It seems hard to imagine now, but back in 1997, starting with the customer experience and eschewing waterfall were novel ideas in software development. For those early folks who saw the importance of delighting their customers, the pay off was great. Between then and now, the customer experience has become one of, if not the most important focal points of a business’ health and one metric has risen to become its benchmark: the net promoter score or NPS.
Our team uses NPS alongside other learning analytics to assess our curriculum’s ability to deliver meaningful experiences and learning outcomes. Over the last nine months, our coding bootcamp NPS has increased 35% to reach an elite level. It’s something we’re very proud of and the result of a lot of work. Nonetheless, this growth is something that’s more feasible than I ever expected.
Looking back, the five steps we took to achieve this growth over the last three quarters were not different from the elements of a typical design process, and in this way, very accessible to many teams in a variety of industries.
Whether or not you subscribe to the NPS as a metric that matters or recognize its flaws, these steps should equally support a better customer experience.
Step 1. Explore the Journey to find Needs
In my last post on rapidly growing a start-up team while shipping product, I described the importance of onboarding new hires with an overview of why you exist and how your customer interacts with your product along a journey from being being aware, to being its ambassador.
Having this existential question answered and customer journey mapped is also helpful when starting to answer the question: what the hell do we work on? For us the customer journey follows students from the time they enroll in our coding bootcamp, through their time as alumni.
When reviewing this journey early in our research, three questions helped extract potential improvements:
- What are the critical milestones and the smaller touch points in the journey?
- At what points do we collect data?
- What story does the data tell?
While analyzing data pertaining to critical customer milestones is obviously fruitful, I found that the richest data came from smaller customer touch points leading up to those milestones. Sometimes these influential touch points were just before critical customer milestones, but just as often, there were longer time gaps between them. For example, analyzing data from materials students experience before beginning a course revealed a lot about how it impacted their interview experiences after the bootcamp, a critical milestone and one on the other end of the student journey.
Outside the customer experience, there are other groups to trace a journey for. This is especially true in a high-touch, service-oriented industry like education, where other persona journeys run parallel to or overlap with the student experience. For example, we overlaid the student journey with the instructor and employer journeys to find occasions when an improved experience in one necessitated an update in another.
By overlapping the journeys it become clear just how much the whole experience represents a symbiotic ecosystem. If it weren’t for very helpful and engaged colleagues across teams, this sort of customer cartography wouldn’t have been possible, and it was a great way to initiate collaboration that would be needed later on.
Step 2. Filter Needs with Simple Tools
As the adage goes, if you try to do everything, you end up doing nothing well. As a new product manager, I also quickly saw that you could agonize over what to do well and end up doing nothing. There seems to be a million different ways you can prioritize a backlog, and I’m still learning the tradeoffs for each. After researching a few matrixes and canvases, however, I felt the onset of analysis paralysis quickly creeping in.
Ultimately, the Value Vs. Complexity Quadrant was a straight forward approach that narrowed our focus considerably.
The other method we used was the Product Portfolio matrix, which has you estimate the growth potential of features against the benefits they provide.
The Product Portfolio mix helped us make sure we had a healthy dose of new and validated features to keep things evolving. The product portfolio filter needs down to a reasonable backlog of work for the next quarter and beyond.
Looking back, there was a third filter, and that was filtering for solutions that lived within our swim lane. This isn’t to suggest against collaborating across different teams — we did a lot of that over the last few months — but rather that solutions that benefit cross-collaboration are prioritized over solutions that depend on cross-collaboration.
Looking forward, I see our team having more of these highly cross-functional projects down the road, but I think focusing on our swim lane first helped our rapidly expanding team get comfortable each other as well as with product thinking. We might not have nurtured as well if we jumped into highly cross-functional work.
Step 3. Define Your Work
With our needs identified and filtered, we just had to figure out how to focus our work and define success. One way to focus a roadmaps is by establishing a theme. Focusing a roadmap’s intention around a theme has two key benefits:
1. Themes are Practical
Focusing on a theme and not the development of new features doesn’t lock you to building things that you later learn are inadequate. Themes commit you to solving a customer problem. As you get deeper into the roadmap, some work may need to be re-scoped or abandoned, but if you stick to supporting a theme, you should be developing a more intimate understanding of the customer pain in the process.
2. Themes Unite
When the going gets tough (see step 5), you need a battle cry that’s more aspirational than we’re creating new video content or we’re writing new lesson plans. A customer-oriented theme that encapsulates a roadmap provides a steady drum beat during the grunt work and is a constant reminder of the larger goal at hand.
Looking at our filtered needs through this lens, two themes emerged, both with clear connections to our team’s reason for existence. Each became the focus of the next two quarters ahead.
While themes respond to incremental learning and don’t lock you into a future, you’ve got to channel momentum in a focused direction in order to get that learning. Insert Buddhist Kōan.
Just as there’s a million ways to decide what to work on, there’s equally as many ways to decide what to measure. I’m still researching various methods, but one approach I was already familiar with was Alex Osterwalder’s testing card. It asks four simple questions:
- We believe that:
- To test that we will:
- And measure:
- We are right if:
One addition we made was a follow up question to the last. We made ourselves answer the question, if correct we will __________.
Having this end in mind helped us while working on the solution, but unlike the other parts of the card, it was adapting to what we learned along the way.
Step 4. Publicize Internally
The next step we did was maybe the gutsiest thing we did, and one I’m really glad we decided on. We shared our roadmap with nearly all our internal stakeholders. We provided an overview of the main projects we would be working on in our first quarter, why we decided on those projects, and how we would be evaluating them. Not completely knowing what I was committing to, we promised monthly updates.
While having a strong internal resource documenting your product’s roadmap does not immediately solve an acute user pain point, I believe, especially in service-oriented areas like education, that having this type of clarity translates to a more confident and enthusiastic delivery by customer-facing folks, which then translates to a better customer experience. I’m not sure how much of our NPS growth can be attributed to these monthly updates, but it’s a welcome dose of the mystic among all of these matrixes.
Step 5. Follow Through
The last thing we did was follow through on the work we said we would do. These internal updates helped keep ourselves accountable for the work, but also shielded us from other work because folks knew our priorities and bought into them.
This was a grind and definitely the hardest step, but by providing monthly updates, we received continuous encouragement from the instructors who were eager to see our work come to life. This excitement, along with a few social hangs, fueled us during those long stretches of work.
Explore, filter, focus, publicize, and follow through. This mix of divergent and convergent thinking, along with deliberate execution, struck a good balance between thinking and doing and ultimately helped us achieve this growth at a cadence that was manageable. It’s in this elusive balance that a smoother road to growth is possible, but maybe not guaranteed. Insert concluding Koan.