Hi there 👋 nice to meet you. Let me tell you a fun fact about me.
I’m the Head of Product for an erotic audio service for womxn.
Yep, you read that right: A platform with more than 2000 erotic audio stories targeted at womxn. That statement alone has proven enough to raise a few eyebrows; the fact that I am a man in this position usually adds a few inches to the eyebrow-raise.
In the short time since I started at the company, I’ve already lost count of how many people have chuckled and asked me for more juicy details. I usually explain the mission of the company—to support womxn in leading a self-determined life by inspiring them to enjoy pleasure in their own terms. I tell them how female pleasure has been (and still is) an underdeveloped market, and how there should be nothing taboo about self-pleasure and sexuality. The follow-up question is usually not as straightforward to respond to; I’ve heard it phrased in different ways but it goes something like this:
“Wouldn’t a woman be a better fit for that job?”
A perfectly reasonable question. Wouldn’t someone that fits into the target user persona make a better product manager? Especially in a product that touches such an intimate topic as sexuality and masturbation?
While I know that someone from the target demographic could do an exceptional job in my role, I don’t believe their success would be tied to their closeness to the target user. In fact, I think relying too much on that could do more harm than good. Let’s imagine you started working on a product that not only has you as a target demographic but it’s one you actually use.
You are still a single user
Even in this hypothetically ideal situation, while you might have an initial advantage, the reality is that you’re still a single human. You have your individual way of using the product, your individual tech-savviness, your individual expectations and knowledge for said product. There might be some features that you love using that other users don’t even know exist, you might be an Android user (or iOS), you might always have your phone on silent or you might always allow notifications, you might own a smartwatch, or a smart voice assistant… all those hypotheticals might affect the way you use the product, thereby giving you a very singular point of view that’s difficult to detach from.
Believing that your personal experience of a product is representative of your users as a whole because you fit the demographic is simply not true, actually…
By all other metrics, you’re one of the least representative users
Just by the nature of the job they have, product managers tend to fit the profile of tech-savvy, early adopter, power users. That makes them a terrible proxy for general users, and optimizing your product based on that profile will very likely make it fail (unless you’re building a product for product managers, in which case please ignore me).
Tech-savvy people are relatively rare; maybe not in your industry or in your group of friends, but pick a hundred random people on the street and see how many of them know how to clear their cache.
Early adopters are, by definition, a small percentage of your addressable market (and also the easiest to convince to use a new product). They’re also in some ways the least demanding of users: They want to try new stuff and are willing to forgive rough edges and some bugs, at least more than regular users.
Power users are just great. We all love power users. There’s nothing that beats seeing them using every little feature you’ve released and tripling the average weekly sessions. Unfortunately, by definition they’re also rare and they are probably the users you should least worry about (they’re already highly engaged).
But those are not the only issues…
You’re also emotionally invested in your product
You really want your product to succeed, your life… ok that’s exaggerating a bit… your job and professional satisfaction depend on it. You’ve also seen first hand the effort and love that has been put into building and improving the product, you understand (and forgive) the technical limitations that affect the product’s stability and loading times. You know first hand why that “simple” feature that everyone is asking for requires a 6 month backend refactor and therefore has been deprioritised.
It’s your baby, and as a recent father I can tell you that your baby is always going to be the cutest and most talented baby there ever was.
Unfortunately, just like no-one wants to see 1000 pictures of my extraordinary baby, not every user cares about any budget, time or technical limitations. They want their problem solved and they want it solved now.
So… what to do then?
Am I saying here that being part of your target demographic necessarily puts you at a disadvantage? Not at all, it can in fact be very helpful, as long as you don’t think it can replace the single most important task a product manager has: Getting to know your actual users.
The method that has worked best for me is doing regular user interviews. I am not talking about usability tests (showing them a prototype and asking them to do a specific task), research panels, or any other type of qualitative data gathering, although I can also recommend doing those. I am talking about sitting down and talking to your users.
How was their life before using your product? How did they first hear about it? Why did they decide to try it? What were their first impressions? How do they use it? What do they like and dislike? Why are they still using it, or why did they churn? What would they change? How upset would they be if your product were to disappear and what replacement would they look for? What other product or services do they use?
As you ask these questions to more and more users (or potential users) you will start to see patterns emerge. After your 50th (or 70th, or 100th) user interview you will start to be surprised less often. This is a sign that you’ve reached the critical mass of interviews in a given timeframe and that you have a pretty good general picture.
Your work isn’t finished yet though, you now need to make head and tails of all that raw data. There are many ways you can structure it (user personas, Jobs to be done.. ) and which one you want to start with is up to you and will depend on your type of product, users, what information you want to extract from the data, and even your personal taste. An important point to remember is that you can (and should) map out this data into more than one of these frameworks: Each of them might give you a different insight into your product that you can use.
You don’t want to limit the insights you get into your product to just you, but you also don’t want to limit it to a specific subset of users. Make sure you recruit the broadest variety of profiles possible: Active and churned users, and users from all the range of ages and backgrounds within your target groups. It will be easier to find extroverted, young, tech savvy, power users to interview, but you need to make sure you also get introverted, middle-aged, churned users. Try to deprioritize interviewing users that are most similar to you: You already have yourself to answer their questions and your answers are always going to be louder in your brain than those of other users.
As the icing on the cake you should also book interviews with non-users: People that belong to your target demographic but don’t use your product (yet). The questions you will ask will be slightly different, but you will get invaluable insights into the mentality of your target demographic. This will be especially important for products that are still in their growth phase: You need to uncover the obstacles that prevent potential users from adopting your product and people that did convert to actual users will not be able to provide that information.
One last piece of advice: If you really want to get valuable insights you need to dig deep into your users’ motivations and feelings and this can be a challenging experience for those of us that are a bit more introverted. If you’re not feeling slightly too pushy on an interview you are probably not going deep enough. Always be respectful and get the point across that there are no right and wrong answers and that they of course can decline answering any question they want to, but don’t stop yourself from asking in the first place.
Being the target demographic of the product you work on can definitely be helpful. But believing it’s all you need to understand your users can be far more damaging than any slight advantage it might initially provide. Speak to your users, and do it regularly, to really get into their wants and needs.
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