Always remember, you’re not the customer. Even if you are.
As product managers, we all have our favorite features in any product release.
You know what I’m talking about—the UI-Panel that’s that cool shade of metallic purple, or the way a switch clicks, or the smart tips that appear when the user takes certain actions. We know in our heart of hearts that our feature is what’ll really make the product sell. Because, after all, we’re consumers of the product, and we know that we love this feature. So everyone else will too.
Hence, we fight for the feature.
But we’re wrong to do that.
Even if we happen to be right once or twice, statistically we’re going to be wrong more often than not. And worse, we probably won’t know we’re wrong until something about our product is a public failure. (Or, even worse, we don’t ever know, the product just won’t do well, and we will keep making the same mistake at that or other companies.)
It’s like gambling—the house wins in the end.
With rare exceptions (Steve Jobs & Co. come to mind), a single person cannot best represent the customer’s future needs.
The blunt truth is that most product managers are neither perfect samples of the customer base they’re representing, nor trend-setting visionaries who can single-handedly design something so brilliant that on seeing it, customers know it’s what they have always wanted to own.
Since the goal of product management is to set forth requirements for a successful product—a product that is beloved by users and makes the company ragingly successful—we need to improve our odds of being right about what customers want. We need to be more than one data point.
We need to go out and get to know our customers, in both an anecdotal way and a data driven way.
I’d therefore suggest the following simple steps that you can practice on your friends and in the privacy of your own home:
Go have a meal with your most important customers, and with at least a few customers no one has ever heard of. Why? Food makes people happy and loquacious. Come prepared with a set of five crucial questions, but make sure the first question is always simply, “How’s it going, and what sucks?”
As soon as you’re done listening, go find somewhere quiet and write down as much of what they said as you can remember. Taking notes during the chat can disrupt the flow of conversation, so if you are planning to take notes do so respectfully and sparingly, if at all.
Don’t be swayed excessively by passion, noise, or drama on the part of the customer; the loudest yelling or biggest spending customers are often not the most representative of the wider base. Also be sure you chat with at least a few customers who’ve abandoned your product or chosen competitors over you.
After you’ve chatted with a lot of folks, and possibly even issued a more formal survey, honestly and rigorously look at the data. Are there trends? What’s the pattern behind the comments? What’s the root problem to which customers are seeking solution? Remember, it’s not about your opinions or their opinions—it’s about deep underlying needs. As Ben Horowitz said when I was at Netscape, “Good product managers listen to customers [and] they probe deeper into the underlying problems.”
In short—you are not the customer, but you are the distilled collective voice of all of the customers. To paraphrase Stan Lee of Marvel fame (that’s comics, not semiconductors): you have a lot of power and a lot of responsibility—act accordingly.
Now, go champion something great.