We literally walk in our customers shoes

Soundarya Chandar
Product at Yelp
Published in
4 min readSep 16, 2019

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(Photo by Spencer Davis on Unsplash)

Key Takeaways

1: Prioritize getting out of the office and go where your users actually use your product.

2: Build empathy by using your product as the end customer, and experiencing their day-to-day lives.

3: Share learnings with the broader team to stay steeped in a customer-centric mindset.

In my first month as a Product Manager for Yelp Reservations and Waitlist for restaurants, I volunteered to be a hostess at a busy restaurant to gain first-hand perspective from our end customer (restaurant hosts). It was a scary and sobering experience I will never forget. As the end user — juggling their tasks, helping them run their restaurant all while holding a smile on my face cemented a lot of empathy. For context, I am a PM on the Yelp for Restaurants team. We are revolutionizing the dining out experience for restaurants and diners. You can click here to learn more.

Our team receives a steady stream of feedback from restaurant operators. We also quantitatively assess how our product is working. However, working as a hostess during several busy restaurant shifts taught me to meaningfully decode feedback and findings to understand the deeper essence behind it all.

Get out of the office

Access to user research, customer feedback, or data analysis is common in a technology company. At Yelp, we have a strong team of Restaurant Success team members who talk to our customers regularly, helping them with various questions and concerns. They report back a lot of qualitative feedback (i.e., when a user experiences a problem and shares it with the product team via support channels). When you supplement this with product analytics and metrics we start to gather a lot of data points (i.e., content).

It is very tempting to take this content and begin to devise solutions, hoping it solves the problem. However, content without understanding context can be misleading and potentially lead to solving the wrong problem.

To gather context, we want to experience the pain our end users endure by playing their role (for example, a hostess) in the context of a restaurant environment. Our product team,including engineering and executive teams, frequently schedule visits to various restaurants, typically on busy Friday nights or weekends, to spend time in our users’ shoes. Prioritizing time to do this has been a key lever in understanding our users and their environments.

Building Empathy

During my first shift at the restaurant I heavily relied on Roxanne, a smart, capable university student juggling this job with her studies. She had me memorize the floor-plan, predict quote times for walk-in guests, manage last minute requests and cancellations — a few of the many jobs I had to learn quickly. I developed a deep appreciation for Roxanne, who always found ways to organize the chaos in a restaurant. To me, it was a lot like getting stuck at a tough level of Tetris for hours! All I wanted was to find cheat codes that would reduce my mental effort and make things more predictable.

Here’s a recent example of translating our findings into solutions. Our team understands from first-hand experience that a restaurant host has many responsibilities. It’s time consuming to take down customer information like names and phone numbers. Hosts also need to keep track of guests, and maintain high standards of hospitality of the restaurant. From a restaurant operators perspective, we also understand hiring hosts can get expensive and managers want to optimize their hosts’ time to deliver a memorable guest experience. The question we asked ourselves was: How can we take mundane, time consuming tasks away from hosts so they can focus on hospitality? What would a cheat code look like in this context?

The result was a Yelp Waitlist Kiosk, which enables guests to enter their basic information like name, number and party size,giving time back to the hosts.

A restaurant guest entering getting in line via Yelp Waitlist kiosk

Sharing learnings with broader team

Organizing the feedback gathered via in-person shifts at restaurants, adding restaurant context and sharing with the broader team at Yelp makes for more than just great watercooler conversations.

Our takeaways are organized into three sections: 1: Bugs to fix 2: Pain points identified 3: Pain point solutions (with a lot of commentary describing the particular context). These are in addition to all the improvement suggestions we get from hosts & restaurant operators. Sharing these with engineering, and cross functional teams has led to building with more empathy and maintaining a customer-centric mindset when building product roadmaps.

Here are some pictures of our team members working hard at a partner restaurant. Using the product I help build is one of my favorite aspects of being a product manager — getting to experience the impact of my work. So get out and experience the highs & lows of your product in your user’s shoes! Not only is it the best way to learn about how your product is used in the real world, it’s an invaluable way to build lasting trust between you and your customers!

Happy hosting!

Soundarya

(Thanks to all the folks who reviewed draft versions of this post)

Yelp team members working a restaurant staff shift at Bubba Gump San Fransciso

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