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How product managers can bring human insights to agile development

The four practices every company should follow

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Michael Mace
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Michael Mace

Michael Mace is the VP of Market Strategy at UserTesting and a veteran of over 25 years in the tech industry. He's held marketing and strategy roles at Apple… (show all) Michael Mace is the VP of Market Strategy at UserTesting and a veteran of over 25 years in the tech industry. He's held marketing and strategy roles at Apple and Palm, co-founded two startups, and has consulted for many tech industry companies.

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Today’s product manager is “the mini-CEO of the product,” a McKinsey report says. It’s a huge job, occupying the intersection between customers, business issues, and products. Product managers must understand customer needs, prioritize features, and work with the engineering team to build them. They are ultimately responsible for a product’s success or failure.

The job was already a hot seat, and agile methods — now the go-to development paradigm at most organizations — have turned up the temperature. Because of the relentless pace of accelerated software delivery, product managers often have as little as a day to make key decisions about features and priorities.

In this high-stress environment, an important step can fall by the wayside: research that pinpoints customer problems and validates that the market truly wants what the product delivers. According to a survey by product management community Mind the Product, nearly half of product managers identified a lack of research as their biggest challenge.

Whether due to a lack of time or limited research help, inadequate research creates a vacuum that product managers often fill with gut instinct and educated guesses. That can be a very bad thing, significantly raising the risk of poor products and the need for engineering rework. Nothing erodes a product manager’s credibility with an engineering team faster than too many rework orders.

For today’s product managers, success is all about fast, high-confidence, fact-based decision-making that gets it right the first time. They must be able to gain human insight that empathizes with the customer experience and understands the users’ needs, wants, likes, frustrations, and intent. Without these insights, offering compelling experiences is a crapshoot.

But how can they achieve this in the agile world, and prevent every product manager’s worst nightmare — discovering after a product is built that users don’t want its features?

There’s good news. By making a relatively small investment of time and money early in the process, product managers can validate product decisions before spending cycles in development.

What does this look like? Here are four practices that companies can follow to incorporate research into product development and rapidly understand how users interact with products, including where they get confused, frustrated, or fail to make sense of iterations.

1. Live customer interviews before design starts

Everyone pays lip service to this, but it’s very hard to do and sometimes get skipped, or people interview substitutes who don’t quite match your target customers. It’s now possible to recruit and schedule video meetings with your particular target customers in less than a day. There is no excuse to skimp on these interviews now.

2. Quick validation of prototypes and sketches

Make sure the design is fantastic before you have the engineers start working. The earlier course corrections can be made, the less effort will be wasted. 

3. Continuous verification

During development, continuously validate what you’re doing. If you run user tests only after development is done, the cost of rework is huge. Continuous verification helps build confidence in product decisions at low cost. It confirms promising design choices and reveals often-surprising problem areas.

4. Close the loop

After launch, gather human insight to understand the findings of your analytics and form hypotheses on what to do about them. This final step makes your analytics more efficient and can save you from weeks of random A/B testing experimentation.

By following this four-step process, product managers can iterate faster and more effectively toward the right product; quickly validate that they’re moving in the right direction and build confidence in their product decisions; and leverage data from real users to help resolve design discussions over the hypothetical benefits of various approaches.

Best of all in today’s agile world, it enables product managers to ensure alignment with the engineering team and work together to create products that delight users.

Published September 20, 2019 — 11:00 UTC