Getting the balance right between leading the user and the user leading you

Jimmy Leach, who works on communications at aio* on how listening to the user is key, but leading the market isn’t a bad idea either.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

At some point in history, someone somewhere looked at the undercarriage of a cow and said ‘whatever comes out when I pull those, I’m going to drink it’.

There was no user need for cows’ milk. No customer feedback that suggested that bovine protein was the Next Big Thing. Someone recognised a problem (thirst, hunger) and had a solution for it.

Few products come from so far out of left field as that, but products can lead markets rather than follow (think Model T Ford, iPad, Netflix), ones built from requirements we didn’t know we had. Product managers (and the management around them) must accept that while the user needs are King, even the most powerful monarchs need a Thomas Cromwell figure to lead the decision-making process.

Many digital products, like say aio*, are trying to make their users behave differently. In aio*’s case it’s to empower employees without having to constantly ask for management permission to make the decisions that allow them to deliver in their jobs. In making those changes to consumer behaviour, you learn a lot about their actions and their needs and the user journeys which will suit them best.

And that’s part of a constant process. In the evolution of any product, it’s right that those who actually consume your products or who use your services are the ones who dominate your thoughts. Listen to what they say, incorporate their feedback. Get the personas right; test early and often with ‘real users’; get those feedback loops working. Build around the customer needs. Its constant dialogue with users and stakeholders. That’s crucial, it build empathy and understanding, as you listen to their difficulties.

Hence the changes to the layout and navigation that we announced for *aio last week. In a service product like this, especially financial, the user journey and the interactions are crucial and we listened to user feedback and made those changes.

As time goes by, we’d expect to make more — the refinements of new products fall out of those continuing (and evolving) user needs. The job is to listen, understand, and break down the user requirements and prioritise the issues of process, design or product that we can address.

It’s the ‘what next’ that’s the skillful part. Somebody, somewhere in this whole process has to make decisions. Not every decision can be handed over to the democracy of the user. Sometimes, it’s about leadership — users provide problems, product managers provide solutions — listening to what’s wanted; working out what’s needed; delivering what’s required and maximising what’s possible.

I’m hopeful we’ll get it right.