A Product Manager Goes to the Post Office

If you're anything like me, you'd rather get a bad case of swine flu than go to the post office.

Every time I have a letter to send or a package to return, I beg my husband to do this postage-related errand for me - in the most annoying, whiny voice I can muster - until he wants me to stop talking so badly that he agrees. 

And yet, this week, I found myself in a post office.

And it was just as horrible as I remember.

The depths of a nightmare: Inside the Post Office. (Cue scary music.)

The depths of a nightmare: Inside the Post Office. (Cue scary music.)

Post Office Problems that Product Managers Can Learn From

Here are the most offensive of the Post Office's problems: 

  • It looks and smells like Grandma's House. I swear the post office is the single largest buyer of scotch tape. Why are there notes taped up all over the walls? Why does the outdated carpet smell musty? Did it get wet somehow? The post office screams 'I HAVEN'T CHANGED IN 50 YEARS AND I DON'T WANT TO.' 
  • I have no idea which 'thing' I need to buy. The post office as the most complicated product offering of any business in the United States of America, I swear. How am I supposed to know which stamp(s?) to buy, or which of these 50,627 labels to affix to my square-enveloped birthday card so it actually arrives in Las Vegas? All I know is that I need to send this effing letter. Dear Baby Jesus, help me.
  • Be prepared to wait. And then wait some more. The post office never has a line less than 78 people long. If my API took this long for search queries to be returned, I'd be out of business in less than 24 hours.
  • Customer Service is Optional. Once you've waited the 3.5 hours necessary to speak to a post office customer service agent, you might get an answer, but the postal worker probably won't be happy to sell any products to you.
  • Complicated, disjointed instructions that a rocket scientist would find difficult to follow. Let me ask you - what does this sign mean? Yeah, I don't know either. Is anyone going to take the time to read the 5,423 words on this poster? Absolutely not. Keep this in mind when you're writing product documentation.

Product Goals for the Post Office

If a product manger were given the chance the fix the post office, these would be her first goals. 

  • Simplify the product line, or simply make the complexity of the current product line invisible to customers
  • Improved, AI-fueled self-service that actually makes sense
  • Find whoever designed the Apple Store and beg them (or just pay them) to do a post-office make-over

New Requirements for the Post Office: MVP

If I were a product person working for the post office, these are the first things I'd want to fix as MVP:

  1. Clean up all the sticky notes, old taped-up signs, counters, etc. The post office needs some serious Marie Kondo action. Just simply throwing away hand-written notes and organizing could do wonders for my anxiety upon entering this cluttered place.
  2. Make minimal improvements to the current self-service machine. I would evaluate the current self-service machines and eliminate unneeded steps. 
  3. Re-train post office customer service to spend < 2 min. for each customer. Why does customer service take so long at the post office? Have they collected data on this? A study should be done to figure this out.
A post office self-service machine. UI circa 1982, still in production.

A post office self-service machine. UI circa 1982, still in production.

Ideal Solution for the New Post Office Experience

As a longer-term goal, my 1st order of business would be to fix self-service for the post office. This could be a multi-year initiative being that it involves new hardware and software for the post office's self-service machines, and I'm not sure there's anything that can be salvaged from the existing machines, so we're probably starting from scratch here. 

Updated, Intuitive Self-Service

My main long-term goal to fix the post office would be to produce new self-service machines to replace the outdated machines that are currently in place. 

The new machines should: 

  • Weigh and scan the size of your envelope or package
  • Read the 'send to' address with recognition software (banks do this for checks; this technology exists!)
  • Have an updated, touch-screen UI
  • Have a voice activation feature for accessibility
  • Enable a customer to purchase postage in 3 steps or less

I know there are probably a lot of blockers for improvement for the post office. Mainly: politics. The government isn't necessarily known for it's speed of innovation. I do think if the government implemented Agile methodologies they could make some significant changes in a couple of years. 

OK, that's my rant on the post office. I also discuss this topic in Ep.15 of the Product Popcorn Podcast: