"I really don’t know how you can build products users will love without a deep understanding of those users, and you won’t get that without lots of direct communication, including face-to-face interactions."

Marty Cagan

There is no substitute for engaging early and often with users. The good news for product teams is that it has never been easier to communicate with customers and prospective customers. We have more tools and direct access to users than ever before. Great right? Yes, but the blessing of this ease of customer engagement can also be a curse without the discipline of a Learning Plan.

A Learning Plan is a simple exercise to outline the goals of the interaction with enough specificity to help you to select the right methodology, confirm you’re targeting the appropriate audience, and inform the details of the interaction. It ensures that you focus on insights that are driving actions versus just gathering more data that may or may not help you to move forward.

Many times I’ve been asked to give feedback on survey questions, an “early access” program, or an analytics plan… and I always start with the same question: What are you trying to learn?

You might be familiar with the Stephen Covey quote, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”

The same is true with user engagement – start with the end in mind. Why are you initiating this study in the first place? What do you intend to do with the information? What actions or decisions will it drive? 

List out the questions you want to be able to answer – even if you’re not sure whether or not you will actually be able to get those answers. Once you have a list of the questions, you’ll be in a much better place to brainstorm options for possible ways to gather those insights. All too often I’ve seen product managers start the process by drafting survey or interview questions as opposed to detailing the questions they’re trying to answer and then figuring how best to answer them.

Once you’ve finished your list you’ll most likely have a mixed bag of questions. Some questions may be related to in-app behavior and a quantitative metric from existing users might be the best indicator. Other questions may relate to acquiring new users, so talking to existing customers won’t make sense and therefore you’ll need to figure out how to reach prospective users instead. The point is that there is rarely one user research approach to get all of these questions answered. You’ll need to prioritize which ones are most important or time-sensitive and work your way through the list, figuring out the “best” approach to get the type of information you desire. 

I put “best” in quotes because best is relative–there may be an ideal approach but perhaps it would take too long or cost too much. You can’t (and shouldn’t) structure every user interaction as if the fate of the company rests on this research. You will likely be “right-sizing” your approach to what is “good enough” for the circumstances. It’s definitely more art than science. Don’t be afraid to ask for input from others who have been down this road before–and if you’ve outlined your learning goals well, it will be easier for others to provide high quality, relevant feedback.

Lastly, remember that you also have an obligation to your users. Whenever you ask for a moment of your customer’s time, you owe it to them to be as efficient as possible. Soliciting feedback with intention, to drive action, and ultimately to create products that customers love is a win for you both.

Key Points

  • Talking to customers is great and you can always get value out of any customer interaction, but well thought out interactions will help you to move fast on the most important areas of your product strategy.
  • Start with clarity about what you’re trying to learn before you get to the “how”.
  • Focus on learnings that are actionable and will inform key decisions.
  • Determine the “best” approach to get the desired information and ensure that you’re working with the appropriate audience for what you’re specifically trying to learn.

Resources

There are many incredible resources online to help you figure out the best approach for the type of learning you’re after–but it’s on you to be clear and intentional about what you’re trying to learn.

By Tracy Stevens

Head of Product @ OC4 Venture Studio

 

Tracy has held Product and Design leadership roles for many companies including GoDaddy, Appfolio, and Intuit, and is an expert in all things product.

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