3 Easy Exercises to Improve Your Customer Focus — The Art of Product Management

In The Design of Everyday Things, Donald Norman shares a story about visiting his local science museum. The signs at the displays looked nice, but were difficult to read. When Norman talked to the museum official, the official thought the signs were great because they were attractive and durable. Norman replied, “Are the visitors learning anything?”Thinking beyond the superficial characteristics of the signs to whether or not they were meeting the visitors’ needs is a great example of customer focus. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned your product is if it isn’t working well for the people who use it.As a PM you need to be the advocate for the customer. You need to think deeply about what customers need and want. You need to understand how your product will fit into people’s lives and what problems it will solve.When PMs don’t have a strong enough customer focus they’ll make some common mistakes. They might assume that customers are just like themselves. They’ll build a feature they think is cool without thinking about whether it will benefit users or actually get used. They’ll optimize for the immediate client they’re working with instead of balancing the client’s needs against the needs of the client’s customers.Customer focus is all about building up empathy and getting into the habit of thinking about customer goals. First you have to understand what your customers really want, and then you need to remember to use that understanding when making product decisions.Here are some exercises that should help you develop your customer focus.

map draw by thanhcs.xyz

Exercise 1: Read & answer support tickets

Answering support tickets is a great way to get in touch with customers and develop empathy for them. It can be really powerful to see what customers are saying in their own words.When it’s your responsibility to respond to someone who’s upset, you’ll start to develop a better sense for how customer’s think about your product and what assumptions they’re making. For example, once you see that several customers are really confused about one of your features, it’ll be easier for you to believe that it needs to change.Many of the tickets that you see might look like human error. Remember that many types of human error are actually caused by poor design, or at least can by be improved by good design. Instead of thinking that your customers are idiots, try to understand how they made the mistakes and what they were expecting would happen.

When you see feedback, think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and see if you can find the deeper meaning for the request. For example if someone asks for emoji don’t just think “they want emoji” — take it up a level and find the deeper reason for the feature request. Maybe they want to bond with their friends or they want to express their creativity.

Exercise 2: Talk to real users and watch them use your product

One of the best ways to understand customers is to talk to them and watch them in action.If your company already runs usability tests, start watching them. Otherwise you can get them set up yourself, or even more casually send out a call on social media asking if you can visit some of your customers.

While watching them, pay attention to what they say and what they do. Often people won’t complain about awkward or frustrating steps once they’ve gotten use to them. The story of Oxo’s measuring cup research is a great example of this: Gems of Unnoticed Problems. It’s your responsibility to notice problems like these.

When you see a customer do something surprising, ask them questions. You can learn a lot about what they were expecting or how their mental model works just by following up and asking why they did things in a certain way. It can be especially helpful to discover ways that each customer is different from you and different from other customers.

Exercise 3: Practice connecting your feature ideas back to customer goals

As a PM, you probably have no problem thinking of lots of ways that things could be improved. But just because you can think of a feature doesn’t mean it’s good.In an ideal world we would start from customer goals and derive features from those goals. In real PM work, things don’t always happen in that order. Sometimes you’re playing around with your product and a feature pops into your mind. When that happens it’s fine, but it’s worth it to take the time to figure out why you like the idea.One example from Asana is the feature of merging duplicate tasks together. The user’s goal isn’t to merge two tasks together, it’s to not have duplicate tasks with as little effort as possible. This lead us to build a feature that would automatically detect when people were entering duplicate tasks so that they didn’t have to search for duplicates before they started.

In conclusion

I hope these exercises help you understand what customer focus is all about. Developing a strong customer focus is all about practicing until thinking about customer goals is a habit.

Do you have any other ideas for improving customer focus? Please share them in the comments!

Originally published at pmblog.quora.com.