Image courtesy @bady

Keeping a pulse on your users

By: Vikram Chatterji

The user is not like me.” That was the mantra we lived by at Carnegie Mellon’s MHCI program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was not meant to be exclusionist in any way, but instead meant to act as a subtle reminder that every human has different biases and needs. As global product builders, it is crucial that we remain mindful of that.

Soon after grad school, I switched coasts and landed in the Bay Area, California. Here too, I’d see colorful posters with a similar message plastered in the umpteen beautiful startup offices. This was great to see — technology products designed with empathy at heart, designed to solve genuine user needs!

Turns out however, it’s pretty easy to throw a blind eye to those posters when you’re trying hard to just get the technology to work, differentiate your product from the competition, when your business capital will only last so long… That’s when the false-consensus effect comes into play.

Given these very real constraints and factors, I’d like to share some best practice for not losing touch with your users even if day-to-day product building can be mentally draining.


Ask the Right Questions

Getting to know your users is a never-ending task that lasts the entire product lifecycle.

Products are always in a state of flux: ideation, testing, development or iteration. As a result, asking questions about the user needs to be a constant and iterative process. These questions can be boiled down into three broad categories:

  • Finding your target user
  • Asking “why” a feature would be useful to them
  • Defining “how” to measure that usefulness

While there are a lot of product process diagrams out there, I made the one below to keep things simple. I’m including some short questions you can ask yourself at each phase:

As would be expected, the further downstream we go, the further questions evolve from open-ended to very specific. The answers we’d expect to get in return go from being qualitative to increasingly quantitative.

Discover + Define: Your product is in its infancy; a concept based on a broad set of hypotheses and honed by strong intuition. This stage is where it’s best to validate your hypotheses about product and customer fit to avoid wasting your team’s most precious resource — time. This is the time for open ended surveys, rough prototypes and a lot of rapid iteration based on user feedback.

Post development / Pre-launch: Your team has now built the minimum-viable-product (MVP) based on a solid understanding of what customer’s need. It’s now time to chisel off any bugs, test the end-to-end system (UX, data ingest, etc) and iron out product inconsistencies prior to opening the product to the masses.

Post launch: Your product has been launched and users are flooding in. This is when you will typically be bombarded with feedback that will shape the next iteration of your product. The majority of feedback will come from your power users (The Pareto Principle).

It’s essential to sift through the noise, segment your users and hone in on what would add a lot of value to most users.

Each stage is tangibly different from others and therefore demands a broad set of tools to keep a pulse on who your users are and how best to build for them.

Build Your Toolbox

A good product developer needs to have tools that act as data sources, providing clues about user behavior. Each piece of data provides a clue that, in aggregate, hones in on what product features would work best.

Depending on where you are in the product lifecycle, the tools you’ll need to use will change as well. Here are some suggestions:

Discover + Define

A few tools to help gauge user needs and validate your hypothesis:

Post-Development

A few tools to test UX mocks or low-cost prototypes:

Post-Launch

A few tools to gather quantitative data once the feature has sufficient engagement:

  • BigQuery/Redshift — depending upon your data warehouse of choice. Each provides a simple UI to query your tables with SQL.
  • Amplitude — helps track events through customizable dashboards. This does require pre-emptively building events/properties into the product’s analytics stack, with intuitive event-names.
  • Intercom (particularly for web products. Provides good analysis tools on inbound user inquiries as well as measurable outbound user engagement tools)
  • Zendesk (provides OOB support ticketing platform with tags for analysis)

While there are a host of other products to explore at each stage, it’s helpful to keep a set of tools in your product utility belt.

Fold it Into Your Day

Tactically, it is important to make time to think about your product stage, discover the right questions, assess the best tools to get you the most accurate answers and internalize those answers. The goal should be to get a signal through all the noise for what product direction would greatly benefit a large set of your target users.

Personally, I’ve also found it useful to create a single feedback channel to gather thoughts from across the company, regardless of title or experience. Good ideas, concerns and feedback can come from anywhere, and it’s imperative to make it easy for people to provide that to you. This could be a Slack channel, doc, email; just make sure everyone in the company feels emboldened to come forward and provide their unfiltered feedback.


To conclude, while it’s easy to get caught up in all the umpteen niceties of product building, it’s essential to be constantly cognizant of whether you have a pulse on your users.

Always remember: Focus on the user and all else will follow.