The one spontaneous ovation at this year’s London MTPCon was when Drift CEO David Cancel muttered “I hate agile” as an aside while he was on stage. Agile, a revolutionary idea 10 years ago, has clearly lost its shine for many people.
However, almost all the product teams I know use some agile methods, and they are certainly great tools to break down mega projects into manageable parts, to bring back flexibility to the development process or make it easier to estimate resources. But many people feel they have become story point implementing machines, and the focus on agile has meant that the original goals of focusing on clients and end users have become lost along the way. For them agile looks like a needless abstraction layer between the development team and their customers. How can we bring customers back into the picture?
More customer insights with continuous research
Firstly, if you want to get closer to your customers you need continuous research. There are two main areas that I believe need to be covered. The first area is feedback from your target audience about your existing product. This means user tests with your product or prototype. Our UX minimum checklist for example suggests at least one user test each week to give you the feedback necessary to build a great product.
The other area is product discovery. Your target group’s unsolved pains and needs will enable you to identify new opportunities. The most common methods uncovering these are interviewing and field research, but diary studies and experience sampling are also good ideas. If you have an existing product I would suggest you try out jobs to be done interviews, which will help you to uncover the real reason that people use your product. In my experience you often get a surprising result which will lead to a rethink of your product’s real goal, and how you develop it further. Product discovery methods often result in new feature or product ideas. For example when we were conducting interviews for a stock trading product, the two major problems that almost everyone mentioned were market analysis and the mental challenges they had. There are many different aspects to analysing market data, and there are many tools to help you too. But the second problem, mental challenges like control of your emotions, is a new and untapped area.
The trick is to do product discovery continuously too. Marty Cagan suggests a dual-track scrum approach. In this method a small part of the team works on product discovery, while the rest work on designing and building the validated feature ideas. If you don’t have that many people you can spend some time with discovery every month and have a strategy meeting in every two or three months to sum up the findings and decide on the direction.
Bring your team closer to your customers
Research is time-consuming, so most teams have separate researcher positions or they work with experienced external researchers. But how can you share all your findings with the design and development team?
The goal is to give the first-hand experience of your customers to everyone in your team. One way of achieving this is to get everyone to do a small amount of support work, a few tickets per month for example. In many companies developers attend a usability test from time to time. In the enterprise world visiting some sales demos can be an eye-opener too.
A great UX design team can help you to facilitate different kinds of workshops. Design workshops can help to align the team and get everyone on board. You can build up your personas or customer journeys together based on the research results.
Ideation sessions can also help. When you discover new user pains the team should come together and brainstorm on features and products to solve them. It’s also useful to hold common sketching workshops when you try to solve bigger usability flaws. You can use the design studio method, which can help you to balance individual and group thinking, giving everyone the time to think about ideas on their own. These workshops usually take just a few hours, but by the end all participants will have better understanding of user pains and possible solutions. They work the best when you invite people with different backgrounds: developers, designers and business people should attend.
Another trick I always use is to put up posters on the office walls. If you want your team to think about different user pains, you can put them up on the wall, so everyone will see them all the time, and in time someone will come up with a good idea.
Showcase customers in your agile metrics
There is no real connection between metrics like velocity and customer satisfaction. You can develop features with a huge number of story points, but it doesn’t mean you solve real customer pains. Some teams drop metrics like velocity, and different estimation numbers and just start to kanbanize their efforts. If you are not ready to do that you can still highlight customer pains in your metrics, and take these into consideration when you prioritise tasks.
One idea is to group the development tasks from your backlog into the following four big categories:
- Metrics movers: With these features we can achieve short-term business goals and reassure investors.
- Under-the-hoods: Refactoring and rebuilding. These help us prevent technical debt and maintain a good code quality.
- User needs: Usability issues and user requests. These improvements will give a sense of quality to our customers.
- Strategic, innovative: These features or products can bring us closer to our long-term goals. In many cases solving a newly discovered user pain will be put here.
Have you played with Sims? In Sims you always see your characters’ needs (hunger, hygiene, social, fun), and you have to act if one of the needs bars turns red. Your product is just like a Sims character and these four categories are its needs. Of course we want to focus on user needs and strategic goals, but sometimes you have to take care of under-the-hood tasks too. You can tag each task with one of these four categories, and it will show which area you should focus on now. This will help you to make more conscious decisions when you decide what to do next.
Summary: put customers back in the spotlight
As product managers our goal is to build products that people love. We can’t hide behind methodologies, we should focus on the people we design and build for. So it’s time to take back control. Always keep one eye on customers and never stop doing research. You can choose from the long list of research methods. Build a culture where not just you but everyone is in touch with customers, where everyone knows their pain and tries to solve their problems. And display these efforts in your metrics too. No one said it’s easy, especially in big organisations. But it’s possible, and who else will do it, if not us, the product managers?