Get ready for some straight talk about product management from Laura Klein, Principal at Users Know and Author of UX for Lean Startups. In this Q&A with Wootric, Laura talks about how to avoid the traps and excuses that can derail you from building what is most important to users, and how to keep your team aligned around customer experience.
Q: What are some of the challenges that product teams have, especially around gathering, making sense of, and incorporating customer / user feedback?
So many challenges! Let’s start with gathering feedback – I still hear from user researchers and UX designers and sometimes even PMs that they want to talk to users, but they can’t. Top excuses are:
- my boss won’t let me
- there’s no time
- sales/marketing won’t give me access to customers
- nobody listens anyway
- I don’t know how to start or who to ask
There are lots of reasons people have trouble making sense of the data they’re gathering, but I see some fairly common ones. Most of the time people aren’t being consistent about gathering the feedback. They’re just going out and having random conversations with lots of people. This generates a ton of unstructured data, which is extremely hard to process. If you’re not asking very similar questions to very similar groups of people, you’re not going to be able to spot patterns, which will make it very hard to do anything useful with the information you’re bringing in.
Another thing that happens is that people fall back on the “whatever’s easiest” method of user research. They’re doing guerrilla coffee shop testing when they should be doing ethnography. They’re running surveys when they should be doing validation testing on their ideas. They’re having focus groups. Sure these are all technically user research, but if you’re not using the right methods for what you want to learn, you’re not going to get actionable feedback.
Q: How do PMs address these challenges:
- How do I know if I’m making the right choices? Are my iterations incorporating what is most important to users?
Determine ahead of time what metrics you will need in order to know you had a positive impact on user behavior. If you have an ecommerce company, and you’re judging whether people are engaged by measuring how many different products they look at when they visit your site, make predictions like “this will cause a 10% increase in user engagement as shown by people looking three or more products within one week of first time use.” If you have a SaaS company with a freemium business model and you want to measure people who convert from free to paid, make a prediction like “this will increase conversion from free trials to paid plans by 20% without decreasing overall revenue.”
Then A/B test your changes and see how close you were. Write down what success looks like ahead of time and then test for success. Otherwise, you’re going to decide what success looks like after you’ve launched, and that’s a great way to convince yourself you’re doing great while slowly going out of business.
- I know I should be doing Customer Development, but I don’t have time, it’s complicated.
User research saves time. Period. When you actually understand what your user needs before you build things, you have a much lower chance of having to go back and rebuild everything after shipping something that nobody uses.
I also don’t buy that it’s all that complicated. In fact, I find it MUCH easier to design and build things when I’ve got some data to back up my decisions. All those hours long debates you’re having with your coworkers about “should we build this or that?” just go away once somebody actually talks to some users! Whenever I get people to start talking to their users in a structured way, they’re always shocked at how much easier it is to make decisions and have great ideas that turn into great features.
You only think it’s hard or time consuming because you don’t want to do it. It’s not hard or time consuming. It *is* terrifying. I’ll admit that. It’s frightening and awful to go out and find out that maybe you’re not as much of a genius as you thought you were or your product is crappy or your users are angry or your baby is ugly. Nobody wants to do that. Of course, nobody wants to build something that nobody buys either, so sometimes you have to things that are frightening to avoid that.
- Feedback is coming in too late. In the world of agile development, I need a tool for continual feedback to support continual improvement. I need feedback on iterations quickly, in a way that fits with lean culture. How can I make this process more efficient?
Make getting feedback a part of your process. I advise a product called Validately that helps PMs and designers recruit test participants and get quick feedback on their prototypes. Just making it easy to recruit people and usability test things can make an enormous difference in how long it takes to run a usability test. There are all sorts of ways to speed up certain kinds of research.
But, and this is important, there are some types of research that you need to not rush. What good does it do to be super agile and release something (anything) every week if you’re constantly releasing things nobody wants or needs? How is it helpful to run really fast in the wrong direction? You’re agile! Great. Good for you. Agile is about building the thing right. Understanding your users is about building the right thing, and it’s just idiocy to build the wrong thing in order to keep your engineers busy. There is nothing more demoralizing to a team than working really hard to build something and then having to kill it because nobody wanted it. Stop worrying about building the wrong thing on schedule.
Q: Are there ways PMs can break out of the product silo and contribute to or lead cross-functional collaboration and aligned focus around customer experience?
This is tough, because most of the time PMs are not the ones who get to decide the org chart for the whole company. If they’re in a silo, it’s very hard to break out unless that’s done from the top. That said, you can form relationships with people in other silos and start having conversations. If you’re communicating with other teams entirely through deliverables, start communicating with them by talking to them. Involve people from other silos in early research and design. Share works in progress with your team for feedback. Ask people to join you in customer calls.
And if you’re constantly being herded back into your pen, quit and find a company that believes that collaboration creates better products.
Q: How is Product Management evolving and what do you expect to see more of in 2016?
I’m hoping to see more cross functional teams and collaboration. I’m also hoping very much to see more validation of ideas. In other words, let’s stop just shipping features, crossing our fingers, and hoping they work. Let’s figure out how we can test whether we’re moving in the right direction before we commit six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars toward building something. I also think that we’ll continue to see more teams using qualitative research in conjunction with quantitative data. At least, that’s what I’ll see wherever I’m working, because I don’t want to work anywhere that’s not happening.
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