According to Marty Cagan, in his book Inspired, a Product Manager has the job of “discovering a product that is valuable, usable and feasible,” which immediately leads you to the question of valuable, usable, and feasible for whom?
“The customer” of course, I hear you shout, and that’s true, and that’s why Product Managers all over the world are expected to go out and speak to users, see what problems they have and work out how they can produce a product that is valuable in solving these problems, usable so that the customer can make the most of the product, and feasible so the teams can build it.
But speaking to users doesn’t always point you in the right strategic direction, as users often get focused on the details of what they’re hoping to achieve.
They want to add data quicker. They want to extract data more regularly. They want things to be smarter, easier to use, less prone to breaking. All of which are valuable things for product managers to strive towards, but their advice isn’t going to help you make the big leap. Customers are not going to take your product from good to outstanding. For that you need strategic input, not operational input, and that’s where a Product Advisory Board comes in.
It’s your window into the strategy.
What is a Product Advisory Board?
The PAB is your window into the future. They’re the people who shape the direction of where you’re going in 12, 24, 36 months time, not the people who tell you how to make things better today.
The Product Advisory Board will tell you how the real world works and how it will need to work going forwards. They’re your crystal ball that allow you to see what’s going to be facing your end users in a few months time, because they see or shape the future.
The challenge is that they shouldn’t feel like they’re being strategic because of how you run your PAB. Your aim is to extract information from them in a simple, innocent way, so that you can use it to shape your product roadmap.
What benefit does a Product Advisory Board give?
Every person who has ever used any product anywhere has an opinion. It doesn’t matter what the product is, if someone’s used it, they have an opinion. You can see that, simply by scrolling through the millions of product reviews on Amazon, where Darren from Manchester knows how his latest gadget should be updated, or Celia from Washington is sure that the X1000 would be greatly improved by adding an extra widget to the side.
The PAB, however, give you more. They give you a higher level view of what’s being sought after. They know everything there is to know about what needs to be achieved (not just how to achieve it like the end users do), and they know everything about what should be achieved next year.
This insight into the future is invaluable, especially when it comes to planning your product roadmap, and as a product manager it makes you look like some kind of psychic.
Who participates in a Product Advisory Board?
The PAB is a selected group of representatives from your industry, who are knowledgeable on how things actually happen in the environment in which they operate.
For B2B products, these won’t be the end users of the product. They’re more likely the operational people that sit to the side of the teams doing the actual work. They’re the ones who put the framework in place for the operators to operate.
For B2C products, these are your power users who are pushing the boundaries of what your product can do, because they’re thinking bigger picture, not daily grind.
Speaking to members of the PAB isn’t the same as talking to users of your product. You can’t stand over them and watch them press buttons and enter data. You won’t get the PAB value by just seeing them interact with, or talk about interacting with your product. You need to ask them the searching questions.
You need to go deep with them and see what’s driving certain things, and you need to do it in a way that isn’t intrusive, isn’t time consuming, and isn’t obvious that you’re lining up tomorrow’s product in front of them today.
There are four clear rules you need to follow to elicit the right kind of response from the members of your Product Advisory Board:
- Make them feel like they’ve been hand selected
- Do not take up any more time than you need to, as a valuable PAB member is busy
- Get in and out with your questions
- Make them feel like they’re contributing to something bigger
What do you ask the PAB about?
You can always get feedback on how your product works.
You can analyze the data to see what’s being clicked on and what isn’t. At what point people drop out of the process, or how long they’re spending doing certain functions.
You can add a pop up survey question, asking them to ‘tell you what they think product feature or element needs improving,’ and a handful of people will tell you.
However, this won’t tell you the answers to the bigger, more strategic questions. The questions that will shape your product strategy for the next 12, 24, 36 months. For that you need to tap into the PAB.
For this audience you need to start understanding all of the challenges that they’re facing in their lives, not just the challenges they’re facing with your product. You need to think bigger.
If your product is all about the delivery of effective customer service, you need to understand what other things those customer service staff are doing that your product might support with (maybe not today, but tomorrow), or what other challenges they face with their customers, or whether there are internal service operations that need to become more effective.
If your product is all about showing where traffic jams are, you need to understand what other things they are looking to avoid, or why they’re traveling in the first place, or whether they’re open to alternative forms of transport.
You won’t get these with a quick Intercom poll or a scroll through Google Analytics. You need to ask real people, real questions about their activities.
You want to know how they approach real world problems today.
How to run a Product Advisory Board?
- Get the names of your PAB members and contact them directly
- Tell them the value their expertise will give to your product and all its users
- Let them know when they’ll be getting their first request for ‘insight’
- Promise to take up no more than 10 minutes of their time every month
- Make any request for insight as easy as you can for the PAB member (a survey with multiple choice questions and supplementary text is usually fine)
- Don’t ask about your product at all. Only ask about their problems and how they address certain situations now
- Go back to them with your findings, so they can compare themselves with others
It doesn’t have to take long, depending on the size of your PAB. If you’re spending one day a month trying to determine the future direction of your products then that has to be worth it.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get some real insight that might lead to a complementary product being built. At the very least, you’ll be re-confirming what you already know about your customers but making them feel special at the same time.
If your PAB really takes off, then once a year, get them all into the same room and give them some real insight into where the future lies. Show them your product ideas, let them listen to experts predict where their industry is going, and give them an opportunity to give more. You’d be amazed how happy people are to talk to you if you give them something valuable in return (plus a free sandwich and a glass of wine).
You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — anthropologist, Margaret Mead
Rob was a professional soccer player, and cinema manager, before moving into software development 20+ years ago. He was a founding team member at startup Ormsby Street, is a founding member at Don’t Keep it to Yourself, and heads up the product team at Qudini. https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertjdrury/