What Product Management and Psychotherapy have in common

I started therapy a month ago, and I noticed something curious: the doctor was doing, to me, the same thing I used to do with clients.

What is your problem?

We always hear phrases like:

Customers don’t know what they want

Henry Ford said once that if he asked what people wanted, they’d say faster horses. And, indeed, if you ask your customers what they want, they will probably answer with what they think your product should be/have.

As a Product Manager, I have to dig deeper into that question and understand the problem that the client is trying to solve, instead of just going ahead and develop anything they ask for. That helps us avoid feature creep and improve the customer’s serendipity feeling.

But if you ever tried that, you know how difficult it is for the customer to get to the root cause of that need. And I never understood why it was so difficult… until I went to my first psychotherapy session.

When I got to the doctor, the first thing he asked me was:

“So, why are you here? What is your problem?”

“I try to lose weight and I can’t. When I’m anxious, I just eat whatever is in front of me. So I wanted to come here to treat my anxiety.”

Well… long story short, I’m not anxious, and the eating is not the problem, but a consequence.

Features are like pills

Imagine that the doctor, instead of trying to understand better what my problem was, just gave me a medicine. I probably would not stop eating and would start having other issues, let’s say insomnia. I would, then, ask for a sedative. Then, I would probably suffer from headaches and ask for ibuprofen, for example. I guess you know where I’m going with it. Either I would stop taking every pill, because I was better eating a lot than taking a ton of pellets, or I would just not be here anymore.

That is what happens when you just give features to your customer. Well, they won’t die. But they will always ask for more, until your product become just “too much” and doesn’t solve anything, causing your churn metric to skyrocket. If you think about it, it is probably not difficult to think of a case in which you stopped using a product that tried to solve everything to use several straightforward, more focused and better products. Try to give them better pills, not the whole drugstore.

But how to get to the problem?

In therapy, it is a bit more challenging to answer that. You have to go through multiple sessions, go deeper in your feelings, and etc. And you just can’t tell your CEO that you will stop the development, and sit with your client three times a week, for two years and then you will know exactly what to do. In fact, you can do that, but I wouldn’t advise it.

First, understand what is a problem. Problem is not a “lack of something.” When someone says the customer’s problem is lack of reports on the platform, they are basically inducing the solution: adding reports to the product.

You will need to understand why they need the feature they are suggesting, and “because my boss said I need to present it to him” is not an acceptable answer. If that is the problem, ask his boss about it.

One happy client may cause a general overdose

Imagine, now, that the doctor discovers what is my problem and she gives me a pill for it. The drug works, and I’m more than happy, and thin. Based on my happiness, she distributes the medicine to every single patient. Not quite smart, right?

When you discover the user’s root cause of discomfort, don’t plan the solution right away. Check if the other people using the product will enjoy that feature as well.

One area of your company that is almost always forgotten but can give you tons of information about that beforehand is the customer service. Some companies outsource it, some don’t, but either way, you have to talk to them. They receive calls and more calls about all different requests.

Later, ask a sample of the users about the problem/feature. If it seems like it will be a good thing, start confirming it. Which means, test it with some users. If they like it, increase the number of users affected by it, until you feel comfortable enough to release a new version to everyone.

No. That whole process doesn’t take a long time. You can do all of it in one week. One week, to make sure you don’t overdose people. It seems fair enough for me.

You’re not alone

This is not something the PM should do alone. Get a developer, a UX, a QA, your grandma and ask them to join you. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of maturity. Knowing what you don’t know is far more important than trying to know it all.