Customer and user research and feedback continues to be the most essential part of any successful product or application design. A user-centered design process that includes user and stakeholder interviews throughout the process is key for alignment of user goals and business goals. Integrate this goal alignment with the product’s design and perpetual internal and external communication, and you have the winning recipe for any product.
Feedback from prospects and customers who go through the sales pipeline is can be extremely valuable input to the direction and roadmap of a product. However, this is only one piece of the research puzzle in a user-centered design process. Without other discovery and goal-oriented activity and communication, a product can fall into un-focused, reactive state instead of following a well-defined and customer-focused roadmap.
A product must have a long-term strategy that takes business goals and customer needs into heavy consideration. With customer needs and business goals in mind, the organization should clearly define what a product offers now, what it may offer in the future, and, most importantly: what it will not offer. The list of items the product will not offer should be by far the longest.
The vicious cycle of sales-driven design
Without this defined offering and roadmap strategy, internal and external confusion increases — sales and other departments take more liberties in the features they promise to customers and prospects, whether or not those features are fully baked (or more rarely, whether or not those features exist).
New customers can become confused that an application behaves differently or sub-optimally in comparison to their expectations. Existing customers make requests for product extensions and improvements to a growing set of half-baked features.
Product teams are required to build roadmaps while in a state of reactivity, which inhibits proactive customer research and internal business goal development. This cycle continues, and as a result, feature bloat becomes inevitable, the roadmap becomes unstable, the product and its target users become less defined, and the smorgasboard of available product features becomes overwhelming, decreasing product usability and usefulness.
So how do we make a shift to a more balanced and steady feedback loop?
Know when to use a prototype
It’s a bit alarming the number of times I’ve been told that we are building a proof-of-concept for a particular event or meeting, and that the proof-of-concept is going to be full-blown working software, before we’ve confirmed the usefulness of the feature through some kind of research or external feedback. These POCs are shown to large groups of customers, sometimes before key internal influencers see them. Customers get excited about the POC because of how final it appears to be, and we end up just shipping it in its unfinished state.
Ideally, we would validate these early ideas using wireframes or a medium-fidelity prototype. Lower fidelity is important for demonstrating that the idea is not final or complete. We would then float this idea internally to key stakeholders, gather feedback, and make appropriate updates before we show it to customers to get feedback.
Say “no” more often
This one is notoriously difficult, for myself included, but I stand by it. It’s so easy to say yes to a customer to keep them happy, and sometimes it does make sense. But this doesn’t scale — when we have many customers asking for many things, we need to triage these and have a strategy to determine whether this is a widely shared need or a special case, and whether it makes sense with the overarching business goals, target audience, and product roadmap.
Constraints aren’t always a bad thing
I currently work on a contract management product that can be used by multiple industries to build customized workflows. Flexibility and customization is an extremely powerful thing — when it’s allowed in the right areas. I’ve seen customers ask for features that actually already exist, but because of the product’s vast flexibility, some features have been genericized beyond recognition. We have a mental model mismatch; the product’s language and architecture doesn’t match the expectation of the user, and the feature has been hiding there all along.
Create a customer-facing feedback loop
All of this just brings us back again to the importance of being customer-focused and proactive. The power of creating a feedback loop with customers and internal stakeholders cannot be understated — the result is alignment of customer goals and business goals, and I will bet a good chunk of change that sales and marketing become a lot easier when internal goals and strategy are aligned.
I find challenges like these to be really interesting to work through. Anyone had a similar experience, different experience? Would love to know in the comments!