Product Management

Expert Q&A: How Well Do Product Managers Know Their Customers?

By Michelle Gardner
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In order to build successful products, we have to actually know who we’re building them for. But how well do we really know our customers? And how can we get to know them even better?

Laura Klein, product leader and author of Build Better Products and Lean UX for Startups, recently answered these questions and more in an interview with Product Collective’s INDUSTRY podcast.

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INDUSTRY: How well do companies think they know their customers versus how well they actually know their customers?

Laura Klein: Both of those vary wildly. I have talked to clients who have known exactly who their customers were. But no matter how well they actually know their customer, I think companies always overestimate how well. So, there’s always a gap. And this depends on whether you’re talking about current customers or potential customers. The issues differ quite a bit depending on all the factors: the company’s and the product’s longevity, customer research, and the time you put into it.

When there’s a significant gap, what do you think the reason is?

The people who don’t know anything about their users are also the ones who will spend a lot of time telling you, “Oh, customers don’t know what they want, so we don’t have to talk to them.” Just to be clear, customers may not know what they want, but you still have to talk to them. Honestly, people are pretty good at knowing what they want, they’re just not good at designing products.

People will say things like, “We don’t have time to do this research” or “We don’t talk to customers because we already know”—basically just excuses for not talking to people. The ones who do know their customers well tend to be the ones who proactively do good user research or have really good Customer Success teams that are proactively reaching out to key customers.

What is good user research?

There are a ton of books on how to do good user research, mine included. But here are some general guidelines. First, figure out what you need to learn about. For example, a really good place to start is usability tests. Just watching people use your product is going to help so much.

After that, go into user research mode to understand who your users are, their needs, what they do, and their general problems and behaviors. In those cases, you might want to bring somebody in as a consultant to help you understand what you’re trying to learn and identify the big gaps in your knowledge.

Also, don’t ignore quantitative data. If you have it, take it into consideration. It’s super helpful and will tell you exactly what is going on with your product. It will not tell you why that is going on, so you still need to research. But it’s a great way to figure out what you don’t know.

Any tips for getting leadership to buy into the importance of spending time and money to get to know your customers?

If you’re feeling like nobody believes in user research, you are not alone. This is a serious problem. Often, you have to do some user research yourself and show the benefits of it to the people who make the decisions. You need to demonstrate the value.

Usability testing is a phenomenal way to do this. Find three really bad problems and then show them to everybody you possibly can. Get quotes and feedback from customers. That will at least help people understand what you mean by value.

If somebody is saying “We have to add this feature,” get the following information: Why do we need it? What is it going to do? What metrics is it going to improve? Write it down and have them sign it. Then, once you build the feature, check back. Do a post-mortem and ask yourself: Did this do what we thought it would do? Why not? What could we have learned ahead of time that would have better informed us?

What’s the best way to share these insights outside of the product team?

Treat it like a product with different users. When you’re working internally with your teams, it’s not any different than working with your customers or end users. Any time you have a thing you want to communicate to a human, you should figure out what that human wants to get out of your product and how they best consume data. Maybe it’s PowerPoint slides, or a dashboard, or an Excel spreadsheet.

Any common mistakes to look out for?

Doing the wrong kind of research is one big mistake people make. In my book, Build Better Products, I have a whole exercise that will help you figure out what kind of methodology you want to use depending on the question you want to answer.

The other mistake is forgetting about synthesis. Going out and talking to people is not research. You have to synthesize the responses and turn them into insights and next steps or it’s a giant waste of tim

Get more product management advice from Laura Klein by watching the full INDUSTRY interview >


Originally published June 6, 2019

About the Author

Michelle Gardner is the Content Marketing Manager at Logi Analytics. She has over a decade of experience writing and editing content, with a specialty in software and technology.