Having access to huge amounts of data may seem like a marketer’s dream but data without context can be overwhelming and useless. Intricate datasets are only valuable if you can package and present the information to consumers in a way that makes sense and at a point in time when they need it the most. Kurt Fulepp has spent much of his career helping build products that get information to customers at the right time and in the right format. He has worked with industry giants such as Microsoft, AOL and Time Inc. and now runs the Product team at AccuWeather. We spoke to Kurt about his philosophy for building products that meet very specific consumer needs.
Kurt Fulepp | Interview
Kurt started his career working in broadcast media as a Senior Manager for Consumer Marketing at Nine Network, Australia’s largest locally owned media company. In 2009, he joined Microsoft’s Joint Venture, NineMSN, to become part of their international product and marketing team, launching iconic products such as Bing and managing product localization for services such as Windows Live Hotmail/Messenger and NineMSN in Australia and New Zealand.
In 2012, Kurt switched gears, becoming Head of Product at AOL leading the newly formed Lifestyle Brands after relocating to New York. He stayed at AOL for 3 years, eventually becoming Vice President of Product at AOL.com & Lifestyle brands. He then joined Time Inc. as VP and Digital General Manager for News and Business, charting the strategic direction for TIME, Money, and FORTUNE’s digital publications.
Kurt is currently the Global Chief Product Officer at AccuWeather where he presides over the vision, strategy, and development of the company’s product portfolio including product management, design, app development, digital analytics and growth. Since 2017, he has also been an adjunct professor at New York University where he instructs Masters students on the business of publishing.
Hi Kurt, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do and where your expertise lies?
Sure, my portfolio is broader than strictly product as it encompasses multiple areas of the product development lifecycle, starting from the early stages of definition and ideation, through UX and UI, development, delivery and measurement, then back to continued iteration and improvement. That last step is what fuels our continued innovation as we’re constantly measuring and optimizing our products. I think of myself as a product executive who leads by my passion for the user, my heart for design and experience, as well as leveraging my business acumen to make sure the ROI makes sense. I’ve always worked in very product-centric roles where the focus has been on the end-users themselves: what do they need, are there other people competing for that need, and how do you become a necessary part of a person’s life.
At business school, I was always fascinated by Blue Ocean Strategy. I’m constantly thinking about how we’re competing, who we serve, and how well we understand our users’ changing needs.
Tell us more about AccuWeather?
AccuWeather is the world’s largest weather company in terms of audience and reach—we deliver forecasts and warnings to over a billion people globally. This includes folks in more than 75 countries, everyday users like me and you, small-to-medium businesses right through to over half of the U.S Fortune 500 companies.
It’s a truly global company—we need to make sure that our product is always up-to-date, accurate, and local to every individual that we serve across the world. In addition to our website, we also run the AccuWeather Network, a 24/7 television weather broadcast, and an app that reaches around 25 million active users every month.
I imagine that there are many moving parts when it comes to always providing accurate weather forecasts?
You’re absolutely right. For starters, our work is pretty important—imagine you’re a Promoter and you’re running concerts all over the country. You need to make sure that people are safe and that events will run smoothly. Or perhaps you’re a logistics company and you need to move products across the country, so it’s crucial that you know about any adverse weather conditions well in advance.
You’d be surprised at how much the weather impacts everything you do. It’s not until whole regions grind to a halt during snowstorms or other extreme conditions that people begin to realise how important it is to keep an eye on the weather.
We power about 1.5 billion devices with weather data and OTT technology. We have a team of meteorologists producing our own forecast data, but we also take into account over 100 models before distributing our insights across the world. I have to take my hat off to our team—we’ve been consistently rated as the number 1 forecaster in terms of accuracy for several years now and it’s a true pleasure to be responsible for packaging and presenting that lifesaving information into beautiful products that people rely on every day.
So what does your role itself look like?
I’m responsible for designing, developing and implementing the overarching product vision and strategy for our full product portfolio. This means I’m charged with leading the development of our websites and apps but also the latest AI-based tools, connected devices and iOT utilising our big data to its fullest advantage.
My role is pretty all-encompassing— my team takes an idea from exploration, design, development through to post-launch performance review and iteration.
I realised that the challenge at the core of my role wasn’t actually to do with the weather itself. Instead, the key question for me to try and solve was: how do you take a vast amount of data and make it useful, presentable, and valuable for people?
How do you put this data on someone’s phone and make it consumable? How do you simplify complex datasets for the consumer themselves? If you think about the core of our business, we’re essentially big data scientists. Our APIs are hit 60 billion times every day. Data is the lifeblood of everything that we do.
So on one hand, our job is to make sure that the data is as accurate and accessible at all times. On the other hand, we need to make sure that this data can actually be understood and put into action by the users themselves—it’s no good us just churning out dataset upon dataset.
In your opinion, what makes a good product person?
A product person needs to be able to operate at both the 50,000-foot view and the 5-foot view: focused on the now but always with an eye to the future. Folks often miss either the bigger picture or the immediate needs—but the best product people are on top of both.
First and foremost, focus on the need that you’re filling. This should guide everything that you do as a Product Manager. Don’t jump too quickly at finding a solution. Instead, make sure that you genuinely understand the problem first.
People obviously want to find immediate solutions and be hailed as heroes. However, if you don’t really understand the intricacies of the issue that you’re trying to solve, then you’re going to come unstuck at one point or another.
How do you balance intensely focusing on the product while also keeping the business side in mind?
You should always define the business case before you start. This is crucial in gaining managerial buy-in, but it also ensures that your projects are always aligned to your business’s overarching mission. Sure—you became a product person because you enjoy building things and serving customer needs—but it’s no good building something if it doesn’t bring value to your customers or your business.
So before starting:
- Outline the business case
- Assess your users’ needs
- Define the market opportunity
- Understand what the minimum viable product looks like
- Lay out your KPIs
- Consider the business ROIs
How important is mobile for you?
Mobile is critically important for weather as it’s a service that you need while-on-the-move. In fact, our mobile web and apps constitute the vast majority of our users. I’ve spoken a lot about our new apps today, and they really are at the forefront of our innovation efforts— the new apps will be the model for all our consumer-facing products, taking learnings from the UX and UI and translating those characteristics to other platforms.
Weather is beautiful! As we designed our mobile experience, we thought about ways in which we could bring this 2D experience to life – weather is more than numbers on a screen. We wanted to leverage the mobile device to convey more about the weather in our mobile apps. A great example of this idea are our new conditional backgrounds that match the weather your experiencing with the weather on screen.
We’re working with different colours, intensities, and visual clues—we want our consumers to love checking the weather and to keep coming back to our app, day in, day out. When you throw the potential for AR and VR applications into the mix, I think that meteorology certainly has an exciting future.
How do you personalise an app for that volume of users?
There are the standard ways of personalising an app:
- Look and feel
- Tailoring the in-app experience according to your use cases
- Content preference
But we wanted to go a bit deeper than standard personalisation. If you think about it, weather apps help individual people make decisions regarding what they’ll do that day, this weekend, or over the summer. As such, there’s quite a big opportunity to make checking the weather a really personal, localised experience that feels tailored to your own plans.
For example, if you download our new app, you’ll see something called MinuteCast. This shows the weather exactly where you are and at the time you’re looking—so if you’re going for a walk, and you’re going to be out for about half an hour, then you can check if you’ll need an umbrella. Or if you’re a runner, we want the app to answer questions like: “How’s the air quality going to be?”.
Eventually, we want to be able to answer lifestyle questions like “Do I need a scarf today?”. Or if people are going out and it’s about to start raining, to tell them that they might need to book an Uber early to avoid the rush. However, as with any personalisation efforts, this obviously relies largely upon the consumer data that we receive.
And how do you find a balance between privacy and personalisation?
For starters, we only request the information that we need to know to deliver our core service of providing the most accurate and trusted weather forecast and alerts. Users can also choose how their data is used. We’ve designed our app with a privacy-first approach and decided to take the core essence of GDPR in Europe and offer this as our global standard.
Unlike other apps, we’ve limited the information we ask for to focus on our service. All we need to know are things like “Are you using the app to plan an outdoor activity?”. We try to focus on specific behaviours—or locations—that actually help us improve our service.
We’re not in the business of just trying to know as much about our users as possible for the sake of it.
How do you manage risk when you operate in such a high-stakes industry?
Working in the weather business, we are constantly aware of the speed at which information needs to be delivered; it is most definitely a matter of life and death. The challenge, of course, lies in getting that critical information out to communities in time to save lives, whether it be poor air quality, extreme weather events like floods and tornadoes, or humidity.
We can’t mitigate the risk that the weather carries. What we can manage, however, is our users’ experience. We spend a lot of time researching and rebuilding so that individual users get the most accurate forecasts straight to their phone (or device) as soon as possible. That’s our goal: to get information to people, fast.
We have an organisation-wide fixation on data and accuracy. We’re constantly measuring every single data point to see where we are now and where we can improve. We have an excellent feedback loop—we love hearing from our users and we use their comments to keep augmenting our models and our service.
What tools do you use?
Despite the incredible people we have on board, I have a general mantra when it comes to tools in product: only build what you specialise in. We specialise in weather, so we use our expertise to augment our weather engines, but we rely on experts in other areas to help us run the business as successfully as possible.
For example, mParticle is our customer data platform (CDP) provider and we work with Airship when it comes to push messaging—they’ve been wonderful partners. When it comes to weather, there’s often information that you need to get out as soon as possible with no latency.
Do you generally see marketing, product and engineering starting to merge?
I’m generally a big believer of cross-functional teams with shared objectives. After all, everyone has the same single overarching goal: to bring value to the consumer’s life. Everybody in the organisation needs to work together to achieve this. For us, it’s actually crucial—our data has to go from a forecasting engine, into a model, into our locations teams, into our languages team, into our API team, and then into the web development and mobile teams.
As such, it’s so much better (and easier) to have each team involved from the start. I’d always recommend cross-functional teams to all organisations, no matter their size, industry, or goals.
What other challenges are you facing?
In addition, like countless businesses in various industries, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our version of “normal.” But our team responded to that challenge by adapting quickly to the new setting, stepping up internal communications, refocusing our strategic priorities and employing a deep sense of creativity to adjust. As a result, we were able to successfully develop a slate of products and content such as a COVID-19 Tracker Map, a Local Hurricane Tracker, new global Air Quality products, as well as a virtual, at-home educational series on our website. We also rolled out, in highly collaborative fashion, the newly designed AccuWeather app, which was an effort spanning across our entire product, forecasting and marketing teams.