How product managers can discover customer needs and build the right product
I’m often asked by product managers on their journey to product master what books they should read. I have a new one to recommend. It covers a broad perspective helpful to less experienced product managers all the way to those who are leading other product managers. It covers:
- How to think like a product manager,
- How to have influence in an organization,
- Several specific tactics that extend from idea through product launch, and
- A plan for structuring your career growth.
The book is The Influential Product Manager and it was written by our guest, Ken Sandy. Ken has over 20 years of experience in technology product management. He served as VP of Product Management at online education companies, MasterClass and lynda.com, and is currently an advisor for startup and scale-up companies.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[8:07] How can we discover customer needs?
It’s so important for product managers to not outsource the most important part of their job—engaging with customers. The product manager’s job is not to build the product right. It’s to build the right product. How are you going to know what the right product is unless you spend time with your customers and understand their problems?
Value both qualitative and quantitative research. Quantitative helps you find market opportunities, spot trends, and know what customers are doing with your product. Qualitative gives you nuggets of insight about the underlying root needs. Don’t overlook qualitative research. Discovery is long-term process of both getting into the data and going out into the market.
Don’t make customer discovery harder than it needs to be. If you think you need a time-consuming, expensive process, you’re going to do it less often. Instead, incrementally learn new things, using what you have. Do customer discovery early, often, and inexpensively. Focus on a few hypotheses at a time and meet many customers over a long period of time. All the little things add up to really big things.
[17:07] How have you seen organizations change after developing a more customer-focused culture?
In one organization, product managers were emboldened by having data about customers, and they built the confidence to tell the founder when he was wrong. He gained confidence in them because they had the context to make better decisions.
I’ve seen a lot of success with exposing people throughout the organization, not just product managers, to customer discovery. Share the experience throughout the organization so that you all have empathy. It creates common language, a sense of purpose, commonality. There may be resistance, but it’s very impactful.
[20:18] How do we move from customer insights to developing the right product (specification)?
There’s a big gap between understanding your customers’ needs and encapsulating that into something useful your team can build into a solution. Discovery and specification are parallel processes that should both be happening constantly.
First, you must immerse yourself in the problem space. Devel0p a shared understanding of the problem and your constraints. Agree on what success will look like. It’s challenging to not jump to solutions. If you think you have an understanding of the problem, you probably don’t. You might be working on the wrong problem. Zoom out and understand the true problem.
If you don’t spend time creating shared context with your team, you risk de-motivating your team. You don’t want them questioning why the product is valuable or why they’re putting time into it. Without agreement at the beginning about what success looks like, you could roll out a product you think is really successful and find your stakeholders completely unhappy with it. If you are clear with your goals, you’re setting yourself up to inspire and empower your team.
[26:50] How do we communicate the criteria for success?
There are different ways to communicate success requirements (one template is in my book), but all templates should include five critical elements:
- Written hypothesis: Articulate your goal as a learning outcome. Even if you’re wrong, it’s okay because you’ll still learn.
- Measurable outcome: Identify the metric in the business or customer-centric metric you’re trying to drive forward. If that metric is lagging or hard to measure, develop some leading indicators that you can measure more quickly. I often write these measures as success criteria.
- Be clear on constraints in a useful way: Start with solving a smaller problem. You might want to eventually apply your solution broadly, but start with a small audience or one product.
- Be clear on your jobs to be done and user stories for the target customer.
- Share only potential solution approaches. Leave it open for the team to collaboratively come up with the actual solution.
Action Guide: Put the information Ken shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Check out Ken’s book, The Influential Product Manager, on Amazon
- Visit Ken’s website
- Connect with Ken on LinkedIn
“We always want to create something new out of nothing, and without research, and without long hard hours of effort, but there is no such thing as a quantum leap. There is only dogged persistence—and in the end you make it look like a quantum leap.” – James Dyson
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