A product manager’s core problem is deciding what to build. This is always a challenging question but it is even more so without substantial constraints. When working in an established company with an established product, the question of what to build becomes slightly more focused: What should we build that enables our product to better meet our users needs? The difficulty is that there are endless additional features that can be built. A product manager’s role is deciding how to move forward by:

  • utilizing deep user empathy and inquiry in order to discover problems the product is still not solving
  • analyzing inbound customer feedback (looking for trends, paying attention to surprises)
    distilling what is most important from internal team feedback (e.g. balancing the need to limit technological risk with the need for technological innovation)
  • weighing these against company priorities, strategy, and resources

With sufficient discovery and information, this can of course all be quantified with a weighted scorecard. There is, however, still significant ambiguity before the feature is actually in the hands of users. This ambiguity can be further decreased by looking closely at what is still unknown and creating tests that can be done efficiently in order to evaluate your hypotheses. This is much of the art and science of product management.

Alternatively, what if you do not have a product already in development that you are managing? What if your possibilities are more open, you are working without very limited constraints, and there is no inbound customer feedback because your product isn’t on the market yet? This is the art and science of entrepreneurial product management. At an event this Tuesday with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the group Bay Area Women in Machine Learning and Data Science the particular difficulties of entrepreneurial product management were a major theme in the conversations after the event. While CZIs overarching mission is clear, to accelerate science in order to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century, what to build to meet that goal is not (though they are already starting to build some really cool products).

This got me reflecting on how, as product managers, do we make the best decisions when faced with this much uncertainty. This is the situation many early stage companies are faced with and the situation any large company is faced with when they want to innovate and build something completely new. There may be, as in CZI’s case, a broad problem to solve and user group, but how do you go from there to a specific enough of a problem and user group that you can innovate for? As someone that has operated as a product manager at my own company for the past few years, I’ve identified a general approach to this question.

This process involves two core parts: 1) the ideation funnel and 2) narrowing down the possibilities to your best opportunity.

The Ideation Funnel

  1. With wide open possibilities you are in an exploring, learning, and creativity stage. Talk to people in your market, listen to them, understand their problems and leave any preconceived notions you have behind.
  2. From there, you can surface the biggest problems. What is the largest pain point for the greatest number of people? Who are those people and why is the pain point you identified such a significant one for them? Why might this problem not already be solved?
  3. Once you have narrowed down a set of problems to focus on, it is time to ideate around how those problems could be solved. I am keeping it as problems instead of problem because you may find that your team isn’t ideally equipped to deal with a problem you identified even though it seems the largest. At this point, all ideas should be on the table.

Narrow Down the Possibilities

Finally, you will want to narrow down your ideas. To find your greatest opportunity, you are looking for the idea that does three things better than any of your other ideas. It a) is well suited to your team strengths, e.g. my company made products that leveraged the fact that my co-founder was highly skilled in linguistics; b) solves user needs; c) serves company priorities, e.g. revenue or strategic objectives.

Diagram of opportunities

This gives a big picture framework that can help us navigate greater levels of ambiguity as product managers. What do you think? Do you have other tools and strategies that work for you?

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on August 31, 2017 and featured on LinkedIn Pulse.

User testing is an essential tool for developers to understand how users respond to and interact with their product. Watching a user interact with a product in development can provide vital insights that a survey, interview, or analytics just can’t provide. User testing does not require a big budget or a big team. Even if you can’t do user testing perfectly, doing whatever version of user testing is possible for you, you will be able to learn a lot.

When it comes to user testing, I have been on both sides of the table. I have run dozens of user testing sessions for the language learning game we are developing. Out of a desire to truly understand our testers, I have also participated as a product tester for a few different companies. These are my top three recommendations on how to run better user tests based on those experiences:

1) Find the language that encourages your tester to give you constructive feedback. While the majority of a user testing session should be focused on observation, getting the user to open up and verbalize what they don’t understand and what they don’t like is essential. Testers, however, sensing how much work you have put into your product, often don’t want to say negative things to you. Open your testing session by explaining how much their feedback will help your development because you know there are still things wrong with your product. Try providing an anecdote for when someone’s constructive feedback resulted in a positive change to your product.

2) Make the experience less intense for the tester. Keeping them at ease will allow you to build better rapport and get feedback out of them in a more realistic manner. This is a user test, not a stress test! I was a tester with one company that had three people hovered over me using a mobile device. Keep the number of observers to a minimum. I recognize that having others in the team see the test can be incredibly important. Consider using a video camera to record the session. As a tester, my best experience was an entirely recorded session. I felt the most relaxed and confident in the feedback I was providing. Of course that limits the follow up questions to whatever you decided in advance so find a happy medium.

Along the same lines, I had a conversation with someone recently who stated she hates user tests because as a tech person, she feels she should be able to figure out how to use the product and is then stressed when she can’t. Make sure to communicate to your testers that if they have trouble figuring out your product that it is your fault as the developer, not theirs! Let’s help people love the user testing experience so that we have a robust pool of people excited to test products.

3) Remember to stay focused on the observation component and not get too lost in follow up questions. While some pointed follow up questions can be helpful, remember, users don’t necessarily know what they want. Asking a question such as “If we did x, would you like the experience better?” will get you nowhere. If you think x change might help, prototype it and test it. An example of a great follow up question, however, is “what did you find confusing about x?”. I have been a tester when the session should have been ended. Those running the test, however, felt they needed to use the entire allotted time and so they kept asking me tons of questions that I could do nothing but take wild stabs at. This obviously will result in confusion.

User tests are vital to developing a great product. I hope these tips can help you run better user testing sessions. I am sure there are tons more great ideas out there. What else have you found helpful?

 

Before I moved into leadership roles and went on to start a company I was an outdoor educator, leading groups of students on educational adventures in Yosemite National Park. Among participants, the night hike is a favorite evening activity. This involves taking a group of about 30 participants out into Yosemite Valley after dark, usually walking with just the stars and moon for light after your eyes adjust to the night.

The first time I took a group out for a night hike, I led my group as confidently as I could, marching further away from their cabins, eventually stopping in a clearing for some teaching activities. Afterward it was time to head back toward the cabins and I looked around, confused. I started off in one direction and then frantically realized that I wasn’t right and started looking around again, anxious to find the answer in the trees surrounding me.

Luckily at that moment, I came across another group being led by a more veteran educator. I quietly snuck up to him and asked for help, for him to point me in the right direction. To my surprise, he didn’t point through the woods, he pointed up. Then it all seemed so obvious, the iconic valley could easily guide my way back. I had been so overwhelmed in the moment, immersed in my environment, I had lost the perspective I needed to successfully get to where I needed to go.

As entrepreneurs, as leaders, as business executives we can often get caught up in the day to day. Anxiously moving from task to task while losing sight of our overall vision and path forward. We can become lost without really realizing it. Only through taking the time to step out of the hectic zone of the day to day can we regain our perspective and realize our best path forward.

To regain your perspective, perhaps you regularly meet with a mentor like the more experienced educator who guided my eyes up, maybe you schedule some time out of the day to reflect and strategize. For me, it is a weekly hike in the Bay Area that provides me with the solitude and reflection time that keeps me on course. Find whatever strategy works best for you, but find it, so that you can keep the perspective you need to succeed and not get lost in the woods.

So you have a great idea, now what?  You have probably heard plenty about the Lean Startup Movement and maybe have read Eric Reis’ book The Lean Startup but putting lean into practice is really hard.  You need more information before you build but the problem is that building product is fun and customer interviewing isn’t always so fun.  Steve Blank’s  book The Four Steps to the Epiphany gives tons of great info on customer development but is a lot of info at once.  The goal of this post is to provide a basic overview of the early step of customer interviews and some practical ideas to get it done.

I have spent the last several months making  and launching MVPs for a few different ideas that I have had.  The  first one, I just did a survey,  convincing myself that it would be good enough…it wasn’t.

Surveys fail because they don’t give you the nuance of people’s reactions and they don’t allow you to ask follow up questions.  Our first MVP was for a website that aimed to provide an informative, gamified platform for people interested in living more sustainably.  By using surveys we were stuck with limited data that encouraged us to invest the time to build a website that wasn’t worth building.  The data confirmed our idea, and we humans love nothing more than validation, however it hid major flaws.

The first tricky part is finding customers to actually interview.  Here are some of the strategies that I think work for this, though I would love to hear from others if they have additional ideas.

B to C Strategies:

  • Community groups to find individuals willing to talk
  • Mechanical Turk – there is a great tutorial on Customer Development Labs on getting interviews set up this way
  • Cold approach – ie standing outside of relevant places of business (with permission) and walking up to people, while not very fun, can be effective

B to B Strategies:

  • Introductions through your network
  • Cold calling

Crafting your customer interview questions is the next tricky step.  The problem is that people are generally nice and don’t want to tell you bad things about your idea.  They also don’t really know what they want.  Check out this talk by Rob Fitzpatrick on Getting Customer Development Right.

Some of the major questions you want to answer in customer interviews include:

  1. Do people actually have the problem I think they have?
  2. How big of a pain point is it for them and will they actually pay to solve this problem?
  3. How are they solving this problem currently?
  4. How easily can your solution integrate into your customer’s life or will there be major roadblocks to adoption?
  5. Any other assumptions that you are making that determine the success of your business? The business model canvas is a great tool for identifying the assumptions your business idea depends on.

When I did interviews for my next product, FitCycle, I found myself falling into pitch mode really easily… just don’t do it.  FitCycle is an app that provides indoor cycling workouts, including motivational music and instruction, via the convenience of your phone.  Here are some examples of better questions I eventually got to:

Key assumptions

  • People can’t always make it to an actual class
  • People are bored and looking for solutions to their regular cardio routine
  • There aren’t great solutions out there currently
  • People have access to a spin bike

Questioning

  • How happy are you with your current cardio routine?
  • Do you attend spin classes regularly?  If not, why not?
  • Do you belong to a gym with spin bikes you can use or do you have a spin bike at home?
  • Do you try to do spin workouts on your own?  If not why not?

Armed with all the great information you get out of customer interviews, your original vision of an MVP will likely change, and that’s a good thing… because now it is based on something more concrete than an idea you think is cool.

Thanks to the guys at Lean Startup Peer-to-Peer Circle for helping me figure a lot of this out.