Q&A: how do you keep user needs front and centre?

I was recently asked this question:

How do you keep user needs at the centre of your product management process?

Read on for my answer:

The straightforward answer is that you and your delivery team (yes, even the developers) need to get out there and observe your users using your product or your competitors’ products. You need to do this as frequently as possible, a minimum of 2 hours every 6 weeks.

Why? This is the only way you and your team are going to experience your users’ joy and frustration first-hand. And it’s that visceral experience that will motivate and inspire your team to improve your products.

Of all the companies and organisations I’ve worked for, precious few make the effort to do this on a regular basis.

Now, before you protest that you do meet with customers often, let me clarify a couple of things.

1. Any meeting with a salesperson in the room doesn’t count.

Why? Because any meeting with a salesperson in the room is automatically a commercial negotiation, and that leaves no room for a discussion about user needs. I cover this in more detail in an article I wrote a little while ago.

2. Meetings with customers only count if they’re also the actual users, actually using your product.

Your customers are the people who buy your product. Outside of consumer software, they tend not to be the people using your product day in, day out. And despite what they claim, they can’t act as a proxy for the needs of the actual users. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to use any corporate procurement system ever, you’ll understand my point.

Wherever possible, you should observe your users in person. You need to be able to see not just what they’re doing with the product, but how they’re reacting. Body language tells you a tremendous amount and you miss all that if all you can see is a screencast.

A passable option is to observe your users remotely with multiple cameras, typically showing their face and hands as well as what’s on their screen. However, unless you have your own usability studio, this can quickly become prohibitively complex and expensive to organise – all of which would discourage you from your bare minimum of 2 user exposure hours every 6 weeks.

It’s cheaper and easier to go and observe your users in their usual environment, so this should always be your first option. If you don’t meet with your users regularly, you have no hope of keeping their needs at the heart of your product – so get out there!

Agree? Disagree? Join the conversation: