Photo: https://unsplash.com/@jdsimcoe , Print by Anthony Burrill

If you don’t ask, you don’t get

Mark Jones
Sep 1, 2017 · 5 min read

Messenger of the Market

Product managers are positioned as messengers of the market by many in the product management field, including established vocation trainers Pragmatic Marketing. The primary role of a product manager is ideally to gather information about the market they are focussed on, and bring that information to their colleagues each day. That’s a core competence the product manager brings to the team, in the way a developer brings technical expertise. “The market” can be defined as the consumers that exist in the industry niche being addressed; the shoppers passing the stall. Having market information allows the team to understand the problem at hand, then do their best to make sure they are solving a problem that needs solving; a problem that many consumers will appreciate help with, ideally with monetary gratitude.

Product managers do not best understand their market by trying to envisage it, or by having experienced a similar problem themselves. The best way of learning is by gathering data, as is often the case. In this case mostly qualitative data, understanding how people feel and why they feel that way. That might sound wishy-washy, but it can be made tangible. A process can be brought to gathering market data that is robust and reliable in providing valuable information. A doable six-step process.

1. Establish your source

How should you find these key people that represent the market? If you have existing customers, they are the most obvious place to start. They may already be converted, but not all customers are happy customers.

You also want to engage your targets that are not currently your customers though; wouldn’t it be interesting to find out what you could do for them in the future? They may be harder to reach. Talk to your sales team and get a line on deals that didn’t quite work out; the reasons why can be illuminating if you can persuade the reluctant to come within arms length.

Try your network; if you have been in the domain concerned for a while, LinkedIn searches should turn up some people worth talking to. You will need to reach out to more people than you hope to talk to though; given the purpose of LinkedIn seems to be connection, its members can be staunchly standoffish. Explain you are not in sales, and that you really do just want to talk to learn from them and exchange ideas.

You can also canvass further afield at industry conferences and online forums.

2. Set the table

There are several benefits to doing these market interviews as discussions with individuals as opposed to group discussions. With individuals you’ll be able to avoid groupthink; respondents should feel at ease to be able to openly give their honest feelings. The conversation can flow along the path where their passions lie. You may want to include a designer or developer from your team alongside you so they can hear the truth from the source.

3. What to ask

The idea is to get the interviewee talking, get them free-flowing about what matters to them, as that’s how you’ll find out. They will take some warming up though, so it’s best to have a script to hand to open the conversation.

Pleasantries

Talk about the weather or transit this morning; something to put you both at ease.

Demographics

Start with some easy factual questions; age, education, where they go to get information. Over time you may pick-up trends that help split the market into distinct groups, or you may find that there aren’t any obvious patterns.

Goals

What got them started doing what they do? What are they trying to achieve? Get them to tell you their story so you understand their motivation.

Problems

You’re trying to figure out the main problems that they need solving. What frustrates them? What do they wish they could do more easily? If they’ve used your product, you can ask them in relation to it after you’ve asked them more generally.

Why

As the conversation goes, you’ll likely hear something interesting. Delve-deeper; find out the reasons behind things, the underlying thinking, what makes them tick.

4. What to watch

Don’t stop there; since you have this time together, make the most of it. You may have heard that sometimes what people say and what people do are different things, so give yourself a chance to test that out. Suggest your interviewee goes about a task so you can watch them work. What tool they use will depend on what stage you are at. You might simply observe them going about their usual tasks using their current method and look out for bumps in the road. Or you may have a new prototype or alpha version of your product idea to let them try for the first time. Or both. Whichever, have them verbalise their thoughts as they go; it’s much easier to pick-up on sticking points and even the reasons behind them if any areas of confusion are called out to you.

Thank them for their time

You’ll likely really appreciate the information you have gained, so make that clear to your participant. Gift cards are nice.

5. What to tell

It’s great to learn all this information, it helps you as a product manager. Your aim should be to share it with your team though. Educating your team on the market is why you are part of the team after all. So you’ll need to record your sessions. Audio recordings are not very concise for reviewing or searching through, so note-taking on your laptop may be better, as long as you are careful to record points as they were actually said. Collate the findings and share them as a story periodically too, so the learnings sink in.

6. Do it again

Like going to the gym, gathering information from your target group is never done. Needs evolve over time, assumptions need to be tested and new ideas validated. Ideally every week you’ll be reaching out to reel key insights back in. It’s a continuous effort, with a continuous reward. Keep that mutually beneficial cycle going, and you can join hands with your customers along the path to success.

On Startups and Such

Lets turn that idea into a business.

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