these folks are returning users who want to know when to expect the next train or bus.

With tools like FullStory, we could see that many of you were clicking on the departures tab of the stops pages, so we moved that information to the forefront and updated stops pages to highlight real-time information about your next trip. We also added information about nearby transfer points and links to get directions or a street view so you can see what the stop looks like.

And to help you find your schedules faster, we introduced shortcuts on landing pages based on your previous visits to our site. Today, these shortcuts receive over 1 million clicks per month.

You visit the commuter rail timetable a lot. I mean, like A LOT.

80% of all visits to our schedule pages are for the commuter rail. And 85% of your commuter rail questions to customer support are about the timetable. Before we made any changes to these pages, we wanted to be sure we heard from you about what you need. So we took a trip to South Station to talk with you.

You showed us how you use our timetables on your phone, and shared your ideas on how we could make them better. Then, we showed you design prototypes and asked more questions.

We used your feedback to redesign these pages — adding flag stops and early departure information. And because Bostonians believe in sustainable mobility, we added a bicycle icon so you’ll know when you’re allowed to bring your bike on the train.

You need to know how much your trip is going to cost.

Boston has one of the most complex fare systems in the nation. To help make it more clear, we researched over 1300 survey responses to better understand your most frequently asked questions. Then we redesigned the fares overview page and restructured the way we talk about fares across the site.

You want to learn how the system works.

Five thousand of you visit Trip Planner nearly every day. When you start a new job with a new commute or come to Boston as a new student, you want to understand the public transit options near you. That’s why we added an interactive map and more filter options to Trip Planner. We also revamped Transit Near Me to include a map with stops nearby and a list of scheduled train and bus departures leaving shortly.

You’ll also find a suite of User Guides to help you learn more about the MBTA. Guides receive over 50 thousand pageviews a month. If you’ve never taken the bus, want to attend a parade, or just plan ahead for your winter commute, these guides provide more in-depth information.

You want to find out why your commute was messed up.

We hate being late for work too, and it helps to understand exactly what’s happening. But it took a lot of clicks to find details about an alert — and it was hard to know when something was immediately important. After this change, clicks on alerts decreased by 46% — because the information you need is available at a glance, you don’t need to click through for more details.

To better inform you about transit news, projects, and diversions, we redesigned the homepage using both analytics and heatmaps from FullStory to tell us what you found most valuable. And we introduced a content tagging system used throughout the site to automatically surface the most relevant and fresh information to you.

Last month, we made updates to the capital projects index page where you can find a list of all system improvements and construction projects. We added filter and search functions so it’s easier for you to find out about work that might impact your trips on the T.

You want accessible tools for everyone.

We collaborated with the Institute for Human Centered Design and our friends in System-Wide Accessibility to test our website with screen readers and improve usability for everyone. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but these are some accessibility techniques we apply with every new feature we touch:

  • Use clear and simple language
  • Ensure that text and background colors have sufficient contrast for legibility
  • Use relative font sizing to improve visibility on different devices
  • Avoid images to display text or unnecessary animations
  • Never convey information with color alone to emphasize or highlight text
  • Create proper headings and a logical tab order allowing screen-readers to easily bypass information
  • Ensure all images have alt text to convey equivalent information
  • Simplify table structures and avoiding complicated nesting
  • Use ARIA attributes to supplement HTML strategically so a variety of screen readers can properly interpret different elements
  • Use native HTML elements because they give you focus, keyboard support, and built-in semantics

You expect us to be accountable.

The MBTA website is YOURS. It’s available open-source, which means you can look at the code and understand where the information on the site comes from, help us find bugs, or even contribute a fix yourself. By allowing anyone who’s interested to suggest changes to the source code, the website will be more useful and error-free over the long term.

We’ve accomplished a lot since 2017, but user analytics and customer feedback still show that some important sections of the website continue to frustrate riders, making it a challenge for you to get the information you need. But your fellow Bostonians in Customer Technology are on it.

Coming up, here are some of the website changes you can expect to see:

  • Schedule page updates focused on route variants, directionality, and stops for improved clarity, ease of use, and accessibility
  • Improvements to the “Contact Us” page so we can be more responsive to customer questions and issues reported from the website
  • Menu navigation improvements, particularly targeting mobile devices
  • Improved fare finder tools to help you more easily calculate the cost of your trip
  • Better shuttle communications (when they are happening and where they are)
  • More stories about MBTA projects and their impact on your commute

We look forward to continuing to make small changes that add up over time and help all of us navigate our transit system and enjoy our city.


Having a mandate to make tools accessible to all has meant that my team needs to create clarity with good design and employ a variety of accessibility techniques. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list but these are some simple choices to keep in mind that will help keep your web pages readable for everyone:


  • Use clear and simple language
  • Ensure that text and background colors have sufficient contrast for legibility
  • Use relative font sizing to improve visibility on different devices
  • Avoid images to display text or unnecessary animations
  • Never convey information with color alone to emphasize or highlight text
  • Create proper headings and a logical tab order allowing screen-readers to easily bypass information
  • Ensure all images have alt text to convey equivalent information
  • Simplify table structures and avoiding complicated nesting
  • Use aria attributes strategically so a variety of screen readers can properly interpret different elements
  • Use native HTML elements because they give you focus, keyboard support, and built-in semantics


As an engineer, I can have a hard time with this very important product management technique. We’re driven to seek elegant, flexible solutions, test thoroughly, take time to refactor, and leave a code base better than we found it. But sometimes our perfectionism can keep features from making their way out the door.

Truthfully, timeboxing can be your best friend if you let it. The time limits forces you to ignore distractions and prioritize work. It keeps those perfectionist tendencies in check, and limits the amount of time spent on low-value activities.

The constraint ensures that the team is building and delivering the most valuable work as soon as possible and those less critical tasks are left to the end. Sure it may mean that some requirements won’t get implemented but what gets shipped are the most vital requirements.

I found The Ultimate Agile Planning Handbook to be a good read on the subject. Check it out.

A Product Manager’s Job

My mentor recently sent me this slidedeck from Josh Elman. I had some takeaways…

  • The most important thing you do is document decisions. Follow-up notes usually take longer than actual meetings
  • Talk often about the bigger vision of the company
  • Identify metrics to demonstrate impact
  • Communicate often the value target the product delivers to users

…which led to a pretty interesting conversation about Product Management.

It is the PM’s job to aggregate, study, distill and understand the needs of the users.  The more effective you are in making clear what the problem to solve is, the better the team is at solving it.  Product insight and market awareness is key.

Ask your team, what can I do to make your life easier? Everyone on the team should understand what is important, what isn’t important, what the guiding principles are, and what key tradeoffs are being made.

The mark of a great PM is that the team should understand what they are doing well enough that if you get hit by a bus tomorrow, the team still ships a great product. Find some chaos, make order out of chaos, make yourself unnecessary, then go find some more chaos.

Think about your own personal goals: What is one thing you do really well that you want to continue to do? How are you going to stay in the habit of doing that? What is one thing you need to improve at? What steps are you going to take to get better, and how are you going to measure your progress?

What do I build?

Last night, I attended a class at General Assembly on Validated Learning to help you determine if a new product idea is worth pursuing. As an engineer, I learned about similar processes working in an agile environment where we would regularly implement and enhance features through iterative sprint cycles. It feels like the same principles really.

To validate your product idea, you identify your assumptions. Starting with your riskiest assumptions first, you determine the metrics that mean your assumption is correct.

Test your assumption. If you are successful you move on to the next one. If you are unsuccessful, you revisit by either re-evaluating the metrics, the implementation of your test or the assumption itself. Rinse and repeat. This is called the Build, Measure and Learn Loop.

The idea is to catch missteps early. If an assumption is wrong, you want to find out early so that you can course correct before you’ve invested too much time, money and effort.

So what sorts of questions do I ask to help me understand my assumptions and test them out?

  1. What is the problem you are trying to solve?
  2. Is this problem painful enough for users that they would be willing to pay for your solution?
  3. Does your solution actually do what you claim?

So how do you validate if your solution is actually a problem that needs solving? You need to talk to people to understand their existing process. Have them describe their work flow for you and ask about where the pain points lie. Folks might not know what they need but they do know what they don’t like.

Once it looks like you’ve got a solution, you want to find people or companies who might be willing to pay you to take their pain away. One low cost way folks vet out this assumption is to create a google form or a landing page to collect email addresses and generate a customer list to gauge interest. Your landing page is also a great opportunity to start collecting data about your customers like capturing the keywords folks are using to find your website.

Awesome, now you’ve got some interest but is this really a business? Test things out as simply as possible with your early adopters and confirm if your users are willing to use your service again. If customers are coming back, then you’ve got something exciting.

To me, this sounds really similar to  the way engineers iterate towards successful features and how we’ve been working at product here at MYH.  But as I was digging around for more substance, I came across a post from Amy Hoy who I’ve been following for many years.  I really love the way Amy has always been able to communicate her business advice and experiences in a focused and digestible way.  I think it’s her designer background that helps make her ideas really pop.  Checkout for more.

Smith College Leadership Consortium

This summer, I had the opportunity to revisit my alma mater and attend the Smith College Leadership Consortium. It’s a custom designed leadership program specifically designed to develop and advance women in business.

Faculty from Harvard, Wharton, and Tuck business schools and other thought leaders led interactive sessions focusing on business and wellness topics. I learned about business strategies, negotiation, communicating vision and forging stronger relationships on my team and at the company.

The all-woman environment at Smith focuses on the unique needs and challenges faced by women in business. Having spent the last few years organizing various technology meet-ups, I was already aware of the dynamics of a mix gender group and how the conversation changes drastically when the men are absent.  And I appreciated how this program allowed me to hear candid stories of accomplished, successful women navigating tricky politics in the workplace.

I was most surprised to hear that the majority of women have children and are the breadwinners in their families. Even more surprising was that these women are managing their families with the support of their stay at home/ part time working husbands. …And here I thought I was an anomaly.

This program was developed to help companies develop, retain, and advance female talent and promote inclusive leadership. Like many women, my focus can be narrowed to the goals of my product and team rather than forming a broader vision to create impact across the company. And I found it interesting to consider my own career from the perspective of creating a personal vision and strategy.

We’ll see if my learnings make me a better product owner and leader, but the shared experiences, personal connection, candor and trust I experienced in this women-only program felt truly transformative.

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