11 Product Managers Highlight What Customers Want From Your Product

What Customers Want From Your Product

What do customers want from your product? A challenging question faced by many a product managers and founders building web and mobile apps.

Continuing our series of expert roundups (we spoke about what experts thought the future of virtual reality was), this time, we have 11 successful product managers who have built and scaled great products, talk about how to tell what customers want from your product.

Here are the two questions we asked them:

  • What are the best ways to understand your customer’s needs?
  • How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while ensuring it’s the right thing for your product?

Here are their responses.

#1 Never ask customers what they want. Customers are not experts of the solutions

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Alexander Osterwalder, inventor of Business Model Canvas , co-founder of strategyzer.com

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

Never ask customers what they want. Customers are not experts of the solutions. They are experts of the jobs they are trying to get done, the pains they have, and the gains they are trying to achieve. The best way to better understand customers is to observe them, ask them about concrete instances of past behavior, and then perform call-to-action tests that get customers to do something that validates your customer hypotheses.

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product?

Use the Value Proposition Canvas and the Business Model Canvas to design the optimal product strategy that can lead to growth and profitability.

#2 Understand these four things about your customers — what they’re trying to do, why they need to do it, their constraints and how they decide

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Cindy Alvarez, Director of User Experience at Yammer (a Microsoft company) and Author of Lean Customer Development

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

I like to say that while customers often can’t (accurately) predict what they want, they can’t hide what they need. It’s our job, as the people who build companies and products, to understand the problems that our prospective customers are trying to solve. What are they trying to do, and more importantly, why?  What constraints do they believe they have? What criteria do they use to make decisions?

If you deeply understand these four things about your customers — what they’re trying to do, why they need to do it, their constraints and how they decide — then you have all the information you need to construct a solution that they need and will adopt and buy.

So how do you learn these things?

Well, you can’t rely on big data or analyst research or send 10,000 surveys and learn these things. You need to talk to humans, one on one. The good news is that there are a handful of key questions that get you most of the way there:

How are you already doing [general task or challenge] today?

Tell me about any tips/tricks/workarounds/hacks you use to help you get that done?

When you’re doing [general task or challenge], if it went really well, what would that outcome look like?

If you could wave a magic wand and magically change anything — never mind if it’s possible — about how you do [task or challenge], what would you change?

Tell me about the last time you tried a new tool/app/behavior: how did that go?

Ask those questions; ask some thoughtful how? why? tell me more… followup prompts, and you’ll be amazed by how much you learn.

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product?

Products need two things to survive: They need to create value for the company they live in. They need to provide core value to the customers that use the product.  I say “provide core value” rather than, say, “make your customer happy”, because we as humans are pretty terrible at predicting what will make us happy.  Given the choice between a washer/dryer with 3 buttons and one with 12, we’ll pick the one with 12. But those extra options actually stress us out and add a tiny bit of mental friction every single damn time we do the laundry.

Customers saying, “I want this feature” are a red herring.  They’re asking for a solution, but you need to understand the value they’re seeking. I recommend saying, “OK, I’d like to make sure I understand your request. If we built this feature that you’re requesting, how would it make your life better?”

Did the customer say “well, it’d be nice to have” or “your competitor has it” — that’s not the right thing for your product.

Did the customer say “it would allow me to do X” but X is something your company can’t effectively make money on — that’s not the right thing for your product.

Did the customer say “it would allow me to do X” but X is unaligned with your product vision — that’s not the right thing for your product.

It’s not your product’s job to solve all your customer’s problems. It’s your job to solve some of their products, and do it really well.

#3 Figure out how your product can help users make meaningful progress toward their goals

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Benjamin Keyser, Director of Product Design at Intercom

I try to think about what users are trying to achieve with the product in a holistic context, and how our product (and any changes to it) might help them make meaningful progress toward their goals. At Intercom, we use the Jobs to be Done framework to discover what’s actually motivating the customer to make a feature request, and not to simply think of it as a blueprint.

#4 Put some kind of limit on how many features you’ll accelerate for a new customer

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David Barrett, Founder and CEO of Expensify

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

Customers can accurately describe what problem they are experiencing, but they can’t be expected to describe the best solution to that problem — that’s your job.  That said, though they will accurately tell you what they *feel* is the problem, odds are they are confused, and that a lot of the problem has nothing to do with you (eg, is the result of some screwed up process on their side).  So get crisp about what is confusion, what is a problem unrelated to you, and what is actually a problem with your software.  The former can be handled through training and consultation, and the latter should be feedback fed into product development.

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product?

By and large, you should only do for a customer what is already in the strategic interests of the business, but you should do it in a way that achieves the greatest tactical impact.  So, if there is a feature you already intend to do “sometime”, then it could be a valid thing to accelerate on behalf of some new customer.  But if there is something you otherwise have no interest in doing, then better to pass on that customer entirely.

Similarly, put some kind of limit on how many features you’ll accelerate for a new customer.  In general, at Expensify we focus on only accelerating one feature for any new customer — and even then, only if they are very significant.  We don’t attempt to close anybody: we’re a premium product for companies that want the best, and are willing to pay for it.

#5 Effective product managers spend time with their clients watching and listening, not teaching and talking

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Steve Johnson, Product management process coach and founder of Under 10 Consulting

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

Observation beats any other method for discovering what really matters to customers. One of the key ideas from agile development methods is access to real customers doing real work. Effective product managers spend time with their clients watching and listening, not teaching and talking. That’s why sales people are terrible at problem discovery: they don’t listen to learn, they listen to sell.

I challenge product managers to spend time with at least one customer or potential customer every month, and visit even more during the discovery phase. How else will we have facts necessary for prioritization? Observing customers in their work environment will reveal a thousand ways to improve their process with a product solution.

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product? 

Many teams start with a product idea and brainstorm the features they could build. Instead, begin by defining your target personas and prioritizing their problems. Personas focus our solution on a specific type of customer and remind us that not all customers are ideal. Their problems give our product teams clarity on the issues without pre-supposing features. When a customer request comes in, filter the idea through the product personas and problems before putting it in your planning queue. And remember: It’s okay to say “no.”

I had a planning session with two large customers. One customer wanted a bunch of things that only he needed; the other customer wanted things that would benefit all customers. Ultimately I stopped listening to the first customer; after all, we were not a custom shop. Instead, the second customer was giving me advice that ensured product success, focused on the entire market

I use a technique called Quick Prioritization. The two key factors are how much a feature benefits the market of customers and how much it benefits our company. Obviously, we want to focus our energies on things that benefit both our customers and our company.

#6 Shift the focus from allowing customers to dictate solutions and, instead, to encourage them to better articulate the problem that they’d like to see fixed

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Claudiu Murariu, CEO InnerTrends

I’ve noticed that customers often ask for solutions that they’ve already very clearly defined. As a result, understanding what a customer wants is actually about uncovering the problem behind the solution. In a bid to get to the bottom of a problem, when asked to implement a solution I come back to them with a follow-up question: “Yes, that sounds like a good idea, but first, can you tell me what you’re trying to achieve with this solution? How will you use this and why?”

My unwritten rule is this: customers have problems, I have solutions. The very best and easiest way to keep a good balance between doing the right thing for your product and giving customers what they want is to shift the focus from allowing customers to dictate solutions and, instead, to encourage them to better articulate the problem that they’d like to see fixed.

#7 Successful teams get just enough information and data to make decisions. And then they make them

product planning

Jim SemickFounder at ProductPlan

Jim has shared his insights with us from his blog.

I encourage entrepreneurs to focus less on features and more on explaining the value proposition for their product. What does that mean? A value proposition is the expected gains that a customer would receive from using your product.

When someone tells you enthusiastically “it sounds great,” or “that’s an interesting idea,” your first reaction should be to follow-up with “why?” It’s important to understand that someone liking your idea is not the same as buying the product. Your challenge during validation is eliminating as much of these “false positives” as much as possible.

Successful teams get just enough information and data to make decisions. And then they make them. I like to adhere to the 80% rule — get just enough (valid) information from customer interviews and other sources of data and then make a decision. In the end, you will never get to 100% certainty, and getting close will eat up an inordinate amount of time.

As soon as you’ve made some basic decisions and written down your assumptions, get out to test them to see if they resonate with potential customers. I encouraged Startup Weekend attendees to get out on the street, but also to save valuable time by getting on the phone if the customer type warrants.

These should be interviews with potential buyers of your product. You can also test your assumptions by interviewing experts (for example, analysts for the industry, people who have been employed by the industry, consultants, etc.). There are also some great ways to test digital ideas with landing pages and inexpensive ads.

When I mention interviewing, I’m not talking about a cursory conversation (or worse, a survey). Start with a list of questions but deviate from the questions as you learn more information. Approach the conversation with a sense of curiosity about the customer’s problem and needs, and you’ll get some really valuable insight.

“Why?” is by far the most important question you can ask. With it you can get closer to the truth from customers. Unfortunately, this question isn’t used often enough — too many people ask a question, and then take the answer at face value. It’s a missed opportunity to understand the motivation and validate what someone would really do.

#8 If you’re convinced you have found a really important customer problem worth solving, and the right solution means a significant change to your product, then consider taking a leap

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George Perantatos, Lead product manager at Redfin, Former PM at Amazon (Fire products) and Microsoft 

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

The best way I’ve learned to understand what customers want is to talk to them, observe them, and ask a lot of questions. Go out and talk to customers in their environment. Watch them try to solve the problem your product is addressing. Listen to what they say is easy or hard about their current experience. Then, ask the most powerful question: “why?”. Keep asking this question to get below the surface and really understand a customer’s goals and desires.

For example, let’s say you’re building a mobile ride-hailing application. You go observe customers hailing rides. You see them calling taxi companies and giving them their address. You could stop there and build an app that makes calling the taxi company faster and easier. But, if you ask “why?” and get below the surface, you can uncover goals and desires that take you in a different, more valuable direction, like what Uber did (one-tap hailing, no cash, track the car as it arrives).

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product? 

There’s more than one way to give customers what they want. Sometimes, customers can get fixated on one solution because that’s what they’ve seen in a competitor’s product or it’s the first option you showed them. That shouldn’t stop you from being creative and trying out lots of different ideas. The key is to try those ideas out quickly, be it with mockups, interactive prototypes, or quick A/B tests.

Also, remember to be open-minded. If you’re convinced you have found a really important customer problem worth solving, and the right solution means a significant change to your product, then consider taking a leap (especially if your current product isn’t doing so well). There’s dozens of stories of products pivoting their value proposition, user experience, and platform to chase a more valuable problem worth solving. Change isn’t always easy, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

#9 A three letter word can be your secret weapon to moving past product features and into desired outcomes – WHY.

how to take customer feedback

Rob Falcone, Author of Just F*ing Demo!

Your best tips to understand what your customers want

To truly understand what your customers want, you must be deliberate and thoughtful about the discovery process. It sounds so obvious, but for a sales person with a quota hanging over their head, or a founder pitching to keep their company afloat, it can be very easy to fall back into “pitching” instead of “discovering”.

A good discovery process – which can be done in as little as five minutes – fleshes out three things:

  • Present – What challenges are the customer facing today?
  • Future – What are the outcomes they are looking to achieve?
  • Preference – Do they have any specific requirements on how they get there?

How to strike a balance of giving your customers what they want while assuring it’s the right thing for your product?

When great technology is being discussed, far too often customers will come to the table with a list of product features they believe they need, and the sales person / founder / product manager will in turn, go back and forth with their adaptation of those product features.

This is bad.

The key is to NOT make “product features” the focal point of the conversation. Rather, you want to push yourself (and the customer) to flesh out the true outcome they are trying to achieve (with or without your product) and then draft your solution into that broader outcome.

Product features are cheap and transient. Outcomes are valuable and lasting.

There is a three letter word that will be your secret weapon to moving past product features and into desired outcomes – WHY.

By asking “why is that feature important?” or “why are you looking to reduce button clicks at that point in the process?” you’ll understand the customer’s true motivation.

Maybe the broader motivation is that the company’s board is pushing for higher margins. Maybe it’s simply that your customer’s boss wants it done this way, and your customer is gunning for a promotion.

Whatever it is, you can then highlight where your product matches the features they are looking for AND where your product can also provide ways to achieve the broader outcome.

#10 Content that performs best on Facebook tends to be “highly clickable” stuff, but the most clickable content isn’t always the best for our brand

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Clark Benson, CEO/Founder at Ranker

Ranker is a Quantcast US Top 50 site that powers “crowdsourced rankings of all topics” – we have over 100k lists on our site. Our customers are the visitors to our site, which are constantly growing, and spread out across many different content verticals.

At this kind of scale, using data-driven analysis and testing is by far the most valuable means to understand how customers feel about Ranker. Every new product feature, ad placement, etc is A/B tested prior to full deployment, and we look at 3-10 different metrics to vet each change – metrics like time on site, voting on lists, sharing etc.

Many decisions can be made almost entirely by data analysis – the difficult part is knowing what KPIs apply to a given change. But, using data only can paint your brand into a corner. For example, content that performs best on Facebook tends to be “highly clickable” stuff, but the most clickable content isn’t always the best for our brand. So, Ranker has established an ad-hoc committee of people on the editorial side to keep an eye on the balance between growth metrics and “best for the brand” content.

#11 All products must be Desirable, Feasible, and Viable or they will not survive

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Stefan Walger, User Research Analyst at Vivint

Best tips to understand what your customers want.

As much as possible, get out of your world and into theirs.

  • Meet them in their environment whether it’s the home, place of work, or the places they hangout. Let them show you their life in some way, not just talk about it.

Start with specific examples of their behavior first, then move into their attitudes and motivations.

  • Starting with a specific example anchors them in their behavior which in turn, helps orient them to their actual attitudes as opposed to the attitude of their “ideal” self.

Understand what you want

  • Before talking with customers, talk with your team and get their wants for the project out on the table. This will help identify bias, preserve the integrity of the research and help clear the minds of your team to be filled with new insights.

Research with customers, not on them

  • On the receiving end of the product you develop will be a human (in most cases). Many of us don’t have the mental bandwidth to sit down in introspection of our daily lives and then think abstractly about how theoretical technologies can be applied to our problems. We just do the best we can with what we know. Your customers are not inferior to you.

Striking a balance – All products must be Desirable, Feasible, and Viable or they will not survive.

First and foremost, research with the teams involved with the product, not for them. Include engineers, sales and marketing, business, etc… Let them see the people who will become the customer of the product, the company.

Understand what the teams want

  • User research is not just about uncovering user problems. Good research can answer questions about what to build, how to build it and improve it iterative, how much to charge, how competitive it will be in the market, and more. Use the research to help answers the questions of other teams and get involved in their research as well.

Process does not build a product, people do

  • Compromise and collaboration is not without conflict. It is inevitable there will be hard decisions made, feelings hurt, egos bruised, lessons learned, mistakes made, and tempers rising. We’re human – embrace it, but learn when to get over yourself and when to take a stand – and know you will always have to relearn that when you deal with new people and as you grow and change.

Test it

  • Get it in front of the people who you think will be using the product. Does it help them accomplish a task they would be using it for? Does it delight them? Are they indifferent to it? If you understand why you developed a product a certain way, you can test it. Also, don’t just test one idea, test several and be clear as to what you intended each to do.

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Nidhi Shah
 

Nidhi is the head of content marketing at Arkenea, a mobile app consultancy building experience rich apps for startups and businesses.