How do awesome products come about?

22 Feb 2017

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Getting to what customers want, not what they think they want, is key to the success of a product manager and consequently to the success of the product itself.

Product managers are usually bombarded with ideas for new features, improvements on features, bugs and often a direct ask from a customer. Whether these requests can be directly built into the product or need deeper research often depend on the lifecycle of the product. A great PM separates herself from mediocre ones by digging into customer conversations to find a bigger, better more value story for the customer and consequently for the product. A recent presentation that I saw used the model T image here is quite instructive and as a PM you don’t want to be trapped with a horse when your customer wants a car.

Horse before car (credit Wikimedia)

Here are some tips that great product managers use to nail customer research:

  • Go through support tickets: Support tickets are like being in an ER room, there is a level of urgent response that is required all the time. That said, a great PM discerns and finds the pattern in the issues and brings it into the product backlog vs jumping heroically on every issue. Support engineers are the heroes in the picture and there isn’t a need for another one. Remember Batman succeeds because Alfred exists.
  • Listen, listen and listen to the field: Your field (customer success, sales engineering, support) are direct lines to your customers. Listen to what they are saying. A good metaphor, is to think of the field as weather sensors and it is your job to discern the weather patterns over a region. The challenge often is that given the time/budget constraints, you won’t be able to build rain shelters in all the places (it is raining heavily in San Jose as I write this) and setting relevant expectations goes a long way. The advantage of getting the feedback from the field is that issues have been condensed and up-leveled to keep urgency away and focus on importance. Great PMs focus on getting to the problem and have discipline to ignore the solution that comes from field in some cases. A PM may get to the same solution but directly consuming a solution from the field or customer is laziness.
  • Get on customer calls with field: Be a fly on the wall and don’t actively participate on customer calls.
    • Don’t taint a customer call: By bringing in privileged knowledge that the field doesn’t have. Great PMs have to empathise with customers and understand the challenges that field faces
    • Actively propose product hypothesis to customers: Be active on some calls, you do need to push a product investment hypothesis to validate with customers.
    • It is hard choosing between the above two modes. So you decide upfront before you get on the call – know if you are a fly or going to pitch on the call. Know what’s what and notify your field counterpart accordingly before you get on the call.
  • Do customer visits: This is really the nub of getting feedback. I wrote a number of blogs about this aspect, so summarising here:
    • Be an intern: when you get to customers, tell them that you are an intern and let them walk you through how they deal with your product or problems in your domain.
    • Stop showing off: Do not offer any advice or show how they can solve the problem with the product before they have gone through the litany of issues. Hear through all the use cases and problems.
    • Pitch product at the tail end of the interview: it shouldn’t be all take, there is some give too :-). Pitch product if it truly solves the problem that they raised in the interview
    • Validate hypothesis: pitch what’s on your roadmap to validate if they will find value in what you build
    • Use power questions: “What’s on your mind” to begin interviews and “What else is on your mind” to end interviews. These do a really good job of exhausting the problem space that you can solve for. “Tell me more” is another great tip to get into details of a problem domain from customers.
    • Summarise: Finally, summarise the visits in internal wikis, share with other product managers and engineers. A customer visit should be used to expand understanding of a domain with everyone in the company.

Improvements in product or life, don’t happen magically or are solved magic bullets. Process changes and focusing on implementing processes is what brings success long term. Incorporate the above ideas in your customer research process and you will build great products.

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