Customer-Centricity in a Back End Team

Two customers on a journey around town | NET-A-PORTER FW18 Campaign

What does it mean to work Back End?

YOOX NET-A-PORTER GROUP runs almost 40 online stores, including NET-A-PORTER, MR PORTER, YOOX, THE OUTNET and over 30 more for some of the world’s leading luxury brands. Each year we serve over 3 million active, high-spending and highly engaged customers.

As a Back End Product Owner, I work with teams that develop the systems that feed data to our websites and our mobile apps. We also develop some of the tools that allow our business teams to create a curated luxury experience for our customers.

Who is your customer when you work Back End?

Knowing your customer is the most basic requirement of any business. This can be a very powerful guiding principle to return to, reminding everyone in the business who they are targeting with their achievements. Crucially, it is central to the role of the Product Owner, who guides the build of products for customers.

However, when you are a few steps removed from the customer interaction, it can be easy to lose sight of who you are working to serve, and slip into the thinking of the Front End or Business Teams as our clients.

How do you keep this in mind when you are working on API design?

Working on the Platform is very technical, replete with countless complexities and dependencies. It can be like a jigsaw puzzle and is sometimes thought of as less glamorous than creating customer-facing features.

However, in reality, you have the advantage of learning how things fit together underneath the surface whilst imagining how they will be represented to your customer. It’s challenging, requires a lot of creative thinking and you need to maintain a customer-centric approach to build things that create the best experience for your customers.

When building our technology products, we think in terms of user stories. These help the product owner and the software development team understand the customer problem and define success criteria.

Typically user stories take the following format:

  1. As a [customer]
  2. I want [something]
  3. So that [value-gain]

These points can be reformulated as the following simple questions:

  1. Who is the customer?
  2. What do they want?
  3. Why do they want it?

These questions should not just exist at the beginning of a build — we need to use them as a powerful daily principle that guides our decision making. Whether that is in a planning session, during team discussions, and even just when trying to think of the best action at any point of the day — we need to be thinking “who am I doing this for?”

Embedding this in the Back End

There are a few simple tactics that any Back-End team can employ to build a customer-centric mentality, such as:

  • Always using customer metrics to shape success criteria
  • Including screenshots of specific sections of the website in tickets for user stories
  • Scribbling on a piece of paper what an outcome might look like visually
  • Using wireframes where applicable
  • Exercises in imagination, asking the team ‘if you were a 42-year-old woman looking for a new winter coat…’

These will ensure that the team is always delivering a product that is relevant and valuable to our customer.

We should even employ this mode of thinking when developing tools for our internal business teams by thinking about what our users are trying to do, and how it will ultimately impact our customer’s experience, whether that is on mobile or desktop.

For example, one of our teams was building a tool to link different products on a product display page. Instead of starting from an analysis of how we could meet the needs of our business users, we focused on what we were trying to show our customers, and why this would be valuable to them.

Constantly following this approach allows developers to build tools that are not only usable and make our business team’s lives easier, but provide valuable experiences to our end customers. It also drives our Front End and Back End teams to think in the same terms and fosters greater collaboration.

By taking this approach, I’ve learnt that the more our teams understand the customer and the business, the more productive the sessions and conversations will be, the more ideas you will gather from the team, and ultimately the better the product and the happier the customer*

*and the easier your job as product owner…