Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Avoid easy mistakes: talk (& listen) to your users

10-minute Product Manager, pt 1: killer user interviews.

It pains me to see when Product Managers (PMs) forget they represent their users. If a PM is in a meeting, their users are in that meeting too.

PMs need to understand their users’ motivations, struggles, pain and technical aptitude. This way, when faced with a new design or feature, the PM can quickly decide if it will solve their users problem.

Making these decisions aren’t easy. The PM is trying to predict the future, and I don’t know a single successful PM that can do this well without talking to their users.

Many people turn to a lot of great data-focused resources to do this. Things like, market research, ROI analysis, clickthrough tracking or conversion analysis.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a data person, I love using these tools. But in the end, even if you start with the data, you need to know why that user is doing what they’re doing.

Talking to your users is the most important source of that insight. It’s also the least often done, and a competitive advantage for PMs who do it well.

Don’t worry, I’m here to set you up for success. Read on and discover:

  • How to find users to talk to
  • What questions to ask based on your product lifecycle
  • Pitfalls to avoid as you get going

How do I start?

Why don’t PMs do this more? Simple, it’s hard. Even PMs who know they should interview are often afraid to. They don’t think they have any users, or don’t know how to get them to participate, or how many they need.

They don’t know what to show them or how to ask the right questions. Let’s take those fears apart.

The good news is you actually don’t even need that many. The rule of thumb is the number five — and this number is because of science. But as someone who conducts customer interviews on the regular, I find that after the 6th or 7th interview I can actually predict what the customer says. So, anecdotally, I stand by this number five.

Now that you have the number you want, all you need are the people. I get it , this is intimidating.

Many people don’t know where to start. I can help. I’m going to throw out a few things I’ve seen done in real life, maybe it will work for you:

  • Ask your sales team. If you’re in a B2B situation, find a client who is close to closing (see what I did there) maybe the thing you’re building is exactly what they’re looking for.
  • Ask your marketing team. Append 1 more question to the NPS questionnaire. “Can we contact you for feedback on upcoming features?” This is great because you can get a pool of users who are already interested in chatting. If you’re lucky, you’ll find users who both would and wouldn’t recommend your product.
  • Ask people off the street. I have yet to do this myself but one of my co-founders has. The benefit of this is you can hang out with users as they use the product, and get feedback in real time.
  • Ask the people who talk to your customers. If you’re building a shopping app, ask the sales reps on the floor. If you have customer hero’s get them into a room and show them new things.

I find the first step is usually the hardest. If you’re lucky like me, then you’ll be able to lean on your marketing and customer hero team.

They have direct access to your users and are an amazing source of support. Once you get a response and set up a time to chat, the rest is easy.

What questions do I ask?

I don’t know how long ago I watched this, but this conversion rate expert webinar is it’s literally my favourite resource for this. It’s focused on conversion but very salient in all aspects of the user interview.

Before you start an interview it’s important to understand the goal of this meeting. To do this, it makes sense to bucket all user interviews in 3 ways:

  1. When you have nothing to show them
  2. When you have a design/prototype to show them
  3. After they’ve used your product

1) When you have nothing to show

Goal: understand your user.

You’re presumably talking to them because you think they have a problem you can solve. You want to help them do it better, faster or cheaper.

This is the best time to ask them — how are you solving it now?

Let’s take LinkedIn for example. LinkedIn didn’t invent ‘having a network’. Before LinkedIn, people found jobs and knew who their contacts were. If you asked people before LinkedIn how they found jobs or sales prospects, what would they say?

  • They asked friends of friends to introduce them
  • They asked successful clients to recommend them
  • They checked their Rolodex to look for people they might have met
  • They printed out business cards by the hundreds and handed them out

By looking at how professionals solve their problems now, you can find gaps to help solve it better in the future. Take this Gif for example:

Illustration from the Harvard Innovation Lab

In the case for LinkedIn, Rolodexes and desk top drawers can only get so big. You also don’t know who your network knows — business cards don’t update themselves when people change jobs. By understanding these gaps you can develop products to solve them.

2) When you have have a design

Goal: What are users gravitating to (or longing for).

So, you have something that solves your users’ problems…or does it? Want a quick way to check? Talk to one! This is a great opportunity to validate the solution without going through the trouble of building it.

I’m not suggesting you let this stage stop you from pushing forward. (You had a hunch and you don’t know if its working yet). This is a step to help you avoid easy mistakes, and set you up for even greater success.

A clickable prototype is ideal but I’ve seen this done with a powerpoint and some screenshots. What’s important to watch here is what users focus on.

  • Are the things you think are important, also important to the user?
  • Are they clicking the things you want them to click?
  • Do they understand the purpose of what they’re doing and are they flowing through in a way that is intuitive?
  • Are they looking for something that isn’t there?

Take this opportunity to understand what part of the design is grabbing their attention. Observe to see if they will use the product to solve the problem you wanted to attack.

3) When you’re evaluating current product success

Goal: Find out why they love you.

The first instinct when noticing a bad conversion rate is to talk to the people who left and ask them why. While that is valuable, you might actually be wasting your time.

The ‘Golden question’ webinar above explains why this is the case (hint hint, its math-y). So instead of asking people who left, why don’t you try asking the people who stayed why they love it.

Don’t take my word for it — lets look at a real life example. How did Justin.tv turn into Twitch?

Justin.tv guys knew a couple of things: Their business was stagnant, and people loved to watch streams of live games. — Fast Company

Amazon bought Twitch for $970 million in 2014 because of the audience they catered to. Instead of focusing on stale parts of their business, Twitch figured out which content users loved and pivoted.

I’m not saying avoid all negative feedback, you need to know when things aren’t working. I’m just saying that you might be missing something huge if that’s your only focus.

When you double down on what people love, instead of focusing on what they hate, you might end up with growth you can’t even explain.

What should I watch out for?

Be careful: you can’t just ask people what they want

Cut to… a personal fav (sorry, not sorry)

This is very true in customer interviews. People often center their needs and requests around things they already know. They don’t know the technology — and what’s inside the realm of possibilities — you do. That’s why this question is hard.

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. — Henry Ford

Let’s look at the dating world. Would people 5 years ago have said “I want to find my next date by swiping right?” I doubt that.

If these apps did customer interviews, my guess is that they asked their users the following:

  • How do you judge a person you want to date (pictures, bio, life story)?
  • Can you tell fast enough to make a decision on the spot?
  • Here are 5 single guys, how much do you need to know to figure out if they’re worth pursuing?

It’s more valuable to take the time to understand how this works in real life rather than asking “how do you want to find a date on your mobile phone?”

It is 10 times more important to understand the problem than to ask a person how to solve it.

Sure, ask users what they want, but it’s more important to understand why they want it. Period. The end.

Remember you’re talking to a human.

This isn’t a project, they are not a machine. The more they trust you the more they’ll open up to you and give you their honest feedback. One easy way to build trust?

Listen. Listen to their struggle, understand how you can help them and figure out a way to win.

Together. If they feel pressure or feel like they’re being grilled then you’ve already lost the battle. They’re doing you a huge favour by giving you their time, so treat it with respect.

Oh, and another thing, invite your developers.

Please! You are doing your company a disservice if you’re the only person in the room. Seeing the face of a user and understanding their struggles is more motivating then any ‘ticket requirement doc’ ever could be.

I love watching development teams walk out of a user interview inspired and spiting out idea after idea. Only good things can happen when the problem makers and the problem solvers are in the same room.

Great PMs build products their users love but they build products that understand their users. Metrics and telemetry are crucial to that, but so is the insight that comes from regular conversation. And you can start today