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How to use a comic strip format to communicate a product vision, get buy-in, and inspire customer-focused work.
[6:19] Why the ideal product vision is a comic strip.
[11:34] Look at the gaps between your product vision and what your product looks like today to find the right strategies for improving your product.
[20:09] How Rajesh and his team create product visions for startups.
[25:53] How often do you need to update your product vision?
[33:16] Getting buy-in as a user researcher working with product and design teams.
Rajesh Nerlikar is the CEO of Prodify. He’s an experienced product advisor, coach, and consultant who applies best practices from 15+ years of hands-on startup and enterprise product management to help companies accelerate the creation of customer and shareholder value.
[00:00:00] Rajesh: That's the most important part of the vision is that it sets a clear direction so that people can understand where we're headed and make trade off choices of whether, going left or right today is going to get us one step closer to that vision.
[00:00:11] Erin: Hello everybody and welcome back to awkward silences. Today we're here with Rajesh Nerlikar. He's the CEO of Prodify, which is a team of product advisors. He comes from years and years of product experience building product frameworks. And today we're going to talk about building a product vision on UX research uh, and how we can sort of elevate the role of UXR in organizations to be more strategic and impactful.
So thanks so much for joining us.
[00:01:01] Rajesh: Yeah. Thank you both for having me excited to be here.
[00:01:04] Erin: Got JH here too.
[00:01:06] JH: Yeah, I've actually followed Rajesh on Twitter for a long time. So I would recommend doing that if you don't and I’m excited to chat.
[00:01:11] Erin: Yeah, What's your handle? So folks can go ahead and do that.
[00:01:14] Rajesh: Yeah, it's @RajeshNerlikar.
[00:01:16] Erin: So let's start from the beginning here. Why is it important to build a product vision on UX research?
[00:01:28] Rajesh: Yeah. So, I'll provide some context and then answer the question on sort of like how we got to talking about this topic here today and why I think it's such an important one. You know, by way of background, I'm an engineer turned MBA, turned product guy. I've been doing it for more than 16 years, mostly at startups and a few other larger organizations.
And in the last three and a half years, I've become a product advisor and coach. I've worked with about 35 companies myself and collectively at Prodify we've worked with about 75 almost all SaaS companies in the last seven years. And as you might imagine, just from our own experiences with the Prodify team and product management and working with this many companies, we started identifying some patterns of the things that we felt most product teams were struggling with.
We created this framework called vision led product management a couple of years ago. And then we wrote a book on it last year and in the opening chapter of the book, like good product managers, we wanted to present the problem of what we were trying to solve with the book. And so we captured a lot of these issues that we were seeing across product teams in what we call the 10 dysfunctions of product management.
Like any good product manager, my co-founder Ben foster, and I spent a lot of time prioritizing these. And one of the ones that I often put at the top of the list is what we call the ivory tower, which is effectively, you know, a bunch of Product teams or executives or whoever it might be making decisions for what customers and user's need with very little research and no conversations with any of those people, right?
Just their gut instinct or their belief and understanding of the market and things like that. I Can tell lots of stories of how this has led me astray in my product management career. But at the core of what we believe good product management is having a deep understanding of your customers and your users, and that no amount of sort of analytic dashboards are going to get you that, that context and the information you really need while that's, those are helpful to understand the behavior of users inside of your product.
They never explain the why. What's going on in this person's life? Why did they stop clicking here? What did they get confused about? What are they trying to do? What else are they using outside of our product to help accomplish those things? And so, you know, we kind of talk a lot about how you build customer discovery and interviews into your product development process in a way that's meaningful.
And, you know, JH mentioned he's been following me on Twitter. I've also been following him because user interviews is one of the very, very few products I recommend to almost every single client because of this dysfunction where I often hear a lot of excuses, why they can't do customer discovery, interviews, or talk to users.
And it's. I don't know how to find these people, or I don't have the time to recruit them and like set up these interviews and like, you know, I've used the product many times a user interviews in the, I love it. I'm like, you have no more excuses. You can spend minutes and like tomorrow you can be talking to five people.
So, here's my referral code. Like, let me know how it goes. If you need help setting it up. And, you know, as y'all know, there's different types of research that people do. And I think obviously there's a lot that goes into, you know, the more like, kind of evaluative research and thinking about. You know, Hey, I want to do a usability test.
I want you to react to this concrete thing that I'm going to put in front of you user, but there's also the generative research, which we focus on a lot because you know, as a part of the framework, if you want to set a vision for what should we build in the next three or four years? That better be grounded on what's going on in the market and the trends of how behavior is changing and what customers look for and what the competitive landscape looks like.
What are they using today? What do they like about it? What do they not like about it? And so those are the core concepts that we think about and why, you know, user research is so important to setting the sort of big picture, vision and strategy for the product. It's like, you don't want to do that just in a vacuum with like very little conversation.
So. Obviously you have a lot more to cover there. Let me pause there and see if y'all have any questions or thoughts on sort of the core theory here.
[00:05:12] JH: Yeah. Yeah, no, I agree with all that. I appreciate the kind words as well. One thing I'm curious about is, like, when you talk about vision for the product, and everything else, maybe we should just start there. And like, what is a good product vision and how does research inform that? Cause I feel like sometimes you hear it in different ways from different people.
Some people will say like, you know, here's a roadmap of very specific features and this is our vision for the next 12 months or whatever. And then other people go super lofty like our vision is to empower small businesses or whatever. And it's, you know, it's very removed from features and stuff like that.
Like what is a good vision? Like what kind of level do you wanna operate at? And like, how can generative research kind of inform that?
[00:05:44] Rajesh: Yeah. Great question JH. There's a blog post. I did, I call it eight ways to express product visions. And I kind of looked at the most common examples that I had seen from my clients that I had seen used in some of this related thought leadership in the product space. And I'd say there's sort of two dimensions that I see visions kind of iterated and plotted on.
One is sort of like how high level versus detailed they are. So like you said, sometimes I see the one sentence it's like, we want to transform this industry and that's our vision, right? Or, you know, that's like helpful, but like everyone can say that and then there's super detailed visions and I've done this myself, like, it's like a 40 page document that explains everything about customers and those are helpful, but then no one reads them.
Right. And the other dimension is sort of like how verbal versus visual are they? What our take is effectively that a sort of high level or like detailed visual is more powerful as a vision than anything else. And so I think our format that we typically prefer is literally a comic strip.
And it explains what you want your customer journey to look like at some point in the future. And the reason that we really zoom in on that is. Rather than just have a list of features or some like sentence that says what the product is going to do and how it's going to be different and all those things it's like, those are great.
But then if you go into an organization, especially in these times of sort of remote work and ask like 10 people, what the vision of the company or the product is, you probably hear 10 different answers. So it's not concrete enough such that people can imagine what it means and make decisions as a result of it.
Right. And that's the most important part of the vision is that it sets a clear direction so that people can understand where we're headed and make trade off choices of whether going left or right today is going to get us one step closer to that vision. And so, we really liked this real customer journey focus because it shines a spotlight on the user experience.
And also it's a language that every single person at the company can understand. Right. You can talk to sales and marketing and the, you know, the exact team, a product engineering design, everyone can look at sort of wire frames or like this comic strip of what the story, how the story unfolds for a given customer or user and understand what's keeping them going and those things.
And so, that's sort of the format we really prefer. And the only way to really know how to like craft that. And it was sorry, let me get, let me drive into some of the details.
[00:07:59] JH: Yeah.
[00:08:00] Rajesh: The journey of the comic strip, we break it out into what we call six chapters. And this is sort of a loosely based on the jobs to be done framework and sort of the timeline for how, you know, product selection happens.
But the first chapter is the triggering moment where, effectively, someone's banging their head against the wall, wishing that there was a product that helped them achieve an outcome in their life. That was better than their current solution. Then the next chapter is discovery where they might do some research and say, Hey, you know, ours is a quick Google search or search in the app store.
You know, as common examples, is there something better out there? And then there's this evaluation chapter that follows that, which is like, you know, as they learn about new products, they start going through their mental checklist of like, Hey, do I do I have reason to believe that this product would actually be better than my current solution?
And if so, why? And in what dimensions and those types of things. The fourth chapter, it kind of moves into a trial where hopefully they're kicking the tires. You know, you kind of think of this as like, All the apps you've downloaded on your phone. Then sometimes you play around with them for 30 seconds, and then they just sit on your home screen for like years.
But, you know, hopefully after that trial, they got enough value during the onboarding experience that they would move into sort of that ongoing usage chapter, which is where most product teams spend their time. Right. They think about, you know, activation and retention and engagement and all those metrics, which is great.
And then the final chapter, and we usually draw this as a loop is sort of a retention chapter, right? When push comes to shove, for example, their subscriptions about to expire, they have to make a decision on whether they want to renew. Do they stick with your product? And if the answer is no, then having a deep understanding of like, why is that?
And in order to understand why someone would keep going through all of those different chapters, and learn about your product, try it, keep using it, stick with it. As you might imagine, it all comes down to user research and how do you figure out what's going on in people's heads while they're using your product while they're looking at your marketing side to decide if it's the right product for them and like, kind of across all of those chapters.
And so the foundation of being able to craft that journey and explain what you want your experience to look like at some point in the future. Depends heavily on your understanding of the existing solution space and the existing sort of experience that customers have with your product and what's working.
What's not all those things? So that's kind of a super high level on how we think about visions and how creating that customer journey story is a powerful way of communicating and inspiring your team to get excited about the direction of the product.
[00:10:20] Erin: Yeah, it's funny. You mentioned loops cause as you were talking, you know, I'm trying to visualize, right. We're talking about a visual kind of artifact here. I'm visualizing. Okay. We've got a story. This sounds very linear. You know, you've got one chapter that follows the other you know, I lead a growth team, so we think about loops all the time.
I lead a marketing team. We talk about funnels all the time. I'm active with our research team. We talk about customer journeys all the time. And, but all of this is like, you know, of course in real life, not necessarily perfectly linear people can bounce around, and skip chapters and all of that sort of stuff.
But we're ultimately talking about the same thing, which is, you know, how do we get people from this sort of like sad, frustrated State to a happy advocate like yourself who was, you know, referring lots of people to user interviews. Thank you. That's amazing. I'm curious when you go about this effort of, you know, doing some UX research to create these visual journeys back to that kind of dimension of how detailed versus how high level do we want to be?
How detailed do you want to get in terms of thinking about different customer segments, different journeys, different jobs to be done, like what's the right level of detail or abstraction to kind of get started on bringing research into this process.
[00:11:34] Rajesh: Yeah, for sure. And I think personas and sort of who you're building for is actually one of the foundational steps. Let me sort of answer that with a super high level overview of the vision led product management framework, because it might help kind of clarify. And this is like we said, it's effectively our encapsulation of best practices.
Having worked with so many companies and thought hard about product vision, and strategy, and what's working and what's not. And so, you know, we put the framework together a couple of years ago and last year wrote the book called the build. What matters is to further describe it, but there are four major components to it.
The first is in order to set a vision and then a strategy to realize it. The first question is who are we building our product for? And this is a place where I think a lot of product teams kind of assume that everyone's on the same page, but they're not necessarily. And this gets complicated when your business model is not sort B2C right.
When it's consumer facing, then it's pretty straightforward. But with the, you know, a B2B2C model where you've got a buyer and then an end user, you know, I worked as an employee, the employee benefits world for a while.
So we, you know, we had a B2B to E model where we were. The HR department bought our product and offered it as an employee benefit to the employees. And then we had to get employee engagement to I think it's really important to, to think about maybe even crafting a vision for each persona, because the reality is that you may want to have a vision that's the buyer journey and that the sales and marketing team contribute to as much as the product team does.
That might be different from what you want, your, you know, the user experience to look like. And what you want those things to look like. So, you know, the first core thing that we do in the framework is we start thinking about who are the personas that our product serves. And there might be many, there's the buyers, there's the users, there's internal stakeholders.
And for each one we have a concept of what we call, what is the key outcome? What are they really trying to accomplish in their life? And why does it matter to them? Right. So, you know, the classic examples we use. I don't use Twitter necessarily to send tweets. Right. I use it so that I can feel updated in the world of product thought leadership, or I might just want to know what's the latest thinking in the Bitcoin world.
So I use it as a key outcome to like, stay, you know, stay updated or feel informed. Right. Similarly, I don't ride my Peloton bike every day. Cause I like, you know, I'm just trying to like exercise. I do it because I'm trying to lose weight. So my key outcome is like weight loss and the riding of the bike is like one aspect of it.
There's also nutrition and all these other things. Right. So we use that to make sure that everyone is grounded in what matters most to the customers. Because I think especially in product management teams, it becomes really easy to be obsessed with and trying to keep your stakeholders happy. And, the reality of the world is, you know, sales, marketing, customer success.
They would all be happy if the customers are happy. And if you're going to draw a pie chart of where you spend your time. Probably way more efficient to spend your time and make sure that buyers and users are happy in order to make sure that sort of the internal stakeholders are happy.
So that's kind of the first step to identify the key outcome, right? The personas. The reason we start there is then in order to craft the vision, we say the vision should be exciting to the customer or the user.
And so we say, how do you 10 X the outcome for those people? So you have to know what they are trying to accomplish? And then you have to say what would be a game-changing experience from their perspective. And that's where the customer journey vision comes in and being able to articulate. Here's what we want our customer experience to look like at some point in the future.
And once you get alignment on that sort of persona of the outcome and that vision then you work backwards from that vision and say, okay, so if I did a gap analysis of what we would need to realize that vision versus what we have today, what are all of the sort of like the bulleted list of things that we need to build, or sort of like offer to customers to make the vision come to life?
And from there, how do you prioritize building some of those things first versus second versus third? And that's what we call a strategic plan. You can think of it effectively as a multi-year roadmap. And that's kind of the third step in the process. And then the last step is we recognize that very few product teams would have the ability to actually go, just spend a hundred percent of capacity on something like, just building towards a vision.
That's usually only true when you're launching a new product. You have existing customers, you've got feedback, you've got operational needs and all these things.
And so, coming back to this sort of question around like how much. You know, how do you go about crafting that journey and how much detail is necessary? I think you need enough detail so that if someone brand new, you know, in 30 seconds, looked at that comic strip during an all hands, that they would understand why the customer is coming to us and why they keep going to the story.
And so we love using thought bubbles in this sort of comic strip. And that's one of the reasons why the comics strip format is actually really helpful. Because it allows you to show why someone keeps going and what's going on in their head. That was, that kept him going, right. So, you know, classic example of during the trial, they might try the app out or something and in their head, they're like, wow, this is infinitely better than this other app I was using last week.
And it does X, Y, and Z. And now you can clearly articulate the competitive differentiation that the, you know, the product, vision and strategy is intended to communicate to the team. Sorry. I know I was talking for a while. Let me pause there and just see if there's any questions around the framework and sort of like how we use it to identify how much detail to include in the vision
[00:16:34] JH: no, that was a great overview. The first question comes to me just from the practical side of things is, you know, you kind of have this multi-step process here. Is it like when you go out to do some of this generative discovery research do you do it kind of step-by-step so you just are trying to identify who the right users are and what their motivations are, and then you move into like different sessions for different probing?
Or if you get the right user, can you kind of learn a lot about them in that initial session? And then you break it into the multi-step later. Does that make sense? Like, can you, like, how do you actually go about doing the research to inform the steps.
[00:17:03] Rajesh: Yeah, it's a great question. I'd say it's mostly sequential. So we literally work with teams through this kind of four or five step process. And we start with the personas and the key outcomes. And honestly, not every team has personas and you know, how much effort goes into even creating personas, whether it's the quantitative data to understand the user base and the qualitative data to understand.
The people and what motivates them and their interest in what they're trying to accomplish in the product. So we usually do it sequentially. And I think you can imagine, you know, typically these sessions in, you know, an interview would be 30 or 45 minutes, and it's probably a, a lot to cover, for example, in some of our competitive research to help inform how our, how the product should be differentiated in the market.
You can imagine 30 or 45 minutes just understanding like, Hey, tell me about your existing product. What's working? What's not? How did you find it? Why did you start using it? What do you hate about it? All those things. Right? So we usually work sequentially. And start with more of that generative research.
And then, you know, as we work through the progress, we might show. Uh, You know, I don't know, maybe you might show the comic strip to someone and say, Hey, could you imagine that you are going through this journey yourself, or probably more likely is sometimes we supplement the comic strip with mock-ups to help communicate the direction and in a very concrete way.
And we might ask for some sort of feedback on things like, Hey, like, look, click through this clickable prototype and let us know what you're thinking as you kind of imagine. Is there anything missing? Does it make sense for those types of things?
[00:18:25] Erin: Yeah. And how do you, I guess, get the vision right. Is sort of. Getting from A to B or like that's the roadmap, right? The vision is, you know, point B and where we are is point a and yeah. How do you think about working with teams in terms of, you know, we've identified these customer needs, we have strong hypotheses on what sort of, you know, the outcomes we're trying to achieve.
What's going to make them happy? We've drawn it out. We know what it looks like. Here's where we are. You know, you kind of talked about your three buckets of, you know, different work streams for product teams between sort of maintenance, iteration and vision work. And so, Yeah.
How do you connect the user to acting on that vision?
[00:19:46] JH: Yeah.
[00:19:48] Rajesh: Yeah. Great question. So, you know, like, like I said, typically when we say vision, we're usually thinking three, four years down the road and you want to get buy-in and once you get that, you say, Hey, this is what they're trying to accomplish. Here's a vision for how we can help them accomplish it better than they can today.
And a vision that they would be excited about that we should be excited about. And then we work backwards into what we call the strategic plan, which is effectively that multi-year roadmap. And so. It starts with a gap analysis like, what are all the things we don't have today that we would need to have in order to realize this vision?
And this is where this sort of like really hard product strategy questions started coming up, which is like, how do we sequence this work? Because we work in a lot of startups there's often fundraising and the financial situation, which is like often there's a, you know, there's a runway of whatever, 12 or 18 months, and we need to prove X, Y, and Z in order to like, accelerate the next fundraise.
And so in order to do that, we need to demonstrate this traction. And in order to do that, we need to have these features or that we need to be able to. You know, target this market and show that we've got some decent penetration, those types of things. Right? So there's often this sort of financial aspect, especially as startups, there's a competitive aspect.
As you know, we use the Kano model, which is another framework that we liked for competitive strategy and differentiation. And the Kano model basically says that, you know, users bucket product value props into three categories. So there's must haves where it's like, either check the box or you don't there's performance factors where the more you do of this, the more satisfied I'll be, but my satisfaction kind of scales linearly.
And then there's those delighters, which no one knows how to articulate themselves. If you do a little bit of them, then I'm very excited. Right. And I
You know, we use that framework to help identify, Hey, are there any must haves that competitors have right now? And we're just like, not even in the consideration set because we can't check one or two of these check boxes.
Great. Those have to be top priority because we need to be able to check those boxes too, to continue to get traction. And so that's like one of the considerations there's also like, obviously there's technical dependencies where you know, you might have to do X first in order from a technology perspective in order to unlock some value props.
Sometimes data dependencies. So, if you think about LinkedIn, they built this giant professional social graph and they had all that data of who's connected to who, and then they figured out how to monetize it with LinkedIn recruiter and sales navigator, those types of things. And so you can kind of see how that strategy unfolded.
So those are some of the factors we typically ask teams to think about as they think about creating that product strategy. And obviously there's a decent amount of user research that can go into helping inform some of those things.
[00:22:15] JH: You mentioned working with a lot of startups. I'm curious, how does this kind of vary depending on company stage or maturity? So just to simplify, maybe say there's like three buckets, right? There's a new team. That's just starting out with an idea and they are very proactive. So they're looking to do this early on a startup that maybe has some traction, but is still trying to hammer things.
And then you have like maybe a bigger, more established company that's doing pretty well, but kind of hasn't ever really clearly articulated their vision. Is the process still pretty similar or where would you have those teams do very different things or does the duration look very different? Like how it varies across those types of.
[00:22:47] Rajesh: Yeah, great question. I'd tell you it's probably a little bit different. Honestly, the framework itself is probably best suited for that. Maybe that last stage company that you kind of mentioned where they've got a decent amount of traction. I think where it's really helpful is when you found them some version of product market fit and there's.
You know, typically what happens, there's like three or four legitimately viable paths forward, but the team has to make a decision on which one they're going to follow. And this is a framework that can help you articulate. Here's where the product is going. Here's who we're trying to serve.
Here's why we chose that. But here's what we want the experience to look like. And here's how we're going to get there. And help rationalize why one path is better than the others. I think that's typically there because if you think about what's going on at an earlier stage, kind of back to that first super early stage company.
It's usually the founders with the vision and, you know, an outsource engineering team or design team, or maybe there's a technical co-founder. And like there's no reason to think three or five years down the road. Cause they're not even sure if they're going to find product market fit next month or in the next year, a few months.
And so they do have a vision they may or may not have used this process, but often what I see is that. The vision is not informed by lots and lots of customer discovery. It's more of a gut instinct and they often, you know, there's kind of scratch their own itch and they've been a user and identified a pain point and they're trying to build something that they feel would be better in the market.
And so there they are working off a vision, but it's just mostly their head probably not written down. And they're building it as they think about it. Right. And so that's usually what's going on early and then that middle stage company. Yeah. Once you launch the product, who cares about your vision, you're just trying to iterate on product market fit and see if the, who, where are you getting the traction who's using it? Who's not, what are they using it for? Are they using it in the way that we originally intended it for it to be used? Are there new use cases or opportunities that we should be considering? So, you know, there's a lot more iteration that's going on at that stage.
And you're just trying to respond to customer feedback and identify some of those early adopters. So yeah. Yeah. I'd say it's probably more helpful for that later stage company. That's like, Hey. We now know a lot about our customers and our users, because we've had a product that has been relatively successful in the market.
Now we need to clarify where we're going and how we're going to take the company to the next level. And I'd say typically that happens around the series, a fundraise, and that's kind of where we will often join. It's also a time that they're probably thinking about their first product hire and we do a little bit of work as a recruiter, product recruiters as well.
So, that's kind of a natural time that they read.
[00:25:09] Erin: We're a series, a company. This all sounds familiar. Yeah. More timing questions. So when you think about, you know, you know, say you're a company, that's a good fit for this kind of a framework, and you're setting out to do this sequential research to build out this visual, you know, journey. How long might it take to do that work?
And what do you think about it? Like, are you continuously iterating on that journey or is it like you do the exercise every couple of years? And the third part of the question is sort of like how far out does the vision go? Right. So how long does it take to do the research? How often do you do the research? And how long will it be good for? What's the expiration date?
[00:25:53] Rajesh: Yeah, great questions. So I think that You know, I don't think this is something you do every quarter or necessarily I think once every year, probably one, two years. And I think there's usually a few triggering points where people start thinking about this. Sometimes it's driven off of board and the board says like, we don't understand where the product is going and like what markets you're trying to go after from this point, we understand where we've been.
We want to know where we're headed. And so that often is a triggering point where it's like, okay, we need to clarify. And it probably worth getting some of this down on paper and making sure there's good internal alignment. This is not a sort of lightweight process necessarily, as you might imagine, like it requires a lot of customer discovery research, probably something that, you know, there's some analytics and competitive research and analysis of the market.
And so they really wanted to go through this framework. It could take them five or six months, honestly.
We also, because sometimes it's more urgent and they're looking at as per product. And honestly, this is usually the time of year where this starts happening. We also offer workshops where we can kind of shrink that down into two or three months and there's targeted efforts. And honestly it probably does take eight or 10 hours a week from the product teams perspective.
Kind of produce the research, produce some of the artifacts, iterate on them, get, you know, start socializing them, getting feedback from stakeholders engineering, design, marketing, and sales the exec team, those types of things. So that's kind of, the sort of overview, because it is a decent amount of work.
And so I think you have to be thoughtful about it. Is it time for us to clarify our vision and strategy? And are we ready to sort of make that time commitment? And as a result, I think you unit, the last part of your question is how often should it happen? I think probably everyone, you know, if you've got it that it's easy to revisit it once a year and say, has anything changed in the market?
Or have we learned anything new from our customers or users that would lead us to believe that we need to rethink any major parts of this? You know, did we identify your custom key outcome or something like that? Or a new, you know, target segment where it's worth investigating whether we should go after them or not.
Otherwise, you know, you know, you're probably not going to start from scratch like this, but every few years.
[00:27:53] JH: And then I guess something we've kind of assumed through all these conversations is. There's sort of an openness to research in the organization already, or like within the product org already, have you found cases where there are teams that really need this, but there's like a hesitancy around qualitative research or doing that kind of work or are you seeing that most teams are pretty open to it at this point because they understand how important it is.
[00:28:14] Rajesh: Yeah, I'd say this is probably something I've observed changing over the last few years, which is a sort of openness to this. The idea of customer discovery is gaining a lot of momentum and that's all for the good. And I think you know, I think maybe investors have even started asking about this, which is like, tell me about product development processes.
I know sometimes that's part of the diligence process and like, you know, obviously we worked with a lot of investors. One of our key things to ask is like, how often are they talking to customers or users? And that's a, it's a great signal for how it's a signal or I guess. A proxy for customer centricity and sort of like how much external information is being used, being used to inform product decisions.
So th there are sort of, sometimes those reluctances partly as I mentioned earlier, that there's a major time commitment that goes into to use the research, but there's also you know, Hesitancy, like, I think at one of the big ones I hear a lot of is like, yeah, I mean, you only talked to like six people.
So like, how do I know if they're representative of like, who we're really trying to go after? Typically, when I'm talking to product folks about doing their customer discovery interviews, that they document who the target audience is to make sure that the people who are the stakeholders who are going to kind of see the final output or recommendations from the study are nodding their head and say, yes, that's exactly the type of person I want you to talk to and then make sure that the recruiting and screening questions like line up properly so that you can minimize the impact of some head-scratching as it relates to like who you talk to and whether they're actually the type of person we wanted to talk to you or that we're selling to, those types of things.
[00:29:41] Erin: Yeah, probably well-known to most listeners, but like, just in case, right? The idea of talking to five people, you know, not being sufficient, is totally valid if you're talking to the wrong people, right. You can't just go talk to five people on the street. So that's kind of a key deal here is, you know, finding people that are representative of, who's going to give you good
[00:30:02] Rajesh: Yeah. Or I do see this thing commonly where they like halfway through, they've talked to three people and they're like, oh shoot, we talked to the wrong three people and then they try to change it. But then they only talked to three of the better types of people. And then they still end up like this, like a bunch of question marks next to all the hypotheses or like the study goals.
Cause they're like, actually, I don't know. I kind of heard that from this person, but I heard this other thing from the other person. So, one of the things we do in our sort of like template for customer discovery is like, we ask them to document the hypotheses beforehand and then afterwards go back and collect the hypotheses from the other stakeholders.
Like, what do you think you're going to hear? Study from the sales team or the marketing team or the executive or whoever, and then go back afterwards and, put a red X or a green check mark, or a question mark next to each of the hypothesis, just to find out, you know, did you feel like you validated invalidated or just didn't get a clear signal?
[00:30:49] JH: Is this a case too, where would you need a user researcher to do this? Well, I'm just imagining, right. A team with some traction and existing product, things like that. They're going to have ideas and like some sort of roadmap and features and stuff that are kind of already earmarked or very top of mind for them. And it feels like it might be harder for them to go out and do this in a way that’s truly unbiased and finding, you know, how they should adjust their plans going forward versus trying to back everything, to what they already kind of believe in, or have slotted in. Can Ken teams do it themselves or do you need a researcher or some independent party to help guide it?
[00:31:22] Rajesh: Yeah, I guess, you know, of course it's always ideal. If you can get someone who specializes in this and like you said, I think not asking questions in a biased way is one of the hardest skills to develop. And that's where user research folks shine and they can extract insights in great ways with simple questions and if you know, 30 minutes, 40 minutes, whatever an hour.
So yeah, I think that'd be ideal. Obviously budget is a major consideration. And I think there's often a question of like, Hey, would we have enough stuff for this person to do full-time and that's usually a signal that, you know, ongoing customer discovery is not yet part of it or sort of culture or process.
So sometimes they might pull a consultant in. Often what we're doing, because we mostly work with the product manager, not product managers at a company, is coaching them on how to do it. And we'll do mock interviews and we'll share templates and worksheets and things like that to kind of help them get ramped up on doing it because either they or a designer or kind of the, usually the first people are best candidates to, to actually start doing some of this work.
[00:32:20] Erin: Yeah. So we talked, you know, a bit about how, you know, customer discovery and research is a necessity, right. In crafting a good, useful long-term product vision. I know you're a real advocate for. Kind of elevating the role of research and organizations. And I'm just curious, you know, what are some other ways that that manifests or if you're, you know, a researcher listening and want what your role to be important in the organization?
What are some other ones, ways
[00:32:51] Rajesh: Yeah.
[00:32:51] Erin: to make that happen?
[00:32:53] Rajesh: Yeah. And, you know, I'm very sure spoiled because I worked on Ben Foster's team and he worked for Marty Cagan back in the day at eBay and brought sort of all that mindset to the DC area on the east coast. And so, you know, what was clear to me that I realized is not common is that product and design were you know, we were connected at the hip and like all research, especially strategic research, the design team was involved in.
So I think as a designer or a UX researcher, I might ask for the opportunity to go help on, you know, strategic discussions or the strategic planning process. You know, we would often do those interviews together, you know, as a product manager and the design team or you, that user research team you know, two people on those interviews and the context that you get there is really great.
I think one of the downsides of, you know, agile and waterfall and this transition has been like, mostly what I see at organizations is kind of this mini waterfall where there's still a little bit of handoff, like product thinks about the problem space.
And then like, you know, crafts, a wire frame and design gets involved and like gets ramped up and they get some more context, but it's like, yeah, All of those handoffs and contextual, like ramp ups require a lot of time and it's probably way more efficient that, you know, product design and engineering, or like just doing some of this upfront discovery work together, even if it's just like one person from each team so that they are getting the context of thinking about the problem and the solution space together simultaneously.
So I think that there's probably that aspect. I think there's another one, which is. In elevating the role. One thing that I am also seeing a transition in is, you know, this move from output oriented product development where it's just like shipping features on time, according to a schedule or a Gantt chart roadmap to outcome oriented product management with thinking really about what are the metrics that matter to our customers, to our business.
And I think another way to elevate, you know, your role in the UX research spaces. Ask the question, like what metric are we trying to move the needle on? And not only from a business perspective, because every product person probably has something with a dollar sign in front of it that they're trying to change, but from a customer perspective or a user perspective, like what does success look like?
With this research study is, or maybe not the research study, cause it's usually part of like a feature development effort. Right. But like, how do we know if this feature is successful? And I think that can be helpful and probably even help you know, you shape the the interview guide and sort of like goals properly to make sure that you're asking questions that can help get at whether the customer or the user is satisfied and they feel like they're achieving what they're trying to in their lives by using the product or the feature. So yeah, I don't know. Those are a few thoughts.
[00:35:26] JH: Nice. You've seen so many companies go through this, right. in your role as a coach and advisor and doing all that consulting. What kind of comes out of it? Do people kind of just like sharpen some of the thoughts and stuff they typically already had, and it just becomes a lot more tangible and it's easier to share in the organization and all those benefits that come with it, or teams coming out of this and being like, oh, we were actually a little off the mark.
Like we need to change course. And it's more dramatic or is it a mix or like, you know, when teams do it, like, what are the typical outcomes?
[00:35:52] Rajesh: Yeah. Yeah. Great question. I think it's a little bit of a mix. I'd say it's pretty common that sharpening the sort of focus or clarifying the concrete details of the direction is like, an often Sort of an outcome that happens from the process, which is like, oh, I heard us say that we were going to go after this type of buyer or this type of user.
And in my head that looked like X. And then I finally saw someone put this down on paper of what that really looked like to the, you know, the product and design team and what they were thinking. And I realized that we were, we're kind of talking past each other. And I think that's one of the most valuable benefits that comes out of going through the process is that.
Especially with things that are, you know, many years down the road, it's easy for people to have these, like the kind of visualizations in their head of what that means. But it's not until you get it down on paper that people realize that they're talking about two different things.
And like, so I think it's really helpful to clarify, like, Hey, who are we going after? And that's one of the most important things to answer. And I think sometimes there is a realization like, wow, We've been doing this over here and there's this other group of people who could really benefit from our product or, you know, that we could really serve well, who have these underserved needs.
And you know, we've just totally missed this market opportunity. And I think that's often an outcome of this. So I think sometimes it's big and it's like, Hey, wow, there's a whole thing. You know, a group of people that we can serve. And then we've identified them and we can incorporate them into our product strategy.
And sometimes it's just like, wow, this is helpful because I've got so much more clarity and now we're all aligned. And now I know how we can make sure that we're all really in the same direction. Cause we were kind of doing it before, but just, you know, it's much more efficient and we're all definitely headed down the same path.
[00:37:25] Erin: So you've been, you know, doing this work for a while. And I'm curious, we talked about this a little bit before, just in the context of right. Organizations being more open to research, for example, but what have you seen change and, you know, not to be clairvoyant, but where do you see things going?
Like, what are you excited about in the future? What's your vision for product and UX research?
[00:37:47] Rajesh: Yeah. So I think my vision, well, I don't know if it was a vision, I guess I'll call it my strong desire. Is, you know, the thing that I talked to a lot of product teams about is like, Hey, like I hear you say either I want to be a customer centric, product manager, or we're a customer centric organization.
But if you drew a pie chart of what percentage of your week is spent, like trying to understand customers, like how big is that slice? And I would say for most organizations, it's like, it comes episodically right in, you know, we're about to launch this new feature as we're going to do some research then.
But I think that to me, the ideal state is that you've created. And I think if you want to say you're a customer centric organization, it seems reasonable to me that 10 or 20% of your week is spent on understanding customers. And if that means, you know, that literally means four or eight hours a week, which is like, kind of a lot when you think about it.
But if you're not doing something and I'm not saying it has to be customer discovery interviews, I think talking to customers or users is great. I think even doing some analysis of like, let me go look at how the feature usage or the analytics to see if that thing we released a few weeks ago is being used or how it's being used or who is using it.
That's great too. Some of that quantitative analysis to make sure that you're tracking whether there's sort of like release product work you're doing is moving the needle on metrics that matter. So that's kinda my ideal state. And I think another thing that I'm starting to see is. I think of quantitative and qualitative as sort of the yang of the YAG, right?
Like I love conversion funnels because I can see where people are falling out, but I never know why they're falling out instead between step two and three. And that's where the qualitative interviews are so powerful because I would like to talk to them and find out what happened on step two. Why did they not click?
They didn't understand the button. They didn't see it, whatever it was. And they play off of each other. And, you know, I might generate some new hypotheses that allow me to release something new and then go measure quantitatively, whether that improves something. Right. And so I think that there's this constant back and forth that has to happen between quantitative and qualitative.
And I think sometimes I see this as still a little bit more siloed. And so I think that's another place where I would love to see teams start thinking about the relationship between the sort of quantitative and qualitative and all of it is in the vein of getting a deeper understanding of your customers and sort of like drawing tighter connections between.
[00:39:58] Erin: Rajesh Thanks so much for joining us today. It's been a great conversation.
[00:40:02] Rajesh: Yes, Aaron. J H thank you so much. Really enjoyed it.
[00:40:04] JH: Yeah, this is a blast. Appreciate it.
[00:40:06] Rajesh: for sure.
VP, Growth & Marketing
Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.
July 21, 2022
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