Are you a designer, a product manager, or a developer shaping, building, and delivering great enterprise user experiences? Then kudos to you. Do you involve end-users in your product development process? If yes, then double kudos to you. But the question is at what stages through the product development process do you involve end-users?
In today’s highly competitive world, product companies are busy shipping products and features at a rapid pace. Not all of them follow a customer-first approach in defining, designing and developing products. The end-user involvement is usually consigned to either validating design concepts or testing for usability. The end-users are engaged a little late in the process, this could be due to a lack of planning or having a strong conviction about what is being built. Does all this sound familiar?
Is your newly delivered product used by your customers?
Once a product or a feature is designed and delivered, we get busy with the next feature on the roadmap. How many of us take time to follow up and check if our product/feature is used, as intended? Usually, we get to hear about customer issues from Product Managers, Customer Support folks, or the issues surface as the customer found defects. Such reported issues in most cases are usually broken down into smaller UI level fixes losing a lot of detail and insight in translation.
When we decided to visit our customers
“Design” has been one of our key differentiators in the highly competitive hybrid cloud computing domain. Our product design has set a benchmark for enterprise IT management software reflecting our strong design philosophy, the underlying design processes, and design systems. Lately, we have been hearing about fundamental UX and product issues affecting our user performance.
To know about such issues directly and build a relationship with customers we have initiated the ‘Know Your Customers’ program. The idea is to engage with our key customers directly, establish strong relationships, learn more about them as individuals, their roles, goals, top workflows, day-to-day challenges, issues, and pain points with the people and products they deal with.
How did we go about the ‘Know your customers’ program?
Unlike in the consumer domain where sampling and accessing users is pretty straight forward, getting access to customers in the enterprise domain is a challenge. The product, design, and dev teams came together to initiate this program. We partnered with Customer Success Managers who help our key account customers succeed in their journey.
The goal of this program is two-folded. One is to engage customers actively in the product design and development process. The other is to drive customer empathy in the wider org by involving folks from development and product teams. Eventually, roll out this model to more customers, identify common patterns and high-level themes for taking informed actions in improving our product experience.
Preparation for an effective trip to the customers
Customer Success Managers or any other team that works closely with customers are our conduits to customers. We worked with them to identify customers, involve the right roles and teams at the customer’s locations, set the right expectations, schedule the visits, and work out the agenda for the day. Getting these sorted out before visiting customers will help you focus on the right questions which can only be answered either by observing them or by interacting with them.
Planning for expected outcomes from the customer visit
Before the visit, it’s critical to make sure that everything you need to accomplish is noted down. Create a list of high-level questions you would like to find answers from this visit. This could vary depending on the kind of business you are and the time you get from the customers during the visit. Here’s a reference for the Enterprise Cloud computing domain which helped us with the right takeaways.
During the Visit
How the day unfolded
No matter how well planned you might be, there could be surprises waiting in store. For instance, not all the folks you’ve planned to meet might be available. They might not be willing to let you shadow them. There could be a few pleasant surprises too. Some passionate, proactive customers could come prepared with issues documented. As a result, we had to restructure and shift gears on the fly to accomplish our goals.
We had a full 8-hour session starting at 9:00 am with breakfast. We were pretty much locked in the room other than spending an hour for shadowing one of the IT administrators by his desk. Here’s how we went about our activities during the visit.
- Introductions, Gifts, and Agenda, 45 mins
Our Customer Success Manager did a great job of keeping everyone in the loop, setting the right expectations and making it easy to kick off the day. We went through detailed introductions including what our roles are, and what is expected. As this got done, it would have been good to present gifts to them to strike a chord right away. A lesson for our next visit.
- Roles, Responsibilities, and Teams, 45 mins
Then we went deep probing more about their roles, responsibilities, and what they do in their day to day jobs. Understand who they interact with, depend on, and collaborate. Understand the KPIs they operate under to know how their success is measured. This will help us get a clear picture of the people we design for.
- “A day in the life” — Shadowing, 1 hour
Without getting into details about the method, we asked our user to think aloud as he went about his work. In no time we got a sense of what he goes through every day in accomplishing his tasks. It is a great way to learn about how a workflow gets triggered, what interfaces, products, and features get used, and how collaboration works. More importantly, we got a feel of what frustrates them, and what delights them in the product. We recorded this session to play it back to our teams and make them feel equally empathetic.
- “Show and tell” by customers, 2 hours
We came out of the shadowing session with great insights. We wanted to replicate it by doing more such sessions. But in the interest of time, it was best to gather collective feedback from the rest. They did a show and tell session of what they usually do in their day-to-day operations. In the process, they touched upon what products and features they use, how our product compares with other products they use in. This was their opportunity to open up and present the feedback they came prepared with by highlighting issues ranging from trivial UI issues to deeper UX issues affecting their operational efficiencies.
- Top Workflows, 1.5 hours
Getting a comprehensive view of the world they operate in, taking a deep dive into the key tasks and workflows they deal with is critical. We wanted to analyze their operational tasks and the frequency at which they are performed i.e., daily, monthly, quarterly, and annually.
We spent the next hour and a half with their core team members to understand and list down their top workflows. We took a simple framework of a trigger, the sequence of information flow, roles involved, and the product interfaces used in the process to capture the top workflows. This gave us a good measure of where our products and technology figure in their ecosystem, identify gaps, and pain points.
- Future State, 1 hour
We reserved the last hour to understand their long-term vision. For this, we have requested their team manager to talk about their growth and evolution strategy. This was essential to validate and ensure that our business vision aligns with that of the customers. It was also a confirmation of sorts of their belief in our vision and when they would adopt forward-thinking products in our portfolio.
Further, we discussed and planned the engagement going forward. We are fortunate to have such passionate customers who expressed their pleasure in working with us to help them succeed. We left the day with great feelings and a sense of comfort with each other.
“Thank you again for taking the time to listen to our suggestions and concerns regarding managing Nutanix at scale. It is very encouraging to have direct contact with developers who are interested in feedback about how to further their code to be better.” — Customer
Learnings, Analysis, and Artefacts
As quoted by one of our Principal UI Engineers, this is one of the first significant customer visits we have ever had. By pairing a UX designer and UI developer, our visit helped unearth great insights, discover issues big and small that would hamper full adoption and erode trust, if not addressed.
“Best customer interaction I have ever had in my 9 years.” — Principal UI Engineer
- Product learnings
Customer visits are great for not just validating roadmap to excite customers, but more critically realize how important quality is. We could see and feel their pain points and realize how we are adding friction. The issues discovered broadly range from something as fundamental as slow login times, the discovery of information, noisy data, etc., to something as deep as product failing at scale.
This led to defining our immediate strategies on bringing parity between multiple user-facing interfaces and consoles. Take a serious look at the way we architected our products which are affecting our users’ operational efficiencies. It demanded an integrated effort from our core teams to make our customer’s operational efficiency a top priority.
- UX learnings
Usually, we tend to take a minimalist approach to information design and experience delivery. The enterprise UX as we have discovered firsthand is different from the consumer domain. Contrary to our philosophy, we realized that a good enterprise-grade experience should strike a balance between information density and elegance. It made us rethink our UX approach of revealing information in layers i.e., the famed progressive disclosure, minimalistic information presentation, and a generous allocation of white space in the UI. At the end of it, our products and UX should help our users perform with a high degree of efficiency and accuracy boosting their productivity and operational excellence.
We are troubleshooting issues with stakeholders in high-pressure situations. If your product doesn’t provide the information we are looking for quickly and in the right form, then it doesn’t help. — Customer
Analyzing the data could get overwhelming. We came back from our customer visit with 7–8 hours of video footage, a ton of notes, whiteboard sketches, pictures, etc., Besides we had to go back and forth with them offline to fill in a few critical information gaps. We structured the data into the following categories to make it easy to comprehend, consume, and more importantly to make it actionable.
- About the customer
Document who they are, their business, why they chose our products and technology and why not our competitors’?
- Business case and the expected impact
What areas of their business would benefit by using our products any KPIs they track?
- People and roles involved
How does the whole engagement flow from pre-sales to trial to purchase to usage and support? What are all the roles and people involved?
- Key task flows
As mentioned in the leading notes, clearly capture the top 3–5 tasks and workflows they deal with every day. Capture the roles and products they interact with, high points, and pain points they experience.
Documenting the findings from customer visits is crucial. The effectiveness of the information gathered will entirely depend on how it is documented. The story has to be told in the right way with the right level of detail, insight, and supporting evidence with customer quotes and video highlights.
- A comprehensive deck, with video highlights
A well-presented deck with an executive summary followed by all the key points from the analysis phase will deliver the right information to the right people in the right way. The following artifacts should be part of the deck. However, they can be consumed separately too and hence they should be complete by themselves.
- Environment snapshot
A detailed and comprehensive slice of the customer’s environment i.e., size and scale, business cases, locations, people, and teams involved, etc.
- Roles and communication ecosystem
This provides a clear understanding of their teams, hierarchy, dependency and the business context of communication with other teams. It helps researchers/designers on the team to go deep. For instance, take up a persona creation exercise.
- Task flow maps
This is where everything comes together. Take the top 2–3 workflows and create an end-to-end flow with all the steps involved. Then map this with the roles involved and product interfaces used to accomplish the task, and highlight high and low points in the flow. This will provide a comprehensive picture and aid in addressing gaps and improving the overall experience.
- A spreadsheet of prioritized issues
Capture all discovered issues and size them into S, M, L issues with prioritization. This will help track the actions and keep the customers informed, engaged, and trusted in the product.
Actions and Follow up
This is what matters the most. It’s your responsibility as someone who represented your team to share the findings with as many relevant teams as possible. Make sure to reach out to the right stakeholders ie., Product, Engineering, and Design as quickly as possible before the information is forgotten so that they too feel equally empathetic and inspired to act on customer pain points.
Roadmap, Track, Act, and Loopback
Create tickets to track the progress of both short term and long term actions. Ensure that you work with the product and engineering teams to ensure that the findings make it to the roadmap. It is your responsibility as a customer representative to ensure all relevant issues are addressed and communicated back to the customers about the progress. This will strengthen engagement and trust for a long-term relationship.
For someone in a customer-facing role, it is a routine affair to be in touch with customers, learning about their changing needs, priorities, and challenges. Whereas in a typical enterprise all of this gets lost in translation as there are several layers between customers and designers. This is where this “Know Your Customers” program brings value to the teams who are building products. Reducing the barrier between people who design and develop products and the people who consume is the only way to ensure we design the right things in the right way.
Investing your time and energy in making a personal visit to the customers goes a long way in building direct relationships with them. You will find partners in your customers who are willing to take part in your design and development process to ensure success for both.
The feedback from our customers about the discussions and interactions was overwhelmingly positive. I know that all of us would be happy to have you meet with our customers again in the future. We hope to have many direct interactions between our customers and engineers. — Customer Success Manager
Finally, we thank our Customer Success Managers who have championed this initiative along with us. We thank our customers for their continued love and passion for engaging with us, addressing our follow up questions patiently and helping us improve our products.