Building a product-led culture by frequently speaking to your users
One of the first lessons you learn as a product manager is to build the right solution, you first need to speak to the people who are experiencing the problem you are solving.
You need to understand your user’s goals, what your product does well to support these and what it doesn’t do so well. Speaking to your users irregularly, or not at all, guarantees your product’s failure - there’s no beating around the bush.
Product usage data can help us highlight high-level problem areas, for example, a checkout step on our E-commerce store - but it doesn’t tell us that users want more payment methods, that our brand isn’t trustworthy, or that we’re missing common and expected fields such as “delivery notes”. These details and the reasons behind them are only understood by speaking to users.
Once we’ve identified high-level problem areas of underperformance, how are the tools we have at our disposal to find out the nitty-gritty of what our users want? Thankfully, there are several methods we can use.
I will outline the tools here that I use daily, but they are not one size fits all. Depending on the problem you’re solving and it’s complexity as well as the time and resource you have available - some methods may be more suitable than others. I will outline below, how and when I use these techniques to enhance my understanding of a problem.
When kicking off a new quarter, new product or initiative, it can feel like a huge effort to get these tools in place to speak to your users. That’s why I advocate to get them in place as soon as possible. At the point you need them, these tools will be working and your team will be in regular contact with your users. Regular contact will result in a rich repository of feedback and insights that you can draw upon whenever you need to. That is the moment that these tools feel like a superpower - when at any given moment, you can draw upon all of the knowledge you have about how users feel regarding a specific piece of functionality, without needing 4 weeks to conduct the research up-front. So let’s get started…
Doughnut customer club
One of the simplest and lowest effort methods to collect feedback is the “doughnut club”. It’s simple…
Buy a box of doughnuts, go out into the streets and start offering folks a sweet treat in exchange for a couple of minutes of their time. You’ll be surprised how well this works. I recommend going in the morning before lunch or mid-afternoon for the best results.
It’s great to do this with two of you - one of you can ask questions while the other takes notes. Be friendly, open and non-confrontational - people will normally have a useful opinion for you: positive or negative. This is also the perfect opportunity to build internal empathy with product problems too - take an engineer or a marketing person to watch their reaction and see their enthusiasm for the problem grow when they’re confronted with live feedback.
However, be cautious. The people you speak to aren’t necessarily your target audience, so bear this in mind when you report your findings.
Session replay cinema club
Tools like Hotjar enable you to easily record your user’s product sessions to replay back at a later date. This again provides a great opportunity to build a collective empathy internally for the user and the problems they encounter. I have done this by setting up a “Cinema club” - we grab popcorn and drinks to munch on while we watch sessions focused on a specific feature or problem area of our product.
This session will generate good discussion amongst your team, so it’s useful to assign a note-taker who shares any CTAs at the end of the meeting.
You will need to focus this session on specific URLs or an area of your product so this method assumes you have an idea of where a problem exists in the first place. Watching session replays without any initial direction can be a fruitless exercise.
User interviews - phone calls
Speaking to genuine users of your product in person generates the most interesting feedback and insights. Getting in a room with users, face to face, allows you to read their body language whilst listening to what they have to say. Geographically it’s not always possible to be in the same place - phone or video calls are the next best thing.
Off the bat, these would seem more effort than they are to setup. I make use of the footer of the Vinterior newsletter email. I include a message about providing feedback to our product team - with a friendly picture of me and a link to a Calendly schedule. This is the cheat code. By connecting with Calendly you make it simple for users to book a convenient time for you and them. I would recommend optimising your copy and instructions within Calendly to minimise friction for the user - 15-minute slots are a not-to-scary time slot size. Finally, you will probably need to incentivise users to book a session with you in the first place - coupons normally work fine.
This approach usually yields a couple of phone calls per week with users that last anywhere from 15-45 minutes. By now, you should be realising just how quickly the touchpoints with your users start to add up - providing continuous feedback for your product team.
Again, the segment of user this attracts is varied, but at least now they’re users of your product. If you wanted to optimise this further you could use a tool like Intercom to target specific users with a CTA for your Calendly event, dependent on a specific set of actions performed within your product. Your CRM tool should have this ability too.
I find it useful to maintain a list of “areas of interest” that I use as a prompt for these phone calls. It includes some basic conversation starters and swiftly moves on to questions regarding areas of the product or assumptions I have that I am particularly interested in digging deeper on.
User interviews - face 2 face
Effort: medium / hard
This is the same as the previous method, but “in real life”. Where possible I would recommend going to your user and taking the time to speak to them in their environment. This will result in them feeling more comfortable - they’ll, therefore, be more likely to open up to you. As I said previously, being able to witness body language as a user responds to your question is extremely valuable and often more telling than the words they say. When someone is frustrated or has a problem they can’t solve, you can see the tension in their body and expression on their face. Equally, when someone is passionate or enthusiastic about something, they will show it just as much in their smile or when their eyes light up.
This method is more effort simply due to the organisation surrounding the meet. It just needs more thought, particularly around availability and travel. My approach to starting a conversation or booking wouldn’t vary too much from the phone-call approach mentioned previously.
Focus groups are the hardest customer feedback method to organise, requiring the largest amount of effort. Simply coordinating a time, date and place that a group of your users can all meet up and attend is logistically hard in comparison to the other methods. Focus groups are more prone to being organised on an ad-hoc basis - rather than automated - when you have a new area of focus to drill down on.
The benefit of focus groups is that you can reach a collective consensus on a problem or assumption, which can hold greater weight than one or two individual interviews. However, the thing to be aware of though is heard mentality. One strong voice in the group can easily influence and dictate the feedback from others. It’s therefore really important to have a strong facilitator in place to keep the conversation on track and to give everyone in the group the necessary space to feedback in their own voice.
Remote user testing
Platforms like usertesting.com are perfect for getting feedback on your product. From very early prototypes to high fidelity designs, or even a coded, working version of your product.
If you’re not familiar with it, remote user testing involves writing a short script, or one or two questions, for a professional tester to record themselves answering whilst using your prototype or product.
I use this to get broad feedback about early prototypes or designs. Do we put the navigation horizontally across the top or down the left-hand side of the screen? Is this 2-step process as simple to follow as we think it is?
Testing can be turned around in a matter of hours - maintaining your momentum as you develop a solution.
Usertesting.com is one tool, but there are a bunch of them out there. The better tools allow you to self-recruit your audience or to target a specific audience organised by the platform. Expect to pay a premium for these features.
Surveys are one of the easiest ways to capture some feedback from your users, but you should use them as a pre-cursor to other methods outlined in this post. Surveys are really useful too for asking a segment of users a specific question (or questions) you’re interested in. The fewer questions you ask the higher the response rate. Besides, questions with discrete answers e.g. multiple choice, are more simple to analyse than continuous ones (e.g. free-text) but are often less rich in terms of the insights and learnings you get.
Use your knowledge of your product and experience to choose what the right question is to ask. For example, if I can see a steep drop-off rate through a checkout process, I might draw upon the existing knowledge of the team, insights we’ve previously collected and my own experience and intuition to create a short-list of multiple-choice options. The results of this survey would usually garner a prioritised list of where I should start to work with the team to either collect more feedback from users or to start problem-solving.
I would use an open-ended question when I have an assumption or a hypothesis that I might be trying to support with more evidence. For example, on the product page of an E-commerce site, I might ask: “Is there any information that is missing from this page that you would find useful?”. This would generate a broad range of feedback that a product team could pour-over and start prioritising.
I use one question surveys where possible. Surveys are distracting enough as it is when you’re trying to do something online. It’s best to be considerate of your users here.
Customer service interactions
Most organisations will have some sort of customer services team and they’re usually speaking to customers all day every day, weekends too. The trick here is to work with this team to make it as simple as possible for them to surface insights and feedback, all day long.
Feedback from your CS team will generate a continuous flow of information that you can use to aid product discovery and point you in the right direction of where you might need to do further investigation. The trade-off is that this information isn’t predictable or focused - it could come from any user at any point in their experience and relate to any part of your product. Organise it, store it and monitor it - patterns will start to emerge over time regarding where customers are having problems with your product.
I used Product Board to store this information. Product Board allows me to organise, tag and add notes to feedback. I don’t always need immediate access to it but when called upon, searchable insights that I can draw upon to quickly get up to speed about a feature is invaluable.
This post provides a multitude of methods that can be put in place to speak to your product’s users regularly. In this list are some of those, but it doesn’t mean it’s exhaustive. I have highlighted those methods that require more effort to implement than others. Each approach delivers different value too. It’s down to you as the Product Manager for your product to provide your team with this toolset and to ensure both of you are putting these methods into practice.