How do you develop an understanding of what will set a product up for success throughout your organization? This blog looks at what actions product managers can take to ensure their teams are investing their time wisely.
“If you build it, they will come” is not an effective philosophy in product development, but time and again I’ve seen and been on teams where we spend months building a product without ever talking to a customer to validate or refine our idea.
Taking an evidence-based approach to building product is, I’ve found, the only way to avoid this trap. This focuses on answering three questions:
- Who is the customer?
- What are their needs, desires and problems?
- What’s the best, lightest solution to meet these needs?
Your job as a product manager is to help your squad to answer these questions, fast. But it’s not enough to do this with your squad, you have to build a shared understanding of these questions/answers throughout your organization. You have to do this at the very outset of product conceptualization and design, with refinements throughout development.
Why do I push to build this shared understanding throughout the organization? I know all too well how it feels to build it and see that they do not come. In 2013, I joined Google Helpouts, an online service that connected consumers with experts through chat and video. A large team had spent the year before working on the offering’s development, but we never really figured out exactly who needed it and why. Predictably in retrospect, Google Helpouts was met with crickets, and Google pulled the plug on it in April 2015. It was gut-wrenching to go through that process and to see the organizational and psychological toll it took, even at a large successful company where the cost of failure was relatively low.
The experience scarred me, but it also taught me the following five, vital lessons that I have applied in subsequent roles guiding products from a bright idea in someone’s head to a fully realized, successful offering.
1: It Takes a Village
A product is more than the pixels you deliver to the screen, it’s how your product is marketed, sold and supported. Every person involved in the process needs to understand your customer, their needs, and how your solution meets those needs. It will help you all collectively to realize a more effective product experience.
I use a series of executive reviews and brown bags to disseminate this information across my organization.
Executive reviews are those smaller meetings with key leaders in the company that are focused on getting alignment and buy-in (not permission). You should identify leaders who will be important in pushing the product down and through their organizations, like the head of sales, marketing, and your squad’s management layer(s), as you want their support early. In these meetings, you lay out what you’ve learned and ask how it resonates with their experience.
Brown bags are broader, often company-wide, meetings that people opt in to attend in order to learn about your progress. I typically build a series of meetings around my three areas of focus: customer, problem, solution. I’m constantly mapping the customer to their problem, to my solution.
2: Everyone Talks to Customers
I advocate working in highly cross-functional squads where absolutely everyone – the product manager, design lead, engineers, product marketers, data scientists and user researchers – hears directly from customers. Whether it’s interviewing customers or helping to administer a survey, each member of the team must get out of their silo and into the weeds of what makes customers tick.
3: Align on Decision Criteria
The team talking to customers needs to be aligned on the overall questions you’re trying to answer, what you’re asking customers and your success/decision criteria, before you talk to customers. This is because once the data and insights start coming in, it becomes all too easy for us to cherry-pick the data that confirms our own biases. Once that happens, everyone will fall back to their preconceived notions of what the product should be and you might as well not have done the research to begin with.
4: Avoid Analysis Paralysis
It’s easy, within organizations, for discussions over something simple – red button, blue button – to turn into a religious war. It’s crucial to differentiate what really matters to users from what ultimately is trivial. Customer validation through tools like interviews and surveys is great, but you don’t really know what will work until you get product out the door. The longer you put that off, the longer you’re putting off learning about what it will take to make your product successful.
I should also note, that despite all the effort to ensure a product appeals to customers, definitive answers are rare. The goal is to achieve a reasonable level of confidence – a probability field of dreams, if you will.
5: Make the Upfront Investment
What I’m proposing can be time-consuming, but I focus on doing all of it efficiently (try timeboxing your activities to one or two weeks). And ultimately I find that it’s time well spent. It’s an upfront investment that avoids the scramble, finger-pointing, and slow, quiet panic that sets in once you realize you’ve launched an unsuccessful product and spent months/years doing it.