Sitting at the heart of technology, business and customer, product management is a process by which a product vision is translated into a valuable product. Getting organized internally is one thing, but involving your customers presents different challenges. What is an appropriate level of customer engagement in product management processes and decisions?
A product manager must be a champion of customer needs. But involving customers is not about jumping to respond to every request and suggestion. Involving customers in product management is about knowing when this should be direct, and when to use other tools to represent their needs. Letting customers into product management at the right moments is key to building better products.
Direct customer involvement
Whenever they get the opportunity, product managers should be having real conversations with real users. Depending on your business model this might mean picking up the phone or organising to meet with small groups in person. Whether to discuss a particular piece of feedback, an idea on the roadmap or just a check in with core users, it’s important to start talking. These conversations can not only surface fresh product insight, but help us to internalise our customers’ needs, problems and attitudes.
MVP and user testing
An important element of the MVP philosophy is to get products out to customers at the earliest possible stage. You should make only the necessary assumptions about your users’ needs to build minimum viable products that can be taken to customers for feedback. Use wireframes to walk your customers through new products and changes, and share prototypes with customers at different stages of product development to make sure you’re on the right track.
Sharing your roadmap with customers both keeps them informed and gives you perspective on how effectively you’re moving towards your product vision. However, that doesn’t mean you have to share your entire inner workings with customers. If you have particular projects or developments you aren’t ready to make public, create a customer-friendly version of your roadmap that you’re happy to discuss in full detail.
Indirect customer involvement
Although customer feedback comes from customers initially, it is a data source that should be analysed alongside other factors rather than taken at face value. Product Managers should base decisions heavily on customer feedback, but individual suggestions shouldn’t guide product evolution or development time. Listening to feedback is about trying to piece together the big picture of customer needs. Look for trends in customer feedback, and weight ideas differently depending on who they come from – feedback from your target market is the most important of all.
User personas are virtual representatives of your customers. They have a name, a face and personal details, but they aren’t real people. They are fictional representations, based on the real conversations that helped you to understand your customers inside-out. Building user personas allows you to do product management grounded in user needs, without getting bogged down in the detail of specific customers and all their anomalies. Before you take your new product ideas out to real customers, test your inkling, staff suggestion or piece of feedback against your personas.
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