Finding Your Product Advocate

Illustration by Tomi Um @ Dutch Uncle

The two biggest challenges, in my opinion, when designing an enterprise SaaS product are getting time with the people who are using the product, and understanding the complexities and minutiae of their corporate environment. Both of these challenges go hand-in-hand.

This coupled with the million-and-one other responsibilities you have in a startup sometimes lead to you getting caught up and getting lost in your own ideas and assumptions. David Cancel sums this up well:

Being customer-driven is like being fit, both are fairly obvious but we still seem to get both wrong. I think we all tend to overthink things and let biases creep in. The thing we all miss when this happens is that we aren’t creating products just for ourselves, we are here to serve the customer. Simple but not easy to do.

Designing For Others

It’s often the case that, when joining a startup building an enterprise product as a product designer, you will not be an expert in that startup’s subject area. When I joined Old St Labs in 2014, this was definitely the case. I was not an expert in the procurement space (Spoiler: I’m still not, and never will be, but I’m learning more everyday). Talking to our customers, people whose careers have been spent learning and understanding the complexities of procurement, is key to getting up-to-speed with the knowledge you need to acquire to help the product succeed.

It’s so easy to design a product for yourself. It’s challenging to design a product for a customer you know. It’s almost impossibly difficult to design it for someone you’ve never met before.

Finding Willing Participants

It can be hard to find people willing to lend their time to help you improve your product. This is doubly difficult in enterprise software where the consumers of your product are often not the ones who made the decision to use it.

The traditional top-down approach to implementing a product or service within an enterprise means finding someone who is able and willing to go above and beyond to help you improve your product is difficult. It really helps if you have someone within your customer’s organisation who can own this.

The Turning Point

The role of collecting information and feedback from our customers typically fell on our amazing Customer Success team (who are hiring, if you’re interested). I’d have catch-ups with them to see how things were going, and if there was anything I could do to improve the product on the back of their feedback. After hearing about a particularly engaged user advocating for Vizibl within his organisation, I, curious to learn more, asked if I could sit in on one of their customer calls that week, just listening in while muted.

After hearing about one particular user, and how engaged he was, I was curious to learn more.

I first met Andy (real person, fake name) on his weekly customer call with Customer Success. He was tasked within his company to help implement our product, Vizibl, across a range of teams and divisions. His role also included getting the information scattered in Excel spreadsheets and email exchanges into the product, enabling him to help the teams get started with Vizibl.

He was a lovely guy, very patient, and clearly understood the way we worked. I didn’t end up listening while muted; I couldn’t help but start chatting with this guy. We ended up having a great discussion about the direction he felt the product needed to go, as well as what it needed to be successful in his organisation. Talking through your product with an engaged user who genuinely wanted to make it better was something that I knew didn’t happen often with enterprise software.

It then hit me like a ton of bricks: this guy was really special.

Andy was prepared to give us his time and feedback, helping us to build a better product for him. He made himself available for a call every week to discuss the product. He talked about how his organisation uses the product, as well as how his workflow was enhanced and obstructed by Vizibl. Perhaps most importantly, he advocated for us internally, as well as providing an excellent conduit to the frustrated voices of users that would’ve gone unheard if it weren’t for Andy.

Andy was our product advocate.

Finding Your Product Advocate

If you can find someone who is willing to lend you their time and attention to help you improve your product, you need jump into that opportunity with both feet. They’re hard to find, but they’re worth their weight in gold for a product team iterating on an solution for the enterprise.

I would never have realised how valuable Andy was hearing his feedback second hand from our Customer Success team. Not that they were hiding him from me, of course, but because the real value in product advocates is hearing and questioning them first-hand. Being able to hear exactly how they word their issue, combined with asking the right why questions at the right moments lead to those little nuggets of truth that make an okay product good, and a good product great. I’ve certainly found a few of those talking to Andy.

So if you’re in a similar situation: a designer in a growing product company; feeling like you’re not really understanding the roles and fields involved; and looking for a sense of direction, get yourself on the next customer call. You might find the advocate you’re looking for.

Thanks for listening!


If you thought this post was helpful or you’ve found yourself in a similar situation please ❤ below or reach out to me on twitter at @nickpeasant — would love to hear more about it.