Product & Community: A match made in heaven
This post originally appeared on the CMX blog and was co-authored with me by Natalia Krasnodebska. I’m re-posting as I am still super proud of the work Natalia and I did together, and we both still get great feedback on this post despite no longer having the pleasure of working together. Enjoy!
As community builders, we sit between a business and its customers.
We champion our community members, but our ultimate goal is to empower a community to improve a business. While there are myriad ways to do this, eliciting and sharing product feedback often becomes a core part of our work.
When this is the case, it’s essential that we align our work with those building the products that our communities use. That’s when your friendly product manager enters the picture.
A product manager’s goal is to build features that solve the needs of your customers and your business. Community managers’ goals are to grow, engage, listen and to advocate improvements for the community.
While these goals align on the surface, we’ve seen many product and community teams grow disillusioned while working together. They often seem to speak two different languages, even though their goals are grounded with the same roots.
At Shapeways, we carved out a way to work together, and the results are hard to ignore — we created better products that delight our communities.
For Natalia (Community Manager), community work is about involving the community and increasing engagement. For Kate (Product Manager), product work is about iterating on our products: define, test and get feedback from our users directly. We’ve crafted a system for making these two roles work together.
Over the last few years, we’ve worked hard to represent our community of makers in all stages of the product development process. We have found ways to empower our community to:
- Share feedback on early versions of new products
- Give usability feedback
- Send bug reports
- Spread excitement about new features
An example was the launch of 3D tools, a toolkit of on-site model editing features. A huge undertaking for our team, this project incorporated community involvement from its start.
We began with a pilot group of 40 people who helped us define the tools, then we rolled it to a bigger group of 500 for testing. Finally, we released it to 760 beta users in a “sneak peek” prior to public release.
At each stage, pilot users gave us critical feedback, found bugs, and made UX suggestions that ultimately resulted in a beautiful, functional feature. They also became early advocates for new users trying it out.
How did we do it?
We will take you through how community builders and product managers can work closely together and why you should begin to foster a relationship between community and product to grow your business to the next level.
How Do You Start a Relationship Between Community and Product?
Community and product were not always on the same wavelength at Shapeways, but we both cared a lot about strengthening the relationship. We started by building a close personal relationship and then looked for a systematic way to check in on ongoing projects. We initially set up a weekly one-on-one meeting where we went over each project that we were considering working on, and Natalia (community) helped Kate (product) understand the community perspective on each.
Initial Steps to Building a Community-Product Partnership
As a Product Manager, here are two things you can do to start to build this relationship:
- Identify the goals of your community team and figure out how your projects can help them succeed. If you don’t know their goals, grab your friendly local community manager and take them to coffee. Understanding their hopes and dreams will help you both communicate better.
- Figure out a system to get continual community team input on your projects– a weekly one-on-one meeting worked for us, but inviting a representative from the community team to join your stand-ups or some other status meeting are also great options.
As a Community Professional, you can take two actions to start to build this relationship:
- Collect and synthesize community feedback on an ongoing basis. How we did this at Shapeways is covered here.
- Match it up to your organization. Ask: who could best benefit from each piece of feedback? Are there themes that match to goal groups or specific product managers? Give it to them in a format they can use (not sure what that is? Ask!)
For both of us, it’s important to understand each others’ goals and be cognizant of them whenever making decisions.
How We Organized Our Regular Check-Ins
As the community manager, Natalia shared with Kate how Shapeways users will respond to a feature, using a community builder’s well-developed “spidey sense”. Being able to predict the future is a handy tool to have in your back pocket as a PM, so we start the meeting by going over each item I’m working through.
Natalia provides perspective on each project, including:
- What do our users care about relating to this area?
- How will they react to this feature?
- What are their current frustrations with this area?
- Is there something I’m overlooking?
- Is there something I’m not working on that they care more about?
- Is there a particular type of user who will be more or less affected by this that we should be extra conscious of?
Then we flip the tables: product takes time to share the questions they are asking from a product perspective and then we brainstorm how they can work with the community to answer them.
Some weeks, we don’t always have a meaty agenda of new projects to talk about, but we still go for a walk and grab coffee. It is important for us not to get out of the habit of checking in with one another and to cement our relationship. But even our casual meetings keep communication open and help us uncover the answers to larger questions.
How PMs and CMs Can Systematize This Communication
As any community builder can attest, personal connections are vital to community health. But it’s also important to systematize our interactions with product to ensure that we’re all on the same page.
Early on in each project, as discussed, our community manager and product manager jump in a meeting to figure out the best approach for how our community can be involved in a new product’s development and launch.
For smaller features, we may only include one or two elements– a few personal emails or gathering feedback from ongoing Voice Of Customer reports
For larger projects, we go all out: hundreds of our community members participate in pilot groups and in-person feedback sessions at our office.
The key in moving forward with any product-driven community initiative is that you need to know product’s key goal when starting any conversation with your users. So ask your PM what his/her goal for the project is. Once you know what a PM’s goal is, you can tailor a pilot group for them.
We had a Wiki page with resources for PMs as they are launching a project, which includes examples of different outreach that can be done, timelines, and a Google Form to get started.
On that form, we ask specifically for:
- The project goal
- Desired feedback or outcome from the community outreach
- Timeline: is this to research before development, do testing during development, or collect feedback to iterate after the minimum viable product has been built?
- What kind of project is it? What type of user are you looking for?
- What format do you want the group to be?
The community pro can then put together a relevant group of people to serve product’s needs.
How Do You Put Together a Relevant Group of People to Involve in Product Discussions?
Putting together that group of community members can be a challenge all on its own.
At Shapeways, we openly invited our community to be part of the “Shapeways Insiders” program. As part of that program, members self-select what they are interested in helping us pilot, whether it be new material options or input on web tools.
We supplement these people with targeted database queries and scouring our forums to see who is commenting on the topic at hand.
By being inclusive, we give the PM the best people to ask, but we are also able to pull in the people that care the most about any given topic. Having a large group also helps avoid fatigue from asking the same set of people for feedback every time we have a new idea.
Being flexible in how we invite users to give feedback also allows us to address key vocal users’ issues head-on in a way that makes them feel heard. We once had one customer who repeatedly complained about shipping to his country. In a trial of a new delivery service, we were sure to solicit his feedback on all his pain points so we could address them. Involving him in the solution engaged him deeply and ultimately gave him a great experience to share with others.
The Pilot groups gave us amazing real-time feedback on products as we build. Typically, once we had a working prototype in place, we open it up to a selected group of users as a part of their normal Shapeways experience.
While there are many ways to collect feedback, we found the interactive Google doc chat to be most effective. This low-tech technique is quick to set up, easy to share, and widely accessible.
We gave the pilot users full access to add comments, bugs, or ideas. There, our team can respond immediately to comments and our community sees what other issues have been reported. They get to see resolutions as they come in. We also had a Skype chat where our pilot testers and team members can chat in real time about issues. This ongoing collaboration gives the PMs immediate feedback, and the community gets direct input into what we build.
After a few rounds of bug-fixing and improving, sometimes we open a Google doc to a wider pilot group, and other times we get ready to release to our entire community.
What Can You Expect the Outcomes to Be?
Pilot testing and community feedback are invaluable. When there is a small army of pilot group users eager to share their insights with the broader community, you can rest assured that you’re not the only one with “the answers”.
With each release, you will also know that your language, supporting documentation, and features have all been thoroughly vetted by core users.
Our community also got the benefit of having a number of users who have already seen the feature and can comment on how much things have changed and help other community members get started using our new features. This helped galvanize other users and share excitement for new features and products.
As a product manager, this allows you to have confidence that you have built something valuable, which will address the concerns and problems of your community. As a community builder, you will have the confidence of doing right by your members and keeping them in the loop to incorporate them into your creation process.
Through a combination of community and product, you can consistently create an experience your customers will love.
How have you made the product + community relationship work? We would love to see your responses!