28 Expert Opinions on User-centred Product Management
The definition of product management and what it entails seems to change from company to company—and, irritatingly, from person to person.
Yet, you soldier on and build products that help people achieve goals, not simply complete tasks…
How do you do it though?
For the latest in our expert opinions series, we asked 28 of the best product managers around how they remain user-centred while balancing these seemingly competing voices. Using their product management alchemy, several pros claim to be able to turn even streams of unsolicited feedback into useful solutions for customers.
Look out for patterns in the areas where they agree and disagree—there’s no consensus about user stories, for example. Just remember: this isn’t a list of best practices—it’s a list of best hypotheses. Enjoy!
Make users the centre of your universe
Product Designer | Author, Tragic Design
It should start and end with talking to users when possible (and it almost always is possible). Every choice the team makes should be from the perspective of serving customer needs first and business needs second. It's too easy to drift into serving your own needs:
- How can I get this project through with the least amount of stress as possible?
- How can we build this with the least amount of engineering resource possible?
- How can we make something we know leadership will approve?
And so on. Serving users first has to built into your process or it will get pushed out. That means support from leadership too. When that is in place, and the team has a militant focus on fulfilling users' needs, that's when businesses grow and magic happens.
The only way to keep user needs at the centre of your process is to centre your process around usersTweet this!
Stop hiding things from your users
Co-Founder, Mind The Product, ProdPad
For starters, we've made our roadmap public, and encourage our customers to send feedback and questions. We make it as easy as possible for them:
- There's a Slack group just for ProdPad customers and our team to communicate directly
- There's an in-app widget for collecting feedback, bugs and providing help
- We've carefully thought out every email and touch point
While we listen to every suggestion and piece of feedback we get, we don't instantly go build things. But we do talk through every last one and, at times, help the customer understand why we're not prioritising their suggestion over other things (as with any company, we can't build everything). Many companies shy away from being this open and honest, but we find it helpful in getting users onboard with our product. In turn, they end up giving even better and more useful feedback!
While we listen to every suggestion and piece of feedback we get, we don’t instantly go build thingsTweet this!
Watch and listen
Freelance Head of Product | Founder of Product People | Author, The Practitioner’s Guide to Product Management
You need to do this as frequently as possible—a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks.
Why? This is the only way you and your team are going to experience your users' joys and frustrations first-hand. And it's that visceral experience that will motivate your team to improve your products.
Before you protest that you do meet with customers often, let me clarify a couple of things.
1. Any meeting with a salesperson in the room doesn't count.
Why? Because any meeting with a salesperson in the room is automatically a commercial negotiation, and that leaves no room for a discussion about user needs.
2. Meetings with customers only count if they're also the people actually using your product.
Your customers are the people who buy your product. Outside of consumer software, they tend not to be the people using your product day in, day out. And despite what these customers may claim, they can't accurately reflect the needs of the actual users. If you've ever had the misfortune of using any corporate procurement system ever, you'll understand my point.
Wherever possible, you should observe your users in person. You need to be able to see not just what they're doing with the product, but how they're reacting. Body language tells you a tremendous amount and you miss all that if all you can see is a screencast.
A passable option is to observe your users remotely with multiple cameras, showing their faces and hands as well as their screens. However, unless you have your own usability studio, this can become prohibitively complex and expensive—which would discourage you from your bare minimum of exposure to users for 2 hours every 6 weeks.
It's cheaper and easier to go and observe your users in their usual environment, so this should always be your first option. If you don't meet with your users regularly, you have no hope of keeping their needs at the heart of your product—so get out there!
Habits maketh the PM
Director of Products, MLHarper.com
For example, 1 site visit every quarter or 5 user engagements (via phone interview or in person) every quarter. It’s a systematic practice that every product manager must take upon him or herself.
However, this insight can’t live in a silo.
Make sure that these insights are circulated widely and regularly across stakeholders in the organisation, including the leadership team.
The Terminus way
The company already had a regular cadence for absorbing customer feedback from the customer success team, and talking to customers directly at marketing events. We were moving so fast that we were validating ideas on the most expensive basis possible—using fully developed, working software.
The product team now invests in design workshops and extensive customer conversations before building significant new features, to ensure customer needs are baked in from the beginning. The increase in confidence all round is nothing short of remarkable, and it's fueling the next phase of growth at Terminus!
Invest in design workshops and extensive customer conversations before building significant new featuresTweet this!
It takes two to make a thing go right
Product Discovery Coach, Product Talk
Engage your customers on a weekly basis to generate insights and evaluate solutions.
For great examples of how this is done, check out Tom Chi’s talk from Mind the Product or the Nordstrom Idea Lab's case study on building a sunglass app.
Talk to customers as a matter of course
We have to walk in their shoes and understand their problems. If we are all responsible for getting out there and listening to what they tell us, we can't help but have them at the fore of all we do. It's important that your business values this time and allows for it as part of your working hours—it can't be seen as a luxury.
Tying what we hear into all elements of the work we do is key to making sure we do the right things for customers. Working closely with marketing teams to craft robust and living personas is so important.
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User experience is everyone's responsibility
Head of User Research and Design, Home Office, UK Government
We have user researchers, interaction designers and content designers—all working with product managers and service designers to create user-focused public services.
I’ve never worked anywhere that is so determined to keep user needs at the centre of the process. It helps that we have the support of the Government Digital Service (GDS)—point 1 of the Service Standard is to 'understand user needs'.
It’s important to embed user researchers into your team, and they should be doing regular, contextual research with real users of your product.
The most effective way to create good products or services is to make sure your delivery team has regular exposure to users. Take your team with you—let teammates see real people using the thing they’re building. It’s the best way to build better things.
The 2 parts to a happy user story
Founder | Instructor | Author, TechProductManagment
Otherwise, it becomes an uphill battle. Product Managers can influence this cultural change in two ways:
- By driving alignment
- By consistency of process
The first part is aligning impressions, within various groups, about who the user is and which types of pain the company is working to solve. Having well-defined personas for all users (and involving all stakeholders in the persona-creation process) can be a great tool for driving this alignment.
The second part is consistency of process. Personas are only valuable if they are used consistently to make product decisions. The same is true for user research, prototyping, validation, etc. These activities can’t be a one-off. They need to be ingrained in your process and bought into by other teams. Today, we don’t hesitate to plan for DevOps or QA activities, so why should user-centered activities be any different?
Product managers can influence the adoption of techniques like dual track agile to ensure the process always accounts for user-based activities.
Define success (in the user's words)
Director of Product Management – Healthcare Solutions, Akili Interactive Labs, KristinZibell.com
I ask the team, at the beginning of the project, to define in the user's words what success means. Together, we create a success statement for each persona. This simple method establishes a strong user-centered foundation at the start of a project and carries through easily to reviews.
This one statement takes the team out of feature-and-benefits land and focuses them on how the product helps the user. It also weeds out any jargon or supposition, which creeps into a lot of user discussions.
During discovery, we assess the validity of this statement with real users, and ask what information or actions they'd need to achieve success. I take this one success statement to each review on an ongoing basis—for designs and builds. I ask the team, can a user achieve this stated success from here? It becomes obvious which pieces of information and actions are necessary—and which are extraneous.
I also like to assign a key metric to that success statement, so at launch I can track whether or not I'm helping the user achieve success.
Be all talk (then all action)
I do this in a few ways:
- I have a Calendly link where anyone can set up some time to talk about our product
- We do regular usability testing
- Our success team often forwards product-related support requests to me and I use that opportunity to dig deeper into issues
We keep a running list of users who ask for a specific feature. Once we starting working on something, we reach out and I try to get on the phone with every one of them so I can better understand their needs.
These methods might not work for everyone, but the point is that talking to users should be approached from multiple angles. It’s not just about usability testing or phone calls. The key is to talk to customers in multiple contexts about multiple aspects of the product. If you do that, you are able to go beyond feedback on a specific feature, to a place where user needs permeate every part of the development cycle.
It's personal and it's business
Founder & Chief Product Person, UpUp Labs
Focus on the problems or unmet needs of your users in your roadmap, not the solutions that you might create. That way you always have a touchpoint to come back to—regardless of the solution you're working on—and everyone is focused on asking, 'Does it solve this problem or meet this need?' Instead of, 'Did we create what we said we would?'
Connect your users' needs directly to business outcomes or goals
We all have objectives or goals we need to achieve to help our companies or products grow—so try to connect your users' needs back to these. Generally, execs don’t respond well to vague promises of returns, so try to be as specific as possible. You can even use a formula to keep a consistent assessment of these needs, which can help explain your prioritisation of certain issues.
Value / Effort = Priority
- Value: estimated contribution to deﬁned goals
- Effort: is the investment you make to generate value in return
It’s easy, for example, to explain the importance of making your product easier to use when you have a user retention or annual renewal goal. Puzzled or frustrated customers don't renew!
The 5 (or more) whys
Jacqueline Yumi Asano
Product Manager, Resultados Digitais
Over 80% of our company's employees deal directly with customers on a daily basis. That means that almost everyone here has good insight into customer needs. We provide an internal channel where the whole team can provide feedback on our product. To avoid this turning into a backlog of superficial suggestions, we ask questions that help product managers understand why a certain situation is a problem for the customer, its impact and what's currently being done to solve these problems. The product managers then need to reply to the feedback and provide an overview of how we're planning to tackle each problem that has been reported.
We also set up lunches with sales and customer success teams so they can tell us why they think we lose customers and whether our main competitors are changing. It's amazing how much you can learn from a simple conversation.
Another good source of feedback is customer support. Periodically, I try to understand the main product gaps, usability failures and problems with product performance. We've recently prioritised improvements in the product based on this type of analysis, which included quantity of tickets created and their full resolution time. As a result, we had a 38% reduction in the quantity of tickets created for our features.
For me, the most important thing though is to talk to your users—I often do Skype calls to listen to what they have to say. And remember you need to understand why something is being asked for—look for the root cause of their problems.
Focus on users—but don't forget the buyers
VP and Group Director, Go-to-Market and Service Director, Product Management, SiriusDecisions
In many B2B situations, there are personas who will be involved in the buying process but never actually use the product. Even when users are involved in the buying process, they usually value different things when evaluating a product for purchase to when they’re using it. If you just focus on users and don’t understand the buyer personas and needs, you’ll likely never get people to purchase the product. You won’t even have a chance to get people using it.
I’ll also focus on 3 crucial elements that I don’t see happening in many B2B organisations:
1. Agree on who the users are
It sounds basic but I regularly come across product teams with differences in opinion about who uses—or should use—a product. You can’t center on user needs if everyone has a different opinion about which users should be the focus.
2. Get a comprehensive understanding of user needs
Again, it would seem to go without saying, but this is an area we see as a big gap in organisations—many only have a cursory understanding of needs. For example, they haven’t actually spent time understanding the unspoken needs of customers, they’re just going off what the sales team tells them or feature requests submitted by users. We have developed a process (The SiriusDecisions Needs Aperture) that outlines the best approach for B2B organisations to identify and prioritise needs that are likeliest to have the biggest commercial impact.
3. Ensure there is focus on users throughout the process
One failing I see in many organisations is that they keep knowledge about the users in the heads and hands of a small group of people, or only in the early stages of the process. To truly have a user-centric process, everyone involved in innovating, designing, developing and bringing to market a product needs to have a shared understanding of users. That should align teams from idea to execution. The approach we use with clients (The SiriusDecisions Product Marketing and Management Model) emphasises that focus on the user/customer, upfront and throughout our process.
Stop user stories and start job stories
Product Coach | Founder, DesignYourThinking
In other words, user stories don’t bring out why users want to do whatever they’re attempting to do.
Personas are great, as they put the user right in the middle of your product. After many years of using personas, however, I realised this was a futile exercise. No one referred back to the persona, nor did it help anyone understand why the persona was doing something in the context of a user story.
Ever since I came across Clay Christensen and the “Jobs To Be Done” (JTBD) framework, I’ve been using and recommending job stories instead of user stories. The reason is pretty straightforward—job stories focus on the context and motivation.
Spot the patterns
Susana Videira Lopes
Product Manager, Huddle
We've found that sending out Net Promoter Score surveys, to a randomised significant sample, gets us an overall pulse of how we are doing. But it's hard to correlate changes in score with product changes. Instead, what I find the most useful is spotting patterns in the free text question, How could we improve? If a topic keeps getting mentioned by a sizeable percentage of respondents, it gets investigated. We then have calls with the respondents to ask the famous 5 whys, until we get to the root cause of the problem. We also use those relationships with end users to build a list of people who are happy to be contacted in the future, to test the prototypes designed to solve that problem.
Reaching out to end users directly, in a B2B environment, requires lots of internal communication, so we let account managers know when we have been on a call with an end user from their account. This way, they are always aware of all touch points with their account.
If a topic keeps getting mentioned by a sizeable percentage of respondents, it gets investigatedTweet this!
A never-ending balancing act
Consulting Product Manager, Reef9 Reaping, PhilWolff.com
You try to amplify user research findings by properly prioritising and communicating them to all teams and stakeholders. You try to budget for instrumentation that gives you solid user behavior data. You include internal stakeholders in customer support and user research work. You drag your UX personas into meetings. You hold listening tours. You innovate and steal many ways of listening to, learning from, and understanding your users.
Legitimate forces always seek to displace your users from decisions. Engineers paying off technical debt. Regulators enforcing public policy. Suppliers mandating changes to how your service interacts with them. Marketers seeking compliance with identity standards. Management making promises to investors. Sales demanding 'just one feature to close the big sale'. In B2B, corporate buyers may want different things than their users need. Even improvements to your own product management process rob attention and resources from your users.
The hardest part is keeping users in your heart every day. Distractions and stakeholder pressure keep pulling and pushing you to other concerns. So you need a personal touchstone—a mantra, a habit, a reminder to return your focus to your users each day. You also need colleagues to share your resolve and help each other hold that focus on users.
Because user-centricity only happens when you insist and persist.
Do it by the book
Product Management Consultant | Speaker | Author, The Lean Product Playbook, Olsen Solutions
1. Define and agree on your target customer
Being clear about your target customer brings all product team members on the same page. The definition should be in writing (not verbal) so anyone can access and read it (e.g. a Google Doc or Wiki page). Personas are a great tool for describing your target customer.
2. Use user stories
The main point of using user stories is to ensure your development work is user-centric. If you’re using user stories, make sure you’re writing them from the user’s perspective (even though they’re called “user stories”, many teams don’t do that). Use the template “As a …, I want to …, so I can …” to write good user stories.
3. Set up recurring meetings to talk with customers
For example, the first Tuesday of every month could be 'Customer Day', where you schedule 45-minute, 1-on-1 sessions with 5 or 6 customers. Even if you don’t know at the time of scheduling what you plan to ask customers, that’s okay. You will always have something to ask or show them when the time comes. If you can, figure out how to make this scheduling happen on autopilot (e.g. through a research coordinator, if you have one).
It's a life(cycle)-long commitment
Keep in mind not only the pain points that you're solving for users, but also the long-term impact your solutions have on the product. While building a product, it's good to keep the discovery handy:
- Ask: what are the needs of my (target) users and why?
- Try to figure out which user is doing what and for how long
- Study the user's behaviour and which patterns emerge over time
- Don't focus on all the users the same way
- Don't make assumptions about users and their needs
- As you build, take a step back to find out whether a product actually fulfills a user need and is it worth building
- Interview your users and make listening the absolute key
- Set a challenge that every single core action should be achievable within 3 clicks
- Ask: are the designs solving for performance and stability?
Focus on whether a product or feature really meets your user's need, whether the users will pay for your solution, and (more importantly) whether the users will spread the word about the product.
Product Designer – User Experience, XING
When a product can help users progress towards a desired outcome, it increases its own value and user happiness significantly.
Uncover users' needs and make them transparent to the whole product development team, and stakeholders or clients. You can create empathy for these user needs using research insights posters, coherent narratives and job stories (under the Jobs To Be Done framework).
Know thine users (there might be more than one type)
Web Experience Business Analyst, Trinity Mirror, SteveFarrugia.com
Workflows can vary from person to person, and between regional offices. We often see people taking the shortest path, but there are also those who take the long way round to completing a task.
When we identify a problem—or a perceived problem—we observe the process(es) and talk through them with the editorial users. We also have to consider how different teams, with different needs complete tasks. Talking to a good sample of people is crucial.
We share designs and product updates with stakeholders on a regular basis, including those from others areas of the business. This ensures that a solution is not causing new issues elsewhere. This is a huge risk in a large company such as ours.
When the updated product or feature is ready, we like to test with a sample of users to see if it has the desired effect—or if further iteration is needed before a full release. This gives various teams the opportunity to engage with us in the product team. It allows them to be part of the development process—to create solutions to the problems they and their colleagues (countrywide) are having.
It's not about you or your product
Product Management & Marketing Professional, OutsideIn View
If the user isn't at the core of your product, your product will fail. Developing user personas is a great way to understand how a user interacts with a potential solution to their problem. Bringing in users—better yet, go to their workplace to observe and talk—helps you see how they work.
The user needs to be at the center of your go-to-market planning and launch. You should have buyer personas to help you understand the core goals, attitudes and behaviors of your buyers. Once you understand buyers' motivations, you can mirror that by developing a positioning that holds their attention. Once you understand the buyer’s journey, the launch strategies are easier to develop and execute. Once you know the buyer—the user—you can reach them directly.
It's not rocket science, but it's simply not about you and your product. This is hard for some product managers to hear. But building around, and for, the user is mutually beneficial—you get a product sold and the user gets a problem solved.
Be a company for the users, by the users
Product Manager, Head of Product, Ministry of Justice Digital
I work on products in the UK government and we've hard-coded users into the development of all our digital services. Our Digital Service Standard tells us to understand user needs, and our design principles tell us to start with user needs. We always begin with a discovery phase in which we uncover our users and their needs. We are then periodically assessed against the quality of our user insights, to make sure that users are at the centre of our services.
If your organisation genuinely trusts and values its users, it makes it easier for product managers to be the voice of the user.
Put users at the heart of your organisation and they’ll be at the centre of your PM processTweet this!
A PM star always pays their debts
The data captured on-site can only tell you what the customer did or didn't do, not their intent. Deeply immersing yourself in the product experience is important, but your learnings will always be skewed by what you know. Speaking regularly and directly to your customers has to be a priority for everyone in your organisation. Everything you build needs to be something that your customers have asked for—directly or indirectly.
Technical teams speak regularly about their technical debt. I think it’s important for product managers to speak up about their customer debt. That is, customers left unsatisfied due to half-finished features which were built because we could (e.g. the line was set up for it), not because we should.
And if you ever needed a reason to turn laser-like focus onto your customers and their needs, hopefully this sums it up for you:
“Sustainable growth is characterised by one simple rule: new customers come from the actions of past customers.”
Be a good listener
Founder and co-creator, Under10 Playbook
In the Under10 product management model, learning is at the core of effective product management. Product managers (or whatever their title may be) should be the experts on personas and their problems.
To stay up to date, product managers should hold themselves accountable with a personal quota for customer engagements every month. Whether on the phone, via video chat, or face to face, strive for at least 5 customer interactions every month. You’ll be amazed how often yesterday’s conversations inform today’s decisions.
Without market data, a product manager is just another person with an opinion.
I walk through each step of this product management process in my upcoming book, Turn Ideas Into Products.
1 feature to help 1 million people—not 1 million features that help 1 person each
Product Designer and UX Consultant, Mighty Product
You know, users are people too :). Leave your ego at the door and connect with them, heart-to-heart.
Learn about their struggles, their pain points, their desires and what makes them tick. If you do that, you'll get a lot of insights and ideas on how to improve your product. If you approach a user while focussing on what you want to get done, you'll have a hard time connecting and exploring. People tend to feel when they're talking to a douchebag. You're feeling it too.
At the end of the day, don't forget you're not the CPPO—Chief People Pleaser Officer. You're there to help people and build things that make sense for you as a business. You want to develop a feature that solves a problem for 1,000,000 people, not build 1,000,000 features so you can make 1,000,000 people happy. The latter is impossible and stupid. Just get on with your childhood complexes, dude—we've had enough of it.
People + Business = LOVE.
Put your product to the test
Digital Product Manager, Rebecca Karasik
- Get to know your user
- Never stop testing
For the first, empathising with your users, and understanding their motivations and behaviors, is a way to always keep their needs at the center of the product. You should ensure you’re always doing some sort of user testing.
Are you trying to improve some aspect of engagement on your site? Before sinking more resources than necessary, try to test it out. This will help when you need to show ROI to your colleagues and justify future upgrades to your product.
Test! Test! Test!
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is famous for making sure the conference table always includes an empty chair and letting atendees know that it’s occupied by the 'the most important person in the room' – the customer. Developing empathy and awareness for your target users is a converstone of a successful product management strategy; it’s key to make sure that you and your team understand your customer’s POV, their needs and why they’re using your product or service. Keeping personas in sight, building empathy maps and - why not - keeping an empty chair are some ways of doing that.
Empathy is essential, but so is testing. You should be testing often, at every stage of your design process. When you get real users trying out your interactionsm (and that could be as early as testing a paper prototype or sketches linked together) you literally peek into their world. It makes it easier to visualize the things you should be focusing on.
Lastly, user research should be continious - you don’t check it off a todo list. You should be always talking to your users, conducting interviews, surveys, continously refining your personas, testing (and more, but this is probably enough to paint the picture) at least on a weekly basis. If you do that, your (and your team’s) awareness of what actually matters to your users will grow naturally.